Nationalism prevailed over religion in erstwhile East Pakistan

Dr. Ravi Chaturvedi

The author was in Czechoslovakia as an UNESCO scholar in 1967-68 at Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. The friendly people, culturally-rich country, delicious cuisines, pilsner beer, beautiful girls and the sports-oriented nation made my year-long stay there memorable. Living on hill-top in Strahov hostel in the capital city of Prague (in Czech language Praha) made spring heart-warming. My cup of pleasant memories was full to the brim when on the night of August 20-21, 1968 my sound sleep was shattered by bullets flying by my 12th floor hostel room window. Initially, it appeared like fireworks. It took me few moments to realize the gravity of situation. In reality, Czechoslovakia was invaded by The Warsaw Pact forces fearing anti-communist coup in the country. It marked the abrupt end of historically acclaimed “Spring of Prague”. For the author, the outcome of this event was a historical lesson. It led to the Revolutions of 1989, and ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In final analysis, nationalism prevailed over communism. It is a prologue to the main story of my article. 

Since September 11 was death anniversary of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, it calls to highlight his pivotal role in the making of Bangladesh. Even though, Jinnah managed to carve out a separate nation for the Indian Muslims as West and East Pakistan on August 14, 1947, it took around 24 years for actual division of Pakistan with the emergence of a new nation – Bangladesh. It brought back my Czechoslovak memories of 1968 – nationalism prevailed over religion.  

Jinnah came to Dhaka in 1948 and at a civic reception at Race Course ground, he declared that only Urdu embodied the spirit of a Muslim nation and would remain as the state language. He went on to label those who disagreed with his views as “enemies of Pakistan”. Jinnah repeated his sermons at Curzon Hall of the University of Dhaka later. The last nail in the coffin was his radio broadcast that “Urdu-only” policy in Pakistan. His assertion did not go down well with the Muslim Bengalis who supported his religion-based two-nation theory. It added fuel to the fire and a mass movement was launched against the imposition of Urdu on Bangala speaking people of erstwhile East Pakistan.

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhary, a Dhaka-dwelling historian hit the nail on the head, “The elite of East Pakistan spoke Urdu even before 1947. Even Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, then Chief Minister of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) knew and spoke Bangla. However, the common people of East Pakistan were deeply attached to their mother tongue and native culture that made them reject the decision of Jinnah. Although they supported the cause of Jinnah and his All-India Muslim League for separate nation, they were not ready to compromise on their culture and language.”


It is a common knowledge that the supporters of Bengali opposed Urdu even before the creation of Pakistan. In the 1937 All India Muslim League Conference at Lucknow, delegates from Bengal rejected the idea of making Urdu the lingua franca of Muslim India. However, they were assured by both Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan (second in command after Jinnah and first Prime Minister of Pakistan) that their interest would be protected as and when they attain a separate nation for Muslims. Alas! It was not to be!

Jinnah’s imposition of Urdu in East Pakistan led to large scale protests and Dhaka University became the bastion of pro-Bangla protestors. Nevertheless, peaceful protagonists of their lingua franca were suddenly fired upon by the Pakistani rangers, killing many. The site of massacre was around Dhaka Medical College and Ramna Park. To commemorate the die-hard lovers of Bangla, the Shaheed Minar was built. The monument stood until the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971 when it was demolished by Pakistani forces during ‘Operation Searchlight’. The columns were destroyed during the fighting. The Pakistani Army crushed the minar and placed over the rubble a signboard reading “Mosque”. After Bangladesh came into existence, Shaheed Minar was rebuilt.

In East Pakistan, A.K. Fazlul Huq was the most charismatic leader, even more than Jinnah himself. Although his support for Pakistan movement was genuine, he did not tolerate Jinnah’s unfair interference in Bengal politics. While he was one of the key movers of the 1940 Lahore Resolution for Muslim homeland, he was expelled from the All-India Muslim League in 1941. This came as a big blow to Bengalis. They refused to accept the dictates from Jinnah and his coterie.  Jinnah preferred to promote and project non-Bengali loyalists in his party. It led to the resignation of Fazlul Huq from the Muslim League and he remained in political exile for more than a decade. It may be recalled that  Haq was Mayor of Calcutta (1935), Chief Minister of undivided Bengal (1937-1943) and East Bengal (1954).

The Bangla language movement epitomises the spirit of Bangladeshi nationalism. Conversely, Jinnah’s whimsical views on Urdu coupled with step-motherly treatment of Bengali leaders and people created sense of alienation and sowed seeds of disintegration of Pakistan. The rest is history. 

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