DU history and its part in Bangladeshi national identity formation

Published : 25 Sept 2011, 03:30 PM
Updated : 25 Sept 2011, 03:30 PM

Dhaka University started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. If the role the university had played in the evolution of the Bangladeshi identity before the partition of India was indirect, it now became the centre of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971.

The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali. The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country.

It insisted, too, that only Urdu and English could be used in proceedings of the Constituent Assembly.  In response to this ruling Dhaka University became the centre of protests once again as students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an "All Party Language Committee of Action".  Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the "Father of the Country" by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that "the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language" (Islam, 144).

When he made the same point in addressing the D. U. Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that was soon to spread across East Pakistan was going to be the occasion for the dissemination of a counter-ideology based on linguistic nationalism that would ultimately lead to the break-up of Pakistan, a state  built entirely on Islamist nationalism.

This movement to establish Bengali as a state language came to a head on February 21, 1952, when the Language Action committee decided to organise a general strike and country-wide demonstrations. Once again the catalyst was Pakistani officialdom. Prime Minister Khawja Nazimuddin's declaration on 27 January 1952 in a Dhaka public meeting that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan made D. U. the locus of protest meets and demonstrations.

Students called a strike on 30 January. When they violated the government ban on meetings on 21 February and took to the streets in D.U., police action resulted in the death of quite a few students on campus. But of course these deaths inflamed the students even more. They rallied and declared this day one of national mourning, hitherto to be called Ekushey February. The dead, who included students as well as passers-by, were declared martyrs, and the site of the firing where blood was shed was marked by a martyr's column soon after. The Pakistan state tried to demolish the site then and once again in 1971, but was not able to remove it permanently. Instead, on both occasions, an impressive structure, known as "Shahid Minar", reappeared on the site after a while.

Befittingly, the D. U. administration was subsequently given charge of organising the events centring on the site which kept burgeoning year by year. The 21st February eventually became a national holiday in independent Bangladesh and the martyr's column ended up as the most important symbol of Bangladeshi national identity, eventually to be replicated all over the country.

The events of the day soon acquired mythical status and the day itself was hitherto marked by rituals meant to stir the collective memory of the people of Bangladesh. They include a barefoot procession in the morning that stops at the martyr's graves and comes to an end with the laying of wreaths at the Shaheed Minar. Cultural events on campus commemorate the martyrs on the occasion. Gradually, this part of D.U. and the events organized in remembrance of the martyrs became indelibly stamped in the national consciousness. Indeed, D. U.'s centrality in Bangladeshi national identity formation is reaffirmed every year when the day is celebrated with great solemnity in the university.

The walls around the Shaheed Minar are covered with extracts from Bengali literature affirming the beauty of Bangla language and the importance of loving the motherland. Nowadays the midnight moment is broadcast live on national television since national leaders inaugurate the wreath laying ceremony. Throughout the day the university is the site of a kind of secular pilgrimage.

A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been seen as responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards. One of the government's major initiatives in the short time that it was in power was to set up a "Bengali Academy", later known as Bangla Academy, at the heart of the campus.

The neighbouring Curzon Hall too now became the site of cultural events, including literary festivals and stage productions, pro-Bengali and anti-Pakistani in intent. After 1971 Bangla Academy became the site of the most important book fair of the country. This fair lasts throughout the month of February. In it new books are launched and all Bangladeshi books in print sold to ever increasing number of visitors at discounted prices. As a result, the whole of February, D. U. becomes the locus of cultural and intellectual life in Bangladesh.

But because the language movement had been largely directed by students of D. U. and the university had become synonymous with opposition to Pakistani state apparatuses, no sooner was the United Front government voted out of power in 1954 that attempts were made to control teacher and student politics in it and to throttle any bid to affirm Bengali identity in the campus The Pakistani government, for instance, prevented students from celebrating Shahid Dibash or Shahid Day on 21 February 1955. It then promulgated the repressive Dhaka University (East Bengal Amendment) Ordinance in 1956. Soon after a military government led by General Ayub Khan took over the administration of the country. In 1958 it initiated a series of moves to curb campus freedom even more completely through the Dacca University Ordinance of 1961, which aimed to negate democratic practices completely. The relative autonomy granted to the university by the colonial government in 1920 was replaced by draconian measures undertaken so that the government could assume full control of university affairs.

Not surprisingly, teachers and students of D. U. joined hands to protest what they dubbed "black laws".  They also took active roles in other movements that were launched to foil the Pakistani government's bid to Islamize Bangladesh in all sorts of ways. For instance, when it took measures to prevent Rabindranath's songs from being broadcast in the national media, the students were the first to protest the move on campus. In response, the D. U. campus began to develop traditions that affirmed Bengali culture. Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali theatre and dance groups became active on campus. The Pakistani government's machinations to have Bengali written in an Islamic script also met with angry protests from the students of the university. The neighbouring Ramna Park and Bangla Academy as well as the campus proper became sites of Pahela Boisakh festivities to herald the Bengali new year, developed spontaneously to affirm the Bengali side of East Pakistani Muslims.

By February 1962, the campus became restive yet again, as students mobilized to oppose Ayub Khan's dictatorship and remove the martial law through which he was ruling the country. The university was closed sine die but students had done enough to force the dictator to withdraw martial law in March of that year, though he then replaced it with what he called "basic democracy". Like 1952, 1962 proved to be a crucial year in the road to Bangladesh. As in the language movement, the university had once again played the key role in national identity formation, this time by leading the people of the country towards democracy and autonomy. By September, students of the university had taken to the streets again to protest the education policy formulated by the Sharif Commission, which recommended measures that would strip students of the right to maintain any connection with political parties.

As far as the history of Pakistan is concerned, the sixties was a tumultuous decade. The 1962 student protests were only a prelude to the much more strident protests launched later in the decade against Ayub Khan and in favor of the six points program of the Awami League, demanding full autonomy for East Pakistan. These six points, it must be stressed, were the result of research on the economic disparity between the two provinces undertaken by Bengali economists of D.U. The cumulative results of these movements were that Ayub Khan was forced out of office in 1969. A new martial regime took over power, promising to hold elections through which democracy would return to Pakistan.  True to form, the D.U. had become the focal point of the movement to topple the regime and restore the democratic rights of Bengalis. By the end of the decade it had become obvious that any opposition to Pakistani maneuverings to impose West Pakistani power in the province and suppress Bengali culture would have to be thwarted by Bengali politicians bolstered by D. U. student support since the students of the institution had become adept in resisting state power and asserting Bengali rights to self-determination.

Looked at in retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. In the confrontation, D. U. teachers and students played the crucial part. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatuses failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life. Unlike the first generation of Muslim Bengali students of the British period, this generation belonging to the East Pakistan phase of Bangladesh's history was only too conscious of being Bengalis first and not last. It may be pointed out here that in the mid-sixties the martial law government tried to mobilize a group of students—known as the National Student Federation (NSF)—to thwart students opposed to it.

These students were small in number but fascist in their tendencies. The ideology that they espoused was that of the Muslim League, the party Ayub Khan favored and tried to revive when in power in such ways. But arrayed against the NSF were the teachers and students who represented a coalition that could be termed progressives and included not only the middle-of-the road Chatra League that was an outgrowth of the Awami League but also left-leaning student factions of all shades.

If they are to be considered contemporary representatives of the "Dacca Man" envisaged by Lord Lytton in his 1923 speech, one can say that at the end of the '60ss he and the Dhaka women—for there were hundreds of them now— on the whole were oppositional, democratic, secular and Bengali nationalists imbued with enlightenment ideals. There were also quite a few socialists among their midst.


Dr. Fakrul Alam, is Professor of English at the University of Dhaka.