Retelling Our History: Remembering the Contribution of Students and Teachers in the Emergence of Bangladesh

The first phase of the history of Bangladesh Liberation War – blog bangla  mail

  1. Introduction

Bangladesh observes fifty years of its independence since the emergence of an independent state. A large volume of published studies describes the role of different groups such as politicians, bureaucrats, armed forces, intellectuals, and so forth in the war of liberation. However, there are relatively few historical studies in the area of the contribution of students and teachers in the upsurge of Bangladesh. From this perspective, the importance of this study is that it explores new thoughts about the role of teachers and students in the emergence of Bangladesh, often neglected by both historians and political analysts. The essay aims to portray an overview to unveil how teachers and students played a pivotal role in the advent of Bangladesh. Data for this study were collected using secondary sources such as books, articles, newspaper commentaries, etc. However, it is worth mentioning a few limitations of the paper. The aggrandizement of COVID-19 has made students’ future uncertain suspending academic activities almost for one year. Due to the unavailability of using library facilities and other practical constraints, this paper cannot provide a comprehensive literature review, which is highly pertinent to the study.

This paper has been divided into four parts. The first part deals with the introduction of the paper, emphasizing the importance of the study. The second part gives a summary background of the roles of students and teachers in liberating nations in world history. The third section, the key segment of the paper, examines the starring role of students and teachers in liberating Bangladesh from Pakistan. The final section argues that further study with more focus on the contribution of the students and teachers is suggested.

  1. Background History

Understanding the background history of the emergence of Pakistan would enable us to comprehend the magnitude of the role of students and teachers behind the rise of Bangladesh. Due to the collapse of the Mughal empire and the appearance of many belligerent groups contending for power throughout eighteenth-century India, the British had occupied an extensive amount of land using their military ascendency and amorality. Indian writer and politician Shashi Tharoor (2016) dubbed the ‘British Empire in India’ as an ‘era of darkness’ underway by a ‘corporation’ in the mid-eighteenth century. The second world war was a turning point in history for several reasons. Thanks to the decolonization process that gave birth to many nation-states across the world. Finally, India and Pakistan were granted independence in 1947 from British colonialism.

The late nineteenth sixties considered to be the marking period of history owing to students and teachers involved in the protest movements in Aisa, Africa, and Latin America. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA remarked that “youthful dissidence, involving students and non-students alike, is a worldwide phenomenon. It is shaped in every instance by local conditions, but there are striking similarities.” It pointed out that “Student protest is visible, highly vocal, increasingly militant and feared by many to be interconnected worldwide… Student Power is no longer a chimera” (Suri ed., 2007). In his book, Shrinath Raghavan summarized Gitlin (1993) and Kurlansky (2004), who sketched the magnitude of the students protest movements:

“Indeed, more than twenty countries across the globe pulsated with protests. North America and Western Europe, China and Eastern Europe, East and West Asia, Africa and Latin America—none were immune to the contagion of youthful dissidence. Yet, the hefty literature on the Sixties remains entranced by the events in Western Europe and the United States. Even the emerging scholarly work that attempts to view 1968 in a wider framework barely acknowledges the significance of the year for South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular. This is especially regrettable because the uprising in Pakistan was arguably the most successful of all the revolts in that momentous year” (Raghavan, 2013).

Thus, it would not be inappropriate to say that the wave of the global freedom movement that started in the mid-20th century greatly influenced the heroes of the liberation movement of Bangladesh. Some specific reasons triggered students to participate in the great war of liberation. Raghavan argued:

‘This (global students protest movement) triggered protests by Bengali students in East Pakistan, who feared that this policy would undermine their career prospects and demanded that Bengali be recognized as an official language’ (Raghavan, 2013).

  1. Teachers and Students Role and the Birth of Bangladesh

Many scholars observed the vulnerable future of Pakistan. William Van Schendel considered that Pakistan was a special state for three reasons. Firstly, Pakistan was established based on religious nationalism. Secondly, Pakistan’s eastern and the western wing were separated by about 1,500 km of Indian topography. Finally, Pakistan had no ‘central state institutions’ (Van Schendel, 2009: 107). New regimes that emanated from colonialism had responsibilities unifying the nation regardless of their religion, race, color, or cast to be familiar with and legitimate itself through a process of nation-building, which might engross designing a new flag, writing a new anthem, and so forth (Axford et al., 1997). However, since the founding of the new state, the ruling elites of Pakistan were less envisioned and failed to make a national integration (Jahan, 2015).  

The enormous contributions of students and Teachers in the dawning of Bangladesh contain a significant list. On the one hand, teachers guided political elites in the policy formulation against the incumbent.  On the other hand, students played crucial roles in unraveling the importance of independence, organizing the political processions, and forefront fighting against the occupied armed forces. In short, the area of contributions are following:

  • Organizing language movement in 1948
  • Framing the constitution of 1956
  • Escalating Anti-Ayub’s protest movement
  • Formulating 11-point demands
  • Historical six points movement
  • The mass upsurge in 1969
  • The great liberation war

Political elites and civil society started an intense debate on what would be Pakistan’s state language. Bengali civil society played a significant role in the language debate. Abul Kashem, a Physics professor of Dhaka University, established the ‘Tamuddin Majlish’ to preserve the interest of the Bengali nation. The other notable companions of Professor Abul Quasem ‘in floating Tamaddun Majlish’ were Dewan Mohammad Azraf, Professor ASM Nurul Haque Bhuyan, Shahed Ali, Abdul Gafur, Badruddin Umar, Hasan Iqbal, and some senior students of Dhaka University (Khan, 2014). At that time, Sanaullah Nuri, a former student leader, played a decisive role in gaining its success. Tamuddin Majlish published a booklet on 15 September 1947 titled ‘Pakistaner Rashtra Bhasha: Bangla na Urdu’ (Pakistan’s State Language: Bangla or Urdu) (Siddiki, 2006). Tamuddin Majlish’s pivotal role in the emergence of Bengali nationalism is undeniable.

3.1 The Language Movement

Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the sole spokesman of Pakistan, visited East Pakistan in March 1948. He delivered a lecture at a conference at Dhaka University and mentioned:

‘but let me make it clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries. Therefore, so far as the state language is concerned, Pakistan’s language shall be Urdu. But as I have said, it will come in time’ (cited in Van Schendel, 2009: 111).

Jinnah’s proclamation led to street protests first in Dhaka and later across the country. Students, teachers, and ordinary citizens joined the movement that attracted widespread supports. While thousands of students and teachers from different educational institutions assembled at Dhaka University, police fired into the crowd. It claimed the lives of several students and injured a significant number. Abul Barkat, a student of the political science department at Dhaka University, was killed due to his participation in the movement (Ahmed, 2017). Sheikh Mujbur Rahman, unprecedented leader of the liberation war, shared his experience in his autobiography ‘the unfinished memoirs’ about the final stage of the language movement:

“We spent the day with concern… police killed several people… students were chanting various slogans: ‘Rashtrabhasha Bangla Chai’ (we want Bangla as a state language), ‘Bengalis should not be exploited” (Rahman, 2012).

Students made monuments across the country for those who deceased defending the Bengali language in 1952. Ruling elites were obliged to incorporate Bangla as one of the state languages in Pakistan’s first constitution in 1956. The success of the language movement later inspired students, teachers, civil societies, and ordinary people to participate in events such as formulating the ‘United Front’ in 1954, drafting the first constitution of Pakistan, and reconstructing education policy in 1962. The next section will discuss the context of how Bengali nationalism had emerged, bringing about an independent nation with the cost of three million lives.

3.2 The Emergence of Bengali Nationalism

This section examines the contributions of students and teachers in the emergence of Bengali nationalism. There is no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes nationalism. In this essay, the term ‘nationalism’ will be used in its broadest sense to refer to an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson, 1983). Bengali nationalism, therefore, is an artifact of the Bangla language.

Ahrar Ahmed, director of Gyantapos Abdur Razzaq Foundation, aptly noted three streams that unraveled the penchants of Bengali nationalism in the 1960s. The streams are the following: Firstly, the Bengali-ethnocentric language movement; secondly, claiming democratic rights; and finally, demanding economic justice (Ahmed, 2016). In terms of economic justice, several Bengali economists presented ‘two economies in one country’ theory curbing the economic discrimination against Bengali people. The Economists who shared the idea were: MN Huda, Mazharul Haque, A Razzak, Nurul Islam, A Sadek, A Farooq, ANM Mahmud, Md. Saifullah Muhammad Hossain and Shafiqur Rahman. Recalling his memoirs, Economist Nurul Islam opined:

‘I was the youngest economist. I returned from Harvard and joined as an Associate Professor at the University of Dhaka. The theory argues: ‘all economic issues, including price hikes, have to be analyzed separately for East and West Pakistan.’ (Islam, 2017).

In 1961, professor Rehman Sobhan and Nurul Islam organized a seminar on ‘two economies’ at Curzon Hall of Dhaka University (Ahmed, 2017). The impact of that discussion was massive because it exposed economic disparity between the two regions of Pakistan. It helped Bengali political elites to change the attitudes of ordinary peoples’ traditional conception toward the Pakistan state. Nevertheless, Schuman conducted a survey on factory workers and cultivators in 1963–1964, asking them about their national identity. The survey exposed that 48 percent of the participants upheld Pakistani identity, 11 percent Bengali. The author argues that ‘even in the early 1960s the sense of Bengali identity was not a widespread form of identity for the average ‘man in the street’ and the ‘man in the field’ (Schuman, 1972, p.291, cited in Khondoker, 2016: 32-33). However, in less than a decade, an independent nation emerged based on the Bengali identity.

3.3 Roles of Students and Teachers in the Six Points Demand

 Awami League (Al), founded in 1949, faced a political split in 1957. The fraction led by Sheikh Mujib faced the inactivity of many senior leaders. In that critical moment, Chhtraleage (Students League), a student wing of AL, played a decisive role in creating Bangladesh. It helped Mujib enormously. Student leader Abul Kalam Azad wrote two books on the emergence of Bengali Nationalism and discrimination between the West and East Pakistan (Ahmed, 2017). In the meantime, Pakistan and India fought each other in 1965 on the disputed Kashmir. The war between Pakistan and India unveiled the vulnerable situation of East Pakistan mainly for two reasons: firstly, India surrounded East Pakistan from three sides; secondly, Pakistan had not taken any protective measures to prevent India from launching a possible military attack. In the following situation, Sheikh Mujib presented his six points, our demand for survival, in 1966. David Lewis mentioned the significance of six points in the following words:

‘The Six-Point Program was significant not simply as a statement of democratic resistance, but also because it showed that the Bengali leadership was focused on securing self-government for Bengalis rather than simply trying to capture national power by the removal of Ayub’ (Lewis, 2012:69).

The six points created a sense of ‘Bengali nationalism’ to eliminate discrimination and capture political power (Maniruzzaman, 1967). Students showed loyalty to the six points and started the procession ending in clashes with coups. Police stations, banks, government buildings, and the offices of pro-government newspapers faced clandestine attacks by angry Bengali students (Van Schendel, 2009).  In summary, students and teachers played an unprecedented role in the emergence and implementation of Bengali nationalism, which led to the war of 1971 to make a new home for the Bengali nation.

3.4 Making a Bangladesh:

Pakistan government lodged a case called ‘Agartala ShoRzonra Mamla’ (Agartala Conspiracy Case) in 1968 against Mujib and his other 34 associates to null and void Bengali nationalism. This incident spurred students to burst into anti-government campaigns. Abul Mansur Ahmed, a Bengali politician, intellectual, and writer, aptly noted the nature of students’ demonstration:

‘East Bengal students led to the protest movements. Agartala Conspiracy Case intensified the demonstration manifolds (Ahmed, 2013: 480).

The imprisonment of Mujib and other Bengali political leaders had created a leadership vacuum. To intensify movements, the student organizations formed an alliance titled ‘Chhatra Sangram Parishad’ that declared an eleven-point charter of demand. On 20th January 1969, Police killed Asaduzzaman, a student leader, while a Hartal (strike) was going on. Pakistani armed forces brutally killed Mohammad Shamsuzzoha, a Chemistry professor and proctor at Rajshahi University, in the student demonstration organized in front of Rajshahi University on 18th February 1969. He was considered the first ‘Shaheed’ ‘academic’ for an independent Bangladesh (Ali, 2020). Some student leaders framed ‘The Independent Bangla Students Struggle Council’ in 1971. Dhaka University’s students designed a flag with a yellow East Pakistan map in the red sun on the green soil at Sergeant Zahurul Haque Hall (then Iqbal Hall) on the 2nd March of 1971. On that day, ASM Abdur Rab, the Vice President of Dhaka University Central Student Union (DACSU), hoisted the new flag of independent Bangladesh on behalf of the student community (Hasan, 2017). Several students formed guerrilla forces like ‘Mujib Battery’ fighting against Pakistan occupied army until the end of the massacre. The occupied army conducted the final attack on 14th December to destroy the most precious wealth of the nation. They killed university teachers, philosophers, intellectuals, and members of civil society.  According to the Dhaka University list, 195 students and teachers had sacrificed their lives in the liberation war. However, eye-witnessed sources depicted armed forces killed between 250 to 300 students, teachers, and other people at the Dhaka University campus in 1971 (Hasan, 2017). Overall, the magnificent contribution of students and teachers is a bright example for the liberators. A short paper is not enough to cover the area of contributions in detail of the students and teachers in the advent of Bangladesh.

  1. Conclusion

This study has examined the contributions of students and teachers in the creation of Bangladesh from diverse perspectives. In Bangladesh’s history, the role of students and teachers has received little attention. Even though scattered narratives about the role of students and teachers in the emergence of Bangladesh are available, it is not enough to honor their contributions. This paper suggests further research should be undertaken to investigate the roles of students and teachers in the birth of Bangladesh.

The essay secured third place at the university level in the second essay competition 2021 organized by Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation (GARF), Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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