History The language movement


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Mar 15, 2007
The 1952 language riots, protesting the imposition of Urdu as the only state language, were of pivotal importance in Pakistan's early trajectory. Coming only four years after independence, the incident revealed deep contradictions lying underneath the surface of the new state. The attempt to impose Urdu as the state language in order to foster solidarity resulted in quite the opposite. The action was a major blunder because it alienated even the most die-hard Pakistan and ML supporter. Because Urdu was only spoken by 4% of the general population, the incident revealed a streak of blatant favoritism. That people like Mofaxxal Haider Chowdhury would be furious over the incident was no surprise, since his specific field of study was Bengali. But the move alienated even those who saw Pakistan as a "savior" to Muslims of the subcontinent. Jubeida Khatoon entered the new state with great enthusiasm. Particularly in light of her horrific experience during the Calcutta riots, she was quite inclined to accept many government impositions as "necessary" for unity. But even she declared that, the move to ban Bengali was a mistake on the government's part. Clearly, the planners had thought that casting Urdu as an Islamic language would be sufficient to convince people of the necessity of one state language. But their calculations overlooked the incredible importance of language and culture for the middle class Bengali-- of whom, a large portion in 1952 were Muslims who had stayed on in Pakistan.

The language riots served as the first indication of bubbles of discontent that were beginning to surface in East Pakistan. However, in their desire to present a smooth narrative of continuous Bengali resistance to central hegemony, Bengali historians stress that, since 1952, Bengalis have simply been more and more aware of their deprivation. leading logically to the events of 1971. In fact, my research revealed that, although there was immense anger at the time of the actual riots, once the state language ordinance was repealed, much of this hostility dissipated. 1952 was pivotal in two ways: firstly because a conflict based on issues of language helped Bengali Muslims to start differentiating themselves from the other Muslims who were fellow Pakistanis. Secondly, it gave Bengalis their first taste of street power, where demonstrations alone were enough to reverse an edict that was one of Jinnah's last wishes before dying. This feeling of empowerment was to have ominous impact on the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan in the future.