When Mr Jinnah came to Dhaka

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Why March 1948 was a turning point in history 

From a historical point of view, March has been a defining time for the people of what is today Bangladesh. 

Begin with 1948. Only months into the creation of Pakistan, its founder, Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah, arrived in Dhaka on March 19, 1948, a time when the eastern province of Pakistan was turning increasingly restive over the language issue. 

On March 21, he addressed a large crowd at the Dhaka Race Course, where he sounded a warning against what he called the forces of subversion and conspiracy bent on destroying the unity of Pakistan. Feeble protests were heard from the crowd. Far louder voices of protest were to be heard only days later.

March 24, 1948, could have been the day for Mohammad Ali Jinnah to rise to the occasion and assure Bangalis that their worries about the place of Bangla in Pakistan would be taken into serious and sympathetic consideration. 

He missed the chance and thereby set the people of East Bengal on a course that was to lead, over the next 24 years, to the break-up of Pakistan and the rise of East Bengal as the independent republic of Bangladesh. 

Addressing a special convocation of Dhaka University at Curzon Hall on the day, an imperious Jinnah made it abundantly and unequivocally clear that “Urdu and Urdu alone” would be the language of the state of Pakistan. 

His remarks did not go down well with his audience, some among whom raised cries of “no, no” right then and there.

For the first time in his long political career, the Quaid-e-Azam faced a challenge to his diktat.

The following are excerpts from Jinnah’s address at the convocation:

“We have broken the shackles of slavery; we are now a free people. Our state is our own state. Our government is our own government, of the people, responsible to the people of the state, working for the good of the state …

“Our enemies, among whom I regret to say, there are still some Muslims, have set about actively encouraging provincialism in the hope of weakening Pakistan and thereby facilitating the re-absorption of this province into the Indian Dominion. Those who are playing this game are living in a fool’s paradise, but this does not prevent them trying …

“Let me restate my views on the question of a state language for Pakistan. For official use in this province, the people of the province can choose any language they wish … 

“There can, however, be one lingua franca, that is, the language for inter-communication between the various provinces of the state, and that language should be Urdu and cannot be any other … 

“The state language, therefore, must obviously be Urdu, a language that has been nurtured by a hundred million Muslims of this sub-continent, a language understood throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan and, above all, a language which, more than any other provincial language, embodies the best that is in Islamic culture and Muslim tradition and is nearest to the languages used in other Islamic countries …

“These facts are fully known to the people who are trying to exploit the language controversy in order to stir up trouble. There was no justification for agitation, but it did not suit their purpose to admit this. 

“Their sole object in exploiting this controversy is to create a split among the Muslims of this state, as indeed they have made no secret of their efforts to incite hatred against non-Bengali Mussulmans …

“Make no mistake about it. There can be only one state language if the component parts of this state are to march forward in unison and that language, in my opinion, can only be Urdu. 

“I have spoken at some length on this subject so as to warn you of the kind of tactics adopted by the enemies of Pakistan and certain opportunist politicians to try to disrupt this state or to discredit this government.”

On the evening of March 24, the very day on which Jinnah spoke at the Dhaka University convocation, Pakistan’s founder met the leaders of an action committee formed earlier to demand for Bengali the status of a state language. 

The meeting did not go well as Jinnah refused to see the students’ point of view over the language question. He even committed the outrage of asking the young men if Bengal could point to any instances of great literature and aesthetics in the Bangla language. 

Some of those on the action committee team, particularly Oli Ahad and Abdur Rahman Chowdhury, did not mince words in informing Jinnah that he had limited knowledge about the culture of the Bangalis. For his part, the governor general thought the students were being led astray by the enemies of Pakistan. On the eve of his return to Karachi on March 28, Jinnah spoke to the people of East Bengal over radio. Amazingly, he only repeated what he had earlier stated at the Race Course and the convocation. 

His speech was rather long, the focal point being his emphasis on the need for unity and discipline among all the units of the state of Pakistan. He did not let the opportunity go by to offer some advice to Bangali students who, he suggested, should take what he called the right course to the future.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s visit to East Bengal, with his pronouncements on the language question, considerably diminished his hitherto solid reputation as a unifying force for the people of Pakistan. A sense of alienation between him and the Bangalis set in immediately with his departure for Karachi. Jinnah’s intransigence on the position of the Bangali language, however, emboldened Chief Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin to an extent that had earlier not been noticed. 

On April 6, contrary to his earlier promise of having the East Bengal Legislative Assembly pass a resolution calling for Bangla to be accepted as a state language for Pakistan, he only moved a resolution to the effect that Bangla be made the official language of East Bengal and that Bangla be the medium of instruction at all levels of education in Pakistan’s majority province.

Jinnah died on September 11, 1948. His loyal follower, Khwaja Nazimuddin, chief minister of East Bengal, succeeded him as Pakistan’s second governor general. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.