Ekushey was a cultural and political movement

The Shaheed Minar and language martyrs did not get their due respect. At least, the road next to the monument could have been named Shaheed Sharani in 1954 when the United Front came to power. It had not been done even in six decades. Some roads should have been named after the five martyrs of February 21, 1952, artist Murtaja Baseer tells Ershad Komol in an interview with New Age

ek06New Age: Why and when did the language movement begin?
Murtaja Baseer: The debate on what should be the state language of Pakistan began a month before the partition in 1947, when the then Aligarh University vice-chancellor Ziauddin Ahmed proposed Urdu to be the state language of Pakistan. In protest, linguist Dr Muhammad Shahidullah on August 3, 1947 wrote an article in the Weekly Comrade on the language problem of Pakistan. That was 11 days before the formation of the state.
Just after the partition, Karachi-based intellectuals started advocating Urdu to be the only state language and its exclusive use in media and in educational institutions.
In response, Bengali intellectuals headed by Professor Abul Kashem waged a movement in favour of Bangla through Tamuddun Majlish and the first Rashtrabhasa Sangram Parishad was, then, instituted in October 1947.
Parishad, including Tamaddun Majlish, Muslim Chhatra League and other progressive intellectuals and student organisations, called a general strike for March 11, 1948 demanding that Bangla should be made the state language.
When Pakistan’s governor general Muhammad Ali Jinnah on March 21, 1948 said at a public meeting that the state language of Pakistan was going to be Urdu, the students registered their rejection of the statement and later waged the movement for Bangla to be one of the state languages of Pakistan, gaining momentum in February 1952.

New Age: What was the spirit of the language movement?
Murtaja Baseer: The language movement was not only a struggle for the establishment of Bangla as a state language. It was a cultural and political movement. Before the partition, Muslims of this region were vocal for a Muslim country, Pakistan, to get rid of the oppression in the Hindu-dominated land. People became disillusioned immediately after the partition as the Muslims who migrated from other areas in India also started to dominate the Bengali Muslims. It made Bengali Muslims realise that ‘unity based on religion’ is nothing but a fallacy. And the Ekushey movement made them realise that ‘cultural unity’ was more important than ‘religious unity’. The Ekushey thus made Bengali Muslims look towards their cultural root. It made us Bengali in the real sense which ultimately led to the movement for independence.

New Age: Do you think the spirit of the language movement has been materialised? If not, why?
Murtaja Baseer: The Shaheed Minar and language martyrs did not get their due respect. At least, the road next to the monument could have been named Shaheed Sharani in 1954 when the United Front came to power. It had not been done even in six decades. Some roads should have been named after the five martyrs of February 21, 1952. Bangla has not yet been established in every sphere because the business community, not true politicians, now leads the state.
In fact, the spirit of the Ekushey has been lost ever since the independence of the country. Before independence, we used to observe the Ekushey with due respect and as a way to protest against the Pakistan regime. But after independence, the mourning programme on February 21 turned out more to be a kind of ‘annual festival’. Can you imagine women to have been assaulted on February 21, 1973 at the Central Shaheed Minar? And now what do we see in such programmes? Everybody tries to place garlands ahead of others the way ‘lathiyals’ occupy chars.
The spirit of the Ekushey is completely missing. And I do not go to Shaheed Minar to be part of the festival. I feel frustrated at not being able to protest at what happens.

New Age: Who were prime leaders of the language movement?
Murtaja Baseer: I was not in Dhaka when the language movement began in 1948 under the guidance of Tamuddun Majlish. I was only a Class 10 student then and used to live in Bogra as my father [linguist Dr Muhammad Shahidullah] was principal of the Government Azizul Haque College there. Being an activist of the Students Federation, the then student wing of the Communist Party, I became involved with the movement in March 1948. I used to make graffiti saying ‘Sare char koti janatar kantha rodh chalbe na, Rashtra bhasha Bangla chai’ (4.5 crore people cannot be muzzled. We demand Bangla as the state language) in Bogra. After I became a student of the erstwhile Government Institute of Arts [now faculty of fine arts of Dhaka University], I returned to Dhaka in 1949 and became active in the movement as an activist, but not as a leader. I used to attend rallies where Rastrabhasa Sangram Parishad leaders made decisions. I cannot remember all the names, but I can still say that I found Oli Ahad, Shamsul Haque, Gaziul Haque, Abdul Matin and Shahidullah Kaiser leading the students in the language movement in 1952 in Dhaka University.

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