“Birth is painful! They say, when a mother gives birth to a child,

she undergoes through a pain equivalent to fracturing 20 bones altogether.

Imagine the birth of a Nation – imagine the birth of Bangladesh. Imagine its pain”

– Abhi Sanghani

December 2021, marks half a century of the bloody end of the Bengali struggle for upholding their right to linguistic self-determination. The Bangladeshi Liberation War stands as a concluding edifice of the fact that language isn’t just a tool for expressing objective reality but one forceful enough to turn around history. 

The consensus regarding the events; that pushed the then Pakistani state to the brink of a split is understood to be arising out of the socio-economic imbalances between the two halves. The lackadaisical attitude of the authorities to the devastating cyclone Bhola in 1970 is added as an immediate factor. These arguments if probed further lead one to a series of events spread over two decades centred around the demand for language autonomy. The long-due recognition of the Bangladeshi Genocide by the international community needs to be seen as a fight for linguistic self-determination. It is language about political events and developments that people experience; even events that are close by taking their meaning from the language used to depict them. So political language is political reality. The Bangladeshi example too stands true to this statement. 

Seeds of Linguistic Consciousness 

The East Pakistani desire to function in their mother tongue was manifested right after a month of independence. Tamaddun Majlis or Cultural Association came to be formed in the Dhaka University, advocating for the usage of Bengali for education and in the courts as well as the central level in Karachi. The census of 1951 also revealed 44 million Bengali speakers out of the total 69 million. Even the demand for the usage of Bengali in the then constituent assembly was shot down as being antithetical to the unity of the state by the Premier Liyaqat Ali Khan. An all-party student delegation except the League was formed in 1948. It came to be known as Action Committee for National Language[1]. It led to picketing in front of the government offices, post offices, and courts. The agitation in support of Bengali gained momentum. Following widespread unrest, the then Prime Minister of East Pakistan, Khawaja Nazimuddin agreed to get the regional assembly to recognize that Bengali should have the status of the official language for the eastern half once English was dropped. He also agreed to recommend to the National Assembly adoption of Bengali at par with Urdu as the national language. 

The numerical majority of the Bengalis, manifested by their language was rejected even by the Quad-e-Azam. In his March 21, 1948 address in Dhaka he declared Nazimuddin to be cohered into agreeing to the demands of the Action Committee. He further categorically stated his vehement disapproval of the idea of equal status to both Urdu and Bengali as national languages. 

The central government spent large sums of money promoting the adoption of Arabic scripts for Bengali. A government committee proposed the substitution of Bengali vocabulary by an Arabic-Persian lexicon shared with Urdu. These acts only worked further alienate the Bengalis. . The issue of language became a burning issue for the East Pakistani student community as they saw a narrowed-down career in the administration and fundamental governance of the country in the future. It was the successive generation of Bengali students who stood in the line of fire for the defense and dignity of their language. Thus, it was the linguistic fissures that struck at the ‘two nation theory’ from the very start. It was the aspiration for linguistic parity that eventually pulled in the larger issues of socio-economic imbalances.

Constitutional Recognition of Bengali: Too little and too late

In 1952, Urdu alone came to be recognized as the national language. This act was in contravention to the promises made by Nazimuddin in 1948. It resulted in widespread demonstrations in support of Bengali and riots broke out. On February 21, 1952, the violent suppression of the demonstrators led to several deaths. This event is now remembered as International Mother Language Day by UNESCO since 2000 at the behest of Bangladesh. It is a major national event in Bangladesh and is known as the Language Movement Day. Thousands converge at the Shaheed Minar (Martyrs Memorial) each memorial to pay homage to those who laid down their lives for their mother language. 

The convergence of various political parties and factions from 1948, ever since the beginning of language struggle was carried into the first general elections held in 1954. An umbrella coalition of all the parties opposed to the Muslim League called the United Front came into being. It comprised of the Awami League, the Krishak Sramik Party, the Nizam-i-Islami, and the Ganatantri Dal. This United Front adopted a 21-point program calling for the adoption of Bangali as one of the national languages along with other socio-economic reforms. The united Bengali opposition put the national and vernacular powers in confrontation. All these factors resulted in a thumping victory for the Front in 1954. It won 223 seats out of 309 while the Muslim League could muster support only in nine.

Meanwhile, the new constitution promulgated in 1956 recognized Bengali as the national language of equal status with Urdu. The measure came too late to quench the Bengali aspirations. Nevertheless, the role of language in the formulation of Bengali identity was cemented. 

Military take-over of power: Bengali resentment intensifies

In 1962 a new constitution was formulated by the military leader Ayub Khan who had taken power after a coup d’état in 1958. Under Ayub, a distorted political set-up with the disqualification of most political opponents and restrictions on the press emerged. These triggered another wave of unrest. Sheikh Mujib, the former Minister for Trade and Industry was jailed. A complete breakdown of normalcy took place. 

After the humiliating war with India in 1965, Sheikh Mujib led the East Bengal delegation to an all-parties conference in Lahore. Here the historic Six Points program set out by the Awami League was presented only to be rejected by the Ayub. Sheikh Mujib and a few others were brought to trial on the charges of conspiring with India against Pakistani interests. This much-publicized case came to be known as the ‘Agartala Conspiracy Case’. In response to the continued denial of autonomy student political formations, namely All Parties Students Action Committee and East Pakistan Students’ League led the protest for the usage of Bengali in all walks of life. They protested against attempts to prevent Tagore’s songs to be broadcasted on radio and television, and the artificial Islamization of Bengali culture and language. 

The Bengali resistance yielded results soon. Sheikh Mujib and others were set free. A round-table conference of principal leaders from both halves was called in March 1969. The conference failed due to West Pakistani refusal for accepting Bengali demands. 

The final Bengali struggle: The struggle for Independence

On March 25, 1969, Ayub resigned in the favour of commander-in-chief of the army, General Yahya Khan. The policy of Bengal suppression continued. Nevertheless, he agreed to general elections based on universal adult franchise. General Yahya also accepted the principle of one man one vote thus recognizing the numerical superiority of the Bengalis.[2] Out of the 300 seats, 162 were allotted to the eastern half and the rest were divided between the now federated western wing. Just weeks before the elections a terrible cyclone hit the coast of East Bengal. Nearly 300,000 were reported dead. The Bengalis were left to their means and international aid in the aftermath of the cyclone. The elections saw a clean swipe for the Awami League with 160 of the 162 National Assembly seats and 288 of 300 of the provincial seats. 

The results dictated a Bengali claim to power at the center. Yet neither Yahya Khan nor Z.A. Bhutto, whose PPP stood second with only 81 of the 138 of the seats was ready to yield power. The assembly due to meet at Dhaka was prorogued sine die on March 1, 1971, after months of nagging by Yahya Khan. This resulted in a dramatic turn of events. A general strike was called in the eastern half. The question of secession and independence began to be articulated freely. A new governor-general in Tikka Khan was dispatched to Dhaka who imposed martial law. Cries of Joy Bangla and Amar Shonar Bangla rocked through the entire province. 

On 15 March Yahya Khan landed in Dhaka with his advisers for negotiations. In principle agreement to Bengali demands for Six Point Programme and restoration of the democratic rule was reached. It was only due to Bhutto’s refusal for any such agreement that failed the talks. While last efforts were still being made for an agreement General Yahya and Bhutto flew back to Rawalpindi and the emergency plan prepared by General Tikka was put into effect. This was operation Searchlight, a military offensive against the campus of the Dhaka University, barracks of the East Pakistani armed forces, and other religious minorities. Sheikh Mujib by then revered as Bangabandhu was jailed in West Pakistan by March 26. The ensuing military crackdown against the Bengalis ended in an Indo-Pak conflict in December 1971. On 15 December, Pakistani forces surrendered to the Indian forces in Dhaka. Sheikh Mujib was ultimately freed and returned to an independent Bangladesh.[3]  Thus, the Bengalis triumphed in their struggle for linguistic self-determination with an estimated 1-3 million paying with their blood for the same.


Going by the reports of the day and narratives of the victims and onlookers the Bangladesh Liberation War must be read into the terms of genocide. The language movement from the 1950s laid the foundation for a renewed identity for the Bengalis. The power of the Bengali intellectual class in leading millions to freedom can be gauged by the fact that as the war comes to a close over 200 Bangladeshi intellectuals, including professors, doctors, journalists, writers were executed en masse. The then cultural and literary works popularised the Bengali identity stuck in the soil of East Bengal. It is the literary and other forms of expression such as theatre, dramas that emboldened the millions    of Bengalis to uphold their  dignity  even in the face of a brutal onslaught by the Pakistani establishment over two decades. It is the language through which culture and history are shaped. The Bangladeshi experience stands as a unique  moment in history where people rose to place their linguistic identity above all others and embrace a distinct plural idea of self, based out of it.  

[1] Jaffrelot, Christophe, (2002) A History of Pakistan and its Origin, Anthem Press

[2] Roy, Rituparna (2010). South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh (1st ed.). Amsterdam University Press.

[3] Supra 1

This article is authored by Ishant Kumar Sharma, a second-year student at the Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law. 

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