Ekushey was the beginning. Then again, there was a beginning to Ekushey, back in February 1948, when Dhirendranath Dutta first informed the people of the newly created state of Pakistan that the language of the Bengalis mattered as much as any other language in the country. His demand was simple and forthright: Bengali ought to be a language employed in Pakistan's constituent assembly, for the good reason that it was the language that the majority of Pakistanis, the Bengalis inhabiting East Bengal/East Pakistan, expressed themselves in. Of course, the ruling establishment was dismissive of the notion. It was a time when the idea of Pakistan came to mean a combination of Urdu and Islam and to that end, it was a radical change in the way Bengali or Bangla was spoken that the ruling classes aimed at. The consequences would, at times, be quixotic.
Consider the following:
Aaj subhe sadiq-e Pakistan-er ujir-e khajana Dhaka'r hawai adda-e tashreef enechhen.
A mere line from a radio news broadcast, in what was given out as Bengali. Note the terminology employed. There is no Bengali there, only an infiltration by Urdu. The quixotic was of course pulled up to the level of the serious when, in March 1948, on his only visit to East Bengal, Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah told Bengalis that only Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan. Anyone who militated against that idea, said he, was actually engaging in conspiracy against Pakistan! It was hauteur at its best and foolhardiness at its worst. From one end of Curzon Hall, where a seemingly superhuman Jinnah let his sentiments flow, a loud protest in the shape of a 'NO' reverberated across the hall. For the first time in his political career, Pakistan's founder faced defiance.
It was defiance that would spill out into the streets, into a gathering movement of protest. Jinnah's successor Khwaja Nazimuddin tried to get into his predecessor's shoes. Urdu, he echoed Jinnah, was the language Pakistan would speak in. He was shouted down by Bengalis across the spectrum. And thus it was that time moved on, to come full circle in the tragedy of February 21, 1952. The day, with all the bodies falling across Dhaka, was the ultimate warning, an ominous one, that the future of Bengalis in Pakistan was far from assured.
In that broad term of the meaning, Ekushey was but the beginning of a long, arduous struggle for an assertion of Bengali rights. And just how potent politics was turning out to be for the people of East Pakistan/East Bengal was to be manifested powerfully through the rout of the Muslim League in the provincial elections of March 1954.
The Jukto Front was, in that sense, much more than a political platform vying for a share of power. It was a loud message to the entrenched political classes based in Karachi that a new configuration of power was required for Pakistan if the state was to forge ahead. Of course, the Jukto Front ministry would be shot down a bare two months later. For the ruling circles, typified by the likes of Iskandar Mirza, saw in an increasingly vocal East Bengal the gathering shape of conspiracy. And conspiracy would be a theme Pakistan's rulers would return to every time Bengalis raised the issue of democracy and an end to economic disparity between the two wings of Pakistan. As a way of stemming that 'conspiracy', of nipping it in the bud, the constitution adopted in 1956 (nine years after the establishment of the state) would bring the four provinces in the western part of Pakistan into a single unit. Thenceforth, there were to be East and West Pakistan, two federating units constituting the state. That was the surface image. The reality lay beneath this political stratagem: One Unit was a clever move aimed at depriving East Bengal of its preponderance in the federal scheme of things. Home to 56% of Pakistan's population, it was suddenly being informed that majority did not matter, that the two regions of Pakistan were equal in terms of political representation.
So the momentum generated by the language movement of February 1952 was not to be halted or even slowed down. The imposition of martial law by Iskandar Mirza and Ayub Khan on October 7, 1958 (the latter would send the former into exile a mere 20 days later) seemed, in the initial stages, a damper on Bengali aspirations. In a way it was. Leading voices of dissent in East Bengal were swiftly hauled away to prison; politics was outlawed; and the soldiers made sure that anyone who might threaten the grip of the military was muzzled through the Elective Bodies' Disqualification Ordinance (EBDO). Fear stalked citizens on the streets. But then came 1961, with all the passion that a remembrance of culture could bring forth. Through a celebration of the birth centenary of Rabindranath Tagore, Bengalis sent out the powerful message to the rest of the country, to the military regime, that while Pakistan was the state they inhabited, it was a century-old culture, indivisible and secular, they lived by. To be sure, a section of right-wing Bengalis, along with their friends in West Pakistan, ridiculed the idea that Bengali culture was a historical reality. Pakistanisation was all, for them. In the end, Pakistanisation did not stand a chance with the Bengalis. Tagore's birth centenary was the new catalyst, based on the momentum of Ekushey 1952, that would mark out the route to a re-creation of the Bengali nationalistic spirit.
Move on, to 1962 and the rejection of the Education Commission report prepared by the regime. Ten years after Ekushey, students of Dhaka University were once again sending out the signal that life for them and for their compatriots was to be based on foundations of social and political secularism. The retreat of the regime signaled the triumph of the students, of the people. Yet another milestone had been crossed. The extent to which the entrenched classes could strike back was, however, demonstrated in all ferocity in 1964 as communal riots targeting the Hindu community and encouraged by the regime and its henchmen in the form of Abdul Monem Khan, the governor, threatened to disturb the social equilibrium. The conspiracy did not go far, for politicians of significance quickly closed ranks, fanned out in order to cool tempers and in the end halted the possibility of the riots spiraling out of control. That East Pakistan was no more a place where people were judged by their faith but by the content of their character and cultural foundations was reinforced. West Pakistan was receding into being a distant land, almost another country.
A major step toward an assertion of the Bengali spirit, if not Bengali nationalism, was taken in 1964 only months after the death of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in December 1963. His young protégé Sheikh Mujibur Rahman revived the Awami League, which had earlier been subsumed in the National Democratic Front, a grouping of politicians aiming to return Pakistan to civilian rule through bringing an end to the Ayub Khan dictatorship. Mujib's move was condemned in West Pakistan, even by those who had been part of the NDF, on the ground that it would drill holes in the struggle against the regime. By that point of time, of course, the young leadership of the Awami League, symbolised by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and including Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansoor Ali, AHM Quamruzzaman and Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, had clearly decided that a radical new approach to the Bengalis' niche in Pakistan had become necessary.
It was a case of the Bengali spirit fleshing itself out into Bengali nationalism which served as the backdrop of the Six Point programme of regional autonomy in early 1966. The suppression of democratic politics apart, the sheer helplessness that East Pakistan went through during the India-Pakistan war of September 1965 was added reason for the Awami League leadership to go for a remarkable change of course. Mujib, prevented by Pakistan's opposition politicians from announcing the Six Point plan at a conference in Lahore in February 1966, made himself heard through a news conference in the city. The irony was not lost on anyone who took interest in Pakistan's politics: Lahore had been the spot where Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League had launched the struggle for Pakistan in 1940; and Lahore was again the place where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League were calling for a radical overhaul of the state of Pakistan through giving its federating units incredibly huge dollops of autonomy. Mujib was to be put under arrest three months later under the Defence of Pakistan Rules. But the spark of nationalism the Six Points had set off would gather steam, enough to bring East Pakistan to a grinding halt through the observance of a general strike in support of the points on June 7, 1966. The spirit of Ekushey was at work, in furious energy.
The myopia of the regime only added to the growth of nationalist sentiment among the Bengalis. Ayub Khan threatened to employ the language of weapons against those behind the Six Points; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then Ayub's foreign minister, challenged Mujib to a debate on the points in Dhaka but curiously failed to turn up; politicians, including those opposed to the regime, spotted in the Six Points a conspiracy to destroy Pakistan through having its eastern province secede from the rest of the country. And then came the ultimate mechanism the regime would employ to destroy Mujib and discredit Bengali aspirations for a greater role in national politics: in December 1967, it instituted the Agartala case, implicating Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 34 other Bengalis in what it called a conspiracy to seize East Pakistan and declare it an independent state. In the event, the case boomeranged. It only inflamed Bengali passions; and Bengalis convinced themselves that in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman they finally had a leader who could speak up for them. The Agartala case was withdrawn in the face of mass protests spearheaded by such venerable politicians as Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani on February 22, 1969. The following day, a grateful Bengali nation honoured Mujib as Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal, at a million-strong rally organised at the Race Course in Dhaka.
The rest is part of the record. Ayub Khan would quit power in late March 1969. The Awami League would sweep Pakistan's first general election in December 1970, but would be denied the right to govern Pakistan. On March 25, 1971, the Yahya Khan regime would unleash a genocide in East Pakistan, Bangabandhu would be taken into custody and flown to West Pakistan to face trial on charges of waging war against Pakistan. On April 17, 1971, with Tajuddin Ahmed as prime minister, a provisional government of Bangladesh would be formed and a guerrilla war would get underway against the Pakistan occupation army; 10 million Bengalis would go into exile in India; three million Bengalis would be killed by Pakistan's soldiers and 200,000 Bengali women would be raped. In early December, Pakistan would attack Indian air force bases in the west, forcing India to enter the war. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistan army, with 93,000 soldiers, would surrender to the Joint Command of Indian and Bangladesh forces in Dhaka. The People's Republic of Bangladesh would emerge.
It was a culmination of the Ekushey spirit. Nineteen years and ten months after the shootings on the campus of Dhaka University in 1952, Bengalis had managed to carve a sovereign state for themselves, the first in their long history.