The events of 21st ('Ekushey' in Bangla) February 1952 - or 8 Falgun 1359 in Bangla calendar - would go on to dramatically alter history. Just three years into the creation of Pakistan, signs of discontent in the eastern wing were plain to see. And now, within five years lives would be lost in the course of political controversy. Bengal would never be the same again and it's history would change forever.
Police prepare for "planned attack" by students
The Police had anticipated that the hartal declared for the 21st February would soon lead to trouble in the University area and had made arrangements to face the emergency. By 7.30 am they had taken up their position according to the arrangements made previously. Siddique Dewan, the Deputy Superintendent, was positioned for duty in the University ground whilst Masood Mahmood, the Additional Superintendent of Police, went out on his rounds and visited the Police Outposts from the early morning.
According to Masood Mahmood, students were forcing hartal upon the general public in the University area. They were allegedly stopping vehicles, forcing passengers to alight from buses, taxis, rickshaws and cars and their tyres were deflated in order to prevent them from being used. The police officers intervened in order to keep traffic moving and were 'abused in filthy language', with the Additional Superintendent himself a prime target of the students' attack.
By 7.45 am, the Superintendent of Police, Muhammad Idris, had received report of these happenings. He hurried to the troublesome spot by 8.15 am and had witnessed these students' "violence" for himself. When the Superintendent's attempts to dissaude the students from their activities failed, he ordered his men to take up positions in the vicinity of the University. However, this did not prevent students and non-students alike from passing through the institution's gates.
The S.P. (Superintendent of Police) tried his best to dissuade the students from carrying on these activities but he found that his protests were not having any effect and as he anticipated trouble he stationed police in that particular area. At 9am at the University gate he had in position the D.S.P. (Deputy Superintendent of Police), one Inspector, 2 head constables and 20 constable of the S.A.F. (Special Armed Force), one Inspector, one Sub-Inspector, one Sergeant, 2 head constables and 14 constables armed with lathis. At the Medical College gate he had one head constable, and 10 constables of the S.A.F., and near the Salimullah Muslim Hall he had one head constable, and 10 constables who were armed.
- Muhammad Idris ()
Dhaka University's Vice Chancellor tries to calm situation
By 9 o'clock in the morning, thousands of students from different schools and colleges of Dhaka assembled at University of Dhaka premises in defiance of Section 144.
On that morning, the crowd increased, both in numbers and in intensity, sending out the clear feeling that a showdown was on the way. Room for compromise was conspicuous by its absence. And yet no one could imagine that the state would shoot its own children.
Armed police surrounded the campus and were waiting outside the gate. The situation by 10 am had become so tense that a message was sent to District Magistrate Quareshi to come to the University gate immediately. Upon arrival and witnessing the mass defiance, Quareshi got the Registrar of the University to telephone the Vice-Chancellor of University of Dhaka, Dr. S. M. Hossain, and asked him and the other University's authorities to persuade the students not to violate the order under section 144.
Shortly afterward Dr. S. M. Hossain and a few university teachers, including Dr. Zuberi and Dr. Ghani, requested the students not to violate the ban on assembly - but the student leaders gave a deaf ear to this request.
When the Vice-Chancellor approached the students whose number he estimated at 1,000 or so, at first they asked him to lead their procession in violation of the order. He proposed that they might hold a meeting, pass a resolution and then disperse. The students met this proposal with a request for him to give them a lead in the matter and preside over the meeting. He did not agree. But he said he was prepared to associate with them if they gave him a guarantee that they would behave peacefully and disperse peacefully after the meeting. The guarantee was never given though some of the leading students tried without success to prevail upon the general body of students. The Vice-Chancellor refused to accept the students' suggestion that he should act according to the decision of the meeting.
It was abundantly clear that the students were in no mood to listen to any reasonable suggestions and had obviously made up their minds to violate the orders under section 144 of the Code.
The officials addressed the students pleading with them to stop their "unlawful" business. The Vice-Chancellor told them "in a democratic country like Pakistan, everybody had a full right to express his opinion", but as true Pakistanis, he appealed to them not to break the law. He advised them to hold their meeting in the compound and pass resolutions if they wanted but they should not go out in a crowd as Section 144 was in operation in the city.
Aziz Ahmad & Karigoudar Ishwaran, editors of "Contributions to Asian Studies, Volume 5" (1971)
- Dr. S. M. Hossain () Vice Chancellor of University of Dhaka (22 Oct 1948 - 8 Nov 1953)
"Rastro basha Bangla chai!"
Around 11 am a student meeting took place at Amtala which was presided by Gaziul Huq where they were discussing the pros and cons of the emergent situation. Shamsul Huq, dressed in a sherwani and a black Jinnah cap, arrived at the meeting and voiced the concern of the Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrobhasha Kormi Porishod. He requested the students to adhere to the Section 144 ban and not go ahead with the protest.It was followed by a loud roar of protest from the students. Shamsul Huq was unable to finish his speech. The students and student leaders of Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College and Engineering College could not agree with that decision and were determined to hold a protest meeting at the University campus. Abdul Matin sympathised with the majority voice claiming that if Section 144 was not violated on that day then in the future no movements could go ahead owing to its fear.
Are we then to retreat because we are afraid of breaking Section 144?
Abdul Matin flung a question to the audience
When he posed the question to the students whether to retreat the protest they replied with a resounding "No" – though a small section of students and student leaders were against it.
Hundreds of students and workers toiled immensely towards the preparation of meetings, processions and the final strike of February 21st and therefore were not ready to give up due to the fear of its consequences.
Amor Ekushe website
By 11.15am, students gathered at the university gate and attempted to break the police line.
"10 Persons" procession
With the meeting over swiftly, one of the student leaders, Abdus Samad Azad (later Foreign Minister under Awami League government) proposed that instead of going through a huge procession, a rally of "10 persons" should be on the streets in groups. By taking this strategic measure, Article 144 will be disobeyed without creating mass violence.
The requests of student leaders were permitted and the gates of the Arts Faculty were opened to this and "10 Persons" procession.
The students began to go out in the streets in small batches of 6, 8 and 10 at a time and voluntarily courted arrest by breaking Section 144. They climbed into police vehicles of their own accord and taken to the police stations.
The first group that came out for arrest was lead by Habibur Rahman Shelley (later Justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh). The second group to be arrested was led by Abdus Samad Azad, the third group was led by Anowarul Haq Khan, and the fourth group was led by Zafar Obaidullah Khan (later a Minister in Ershad's government, and an Ambassador). Finally, a procession of women came out that were also arrested.
- Abdus Samad Azad (1922 - 2005) Bangladesh's first Foreign Minister (1972). Reappointed to the post in 1996 by Awami League. Elected to Jatiyo Sangshad five times from 1970 to 2001. President of the Muslim Student Federation of All - Asam in 1946. Jailed from 1975 to 1978 after Sheikh Mujib's assassination. Died of stomach cancer. Buried in Banani koborstan, Dhaka. Born in village of Bhurakhali, Sunamganj District, Sylhet.
- Habibur Rahman Shelley ()
- Anowarul Haq Khan ()
- Zafar Obaidullah Khan ()
In the Ellis Report, police and University witnesses stated that the students actually came out in batches of 25 or 30 as their names were called from a roster-list in a notebook. This, apparently, indicates that the student meeting was a 'pretence' and the whole drama was a planned and calculated event as they had selected the names of the students who were to defy the order and had arranged the order in which particular students were to leave the University premises for that purpose. The Report also declared that no female students were arrested during this event.
In all 91 persons were arrested and by that time all available accommodation in the police vehicles had been filled up and the Police were in the embarrassing position of not being able to remove any more persons under arrest.
Sensing this embarrassment [of the police] the crowd became more truculent and began to throw brickbats at the Police. The Police had to make further arrangement in the disposition of their forces.
Some constables had to be sent in order to escort the students who had been arrested. The Additional S.P. [Superintendent of Police] was sent to the Assembly House in order to guard the same as it was reported that the students intended to stage a march on the Assembly House and a gas squad was brought to the University gate.
It may be noted that the principal objective of a violation of Section 144 was a march the students planned to the Legislative Assembly premises, where they would urge the lawmakers to present a forceful case for Bangla in the proceedings of the House. The difficulty they faced, though, was the increasingly high number of policemen on the campus. The dilemma was obvious: the students had to find a way of breaking through the police cordon and marching on. In the event, it was decided that they would break through the police presence in groups of 10.
The Daily Star (Bangladesh)
However, the process of peaceful breaking of Section 144 did not continue for long. Soon, the streets were flooded with hundreds of students protesting for their civil rights for the establishment of their mother language.
Gas attack by police
After the voluntary arrest of the 91 students there was a general rush from the University compound. By noon students from various institutions in Dhaka gathered and protested with slogans such as "Rastro basha Bangla chai" (We want Bangla as National language)... "Cholo cholo assembly cholo" (Let's go to the assembly)..."Police Zulum Chalbe Na" (We won't accept police brutality)..."We will disobey Section 144".
At one stage police entered into the University campus and resorted to beating the student crowd with lathi (baton). This infuriated the student who far outnumbered the police - there were around 50-67 members of the police force (including 3 head constables, 30 constables of the armed branch, 2 field constable and 14 constables of the unarmed branch, and 1 head constable and 14 constable of the gas squad, 1 Inspector and 2 Sergeants) whilst the crowd was estimated to be around 5,000 - 6,000, according to the District Magistrate and police officials. In retaliation they started to throw bricks at the police and, to aid communication and collaborative action, broke the wall between the Arts faculty and the Medical College Hospital so that there would be a larger area in which they can protest against the police. It also made it easier for the student to pass from one compound to the other within the University area without coming out on to the Secretariat Road.
By this time the situation was getting out of control. Police fired tear gas shells towards the gate to warn the students and disperse the students by firing blanks. A section of students ran into the Dhaka Medical College Hospital while others rallied towards the university premises blocked by police lines. The ensuing riot spread to the nearby campuses of the Medical and Engineering colleges. The vice-chancellor asked police to stop firing and ordered the students to leave the area but to no avail. More armed police and para-military forces was bought in to subdue the lively crowd. They started wide-spread tear gas shelling, throwing gas grenades and clubbing – even female students. The result of the gas attack was that the students scattered only to reassemble in the Medical College area and on the other side of the Secretariat Road in the University playground.
Gaziul Huq was one of many students who was most affected during the police gas attack. One of the shells hit him and he became unconscious.
To scatter the students, the police charged into the faculty premises, firing rounds of teargas shells and beating whoever came their way. The air was thick with eye-stinging teargas. One of the shells hit Gazi Bhai. He lost consciousness. The intensity of the gas must have contributed to this. A group of students carried him to the second floor of the faculty building. There he was doused with water. Soon he came round. I am witness to all this. It has sometimes been said that his losing of consciousness was a sham or, at best an exaggeration. To those of us who were very near him at the moment, neither was true.
Mahfuzur Rahman, Journalist
The gas attack temporarily dispersed the crowd but by that time the Additional Superintendent of Police, Masood Mahmood had already been injured, a jeep had been smashed and there was intermittent brickbatting on the police force from the University premises and from the Medical College area. The situation was regarded as serious enough to call for the presence of the Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Dhaka Range), A. Z. Obaidullah. He arrived on the spot at about 1 pm. There he met the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police and found that a crowd was collected on the road in front of the University and the Medical College extending almost up to the Assembly House.
Warnings by the District Magistrate, the Deputy Inspector-General of Police and the Superintendent of Police went unheeded and the crowd intensified its attack on the police and showers of brickbats were hurled at them. When dispersed by gas attacks, they merely retreated temporarily into the University area - their "sanctuary" and gathered for a fresh attack. They continued to play a "cat and mouse" game with the police, and put the grenades and shells out of action by pouring water upon them.
The main focus of trouble appeared to be at the gate of the Medical College and as such the police force was primarily concentrated there and received the most attention. Between 2 and 2.30 pm the situation developed more serious and the police were forced to take shelter behind the shops on the western side of the Secretariat Road.
"Cholo cholo assembly cholo" - student halt ministers
The students remembered that the budget session of East Bengal Legislative Assembly was scheduled to start soon and decided to prevent the ministers from reaching the Assembly Hall (at present, part of Jagannath Hall, University of Dhaka).
Maulvi Aulad Hossain, a member of the Legislative Assembly, was intercepted on his way to the Assembly and was forced to drive into the Medical College Hostel compound. He was compelled to sign a paper that Bengali should be one of the State languages and also that he witnessed the police brutality and injuries to young boys even though he hadn't seen any. He was freed by 9 pm.
The most high profile minister to be stopped was though the minister for communication Hassan Ali. He was passing by in his car on the way to the Assembly along with Maulana Abdullah-al-Baqui, the President of the Provincial Muslim League. His car was stopped by the crowd and his tyres were deflated. Two young men got into the car, one by the left door, the other by the right door and demanded them to go with them into the Medical College Hospital. Maulana Abdullah al-Baqui got out of the car to follow the order but was swiftly pulled back by Hassan Ali. Eventually, they were rescued by the police and escorted to the Assembly. However, Hassan Ali sustained injury to his head by a brick as the jeep drove away.
Keeping in mind their objective to proceed towards the East Bengal Legislative Assembly Hall which was in session at 3.20 pm, the agitated students tried to clear their path by continuing to brick the police. This resulted in number of casualties including injuries to Deputy Inspector-General, the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police and the Additional Superintendent of Police. As the situation intensified, District Magistrate Qureshi ordered the police to open fire.
The result was tragic.