The national uproar caused by the February tragedy forced the Government of Pakistan to investigate the event, in particular the action of the police.
Justice Hamoodur Rahman, who would later famously be appointed to investigate the 1971 Muktijuddho, acted as counsel of a number of government officials appearing at the Enquiry. Advocate Syed Abdul Ghani was also appointed to represent those witnesses who spoke about excessive police brutality. No other Advocate applied for permission to appear nor did any other party ask to be represented by an Advocate. The Government of East Bengal had submitted a statement it did not consider itself a party to the enquiry and was not legally represented.
A.R. Osmany, the Assistant Registrar in Dhaka High Court, acted as Justice Ellis' Secretary in the Enquiry, and was aided by Din Mohammed of the Secretariat staff. Mohabbat Ali, Senior Reporter of the East Bengal Legislative Assembly, and his colleagues Lutfur Rahman, Syed Bazlur Rahman, Abdus Samad, Abdul Mohaimen and Osman Ali spent long hours transcribing the statements of the witnesses and typing up the report.
There were 64 witnesses whose statements were recorded in the enquiry.
Statements of witnesses who supported the police action, claiming it was justified and not in excess, were examined on the 8-10th, 15-18th of April, i.e., for 7 days. Few days later, the statement of the other witnesses who disapproved police firing were examined on the 21-30th (except 23rd, 27th and 29th) of April, i.e., for a similar period of 7 days. After the statements had been recorded, two days were taken up in argument. Hamoodur Rahman presented the case for his clients on 2 May 1952, and Abdul Ghani argued his case the very next day.
Each of the witness was examined and cross-examined by the two advocates, and their statement was produced during this examination.
According to the Ellis Enquiry, the police had received information at the Control Room and at various police stations in the early hours of Ekushey February that attempts were being made to enforce hartal (protest) by closing down shops interfering with vehicular traffic and compelling passengers to dismount from buses, taxis, rickshaws and hackney carriages.
The situation deteriorated throughout the day with the student crowd growing in numbers and getting more vociferous and aggressive. The police charged with 'lathi' (baton) but it only provoked the student into further frenzy. They kept assembling and reassembling in front of the Medical College gate and in the compound and, across the road, in the University playing ground.
It is only too obvious that the students regarded the University compound, the Medical College compound and the Hostel area as "sanctuary" from which they could with safety sally out and attack the Police.
Repeated warnings were giving by Deputy Inspector-General A.Z. Obaidullah, District Magistrate S.H. Quraishi, and Superintendent of Police Md. Idris before firing took place.
Failing to control the 'mob', the police opened fire at 3.20pm. They fired 27 rounds under the command of SP & DM - 5 towards the rioters on the University playground side and 22 rounds towards the rioters on the Medical College Hostel side. This led to the death of Abul Barkat who dropped dead near the corner of the University ground and was removed to the hospital in an ambulance. According to the Ellis Report, all in all there were 'nine casualties of whom three were students and six outsiders'. Two died in the hospital that night at about 8 p.m., one being a student and a third succumbed to his injuries during the course of the enquiry. No knowledge of any further casulties because "the attitude of the mob was very violent".
Firing was deemed "necessary" for the protection of the force and to 'save' themselves as they were being 'overpowered' and 'overwhelmed'. The student killing was in "self defense".
We tried to dissuade the crowd from throwing brickbats but all that failed. Some policemen were manhandled by the crowd. Still we were trying to keep the crowd away from the gate by continued lathi charge whenever possible and in doing so the number of casualties on the side of the police, was mounting until the position became such that lathi charge was done but it did not have any effect on the crowd. It rather increased the casualties on our side. Use of tear gas also had no effect, and actually at one stage showers had become so intensive that the Police party had been collected and put near the shops in order to have some protection against the missiles and brickbats. That was all happening after 3 p.m. but even in this position the crowd won't stop. They advanced again on the spot where the police was posted and came within the striking distance and concentrated their shower of brickbats.
Almost the cry was that the police party might be overwhelmed. All efforts to keep the mob away had been exhausted. Our attempt to keep a bit away from the crowd again became fruitless. We discussed the situation — Deputy Inspector-General, the Superintendent of Police and myself — and we were strongly of opinion that firing had to be opened; otherwise the police party would be overwhelmed. This was about quarter past three. We again decided that there must be a final attempt to disperse the crowd by determined lathi charge and we did so. Our men had advanced, the lathi charge failed because before we could come in contract with them we were almost littered with stones and the police party which was now posted on the road found itself in an awfully hopeless position. The crowd seeing this again converged and started brickbating with increased severity. To meet the situation, in my opinion, there was no way left to disperse the crowd or to extricate the police force from being overwhelmed except by opening fire. The S.P. asked me for permission and I gave permission for opening fire.
According to the report, even after the firing the crowd did not stop throwing brickbats—a microphone was set up in the Medical College Hostel compound and fiery speeches were made against Government and the Police. Bloodstained clothes were displayed to the crowd to keep its excitement high. And the Police had to make a lathi charge to prevent another concerted rush on the Assembly at 4-30 or 5 p.m.
Having heard all the eye-witness account and the prosecution and defendent's cases, Judge Ellis was 'satisfied' that "the firing was controlled and was effective". He concluded that "the force used by the police was justified in the circumstances of the case" and, having examined the registers of Medical College Hospitals, the number of casualties (allegedly 9 with four dead) was "not unexpected" in view of the fact that the Police expended a large quantity of gas grenades and shells and made two determined lathi charges.
His findings were presented in the report entitled "Report of the Enquiry into the Firing by the Police at Dacca on the 21st February 1952, by the Honourable Mr. Justice Ellis of the High Court of Judicature at Dacca" on 27 May 1952.
In an attempt to justify his remarkable conclusion, Justice Ellis acknowledged the lack of depth in his investigation due to boycotting by prominent organisations and members.
It is unfortunate that certain Associations and Organizations decided to boycott the enquiry as they disapproved of its limitations. Had they taken part in proceedings, the official witnesses would undoubtedly have been subjected to a more knowledgeable and therefore more effective cross-examination while the presentation of the case against the Police would have been more effective because better informed. I have, however, gratefully to acknowledge the assistance of Mr. Hamoodur Rahman and his scrupulous fairness in presenting the case of his clients, and the help afforded by Mr. Abdul Ghani in the face of great difficulties and serious handicaps.
After the enquiry was concluded, Justice Ellis, though 'familiar' with the topography of the scene, visited the scene of the incident to "refresh" his memory as to the position of the buildings and landmarks to see for himself the bullet marks on the Medical College hostels.
But the irony of this report is also considerable. An English jurist, conducting an enquiry on an event which became the source of subsequent events and ultimately history.
More ironical is that the judgement of the Ellis committee though based on the foundations of legality and evidence of official witnesses failed to outrun the trend of history. Historical process and political aspirations finally overwhelmed all the conclusions and while the rather dismissive attitude towards the agitators is obvious, they claimed the front seat and took over the reins of command while those who ordered the firing are "lost" and remembered only in derision.
The power of history appears more sustainable than the logic of legality.
In September 1955 General Iskander Mirza replaced Ghulam Muhammad as governor-general after he resigned from the post. That same year, East Bengal's name was changed to 'East Pakistan' – 'Purbo Pakistan' in Bengali – after the adoption of 'One Unit' policy on 14 October 1955.
The following year, East Pakistan's Provincial Assembly reopened and Iskander Mirza became the first President of Pakistan, and that too of Bengali origin.
He became president on 23 March 1956 after the First Constitution of Pakistan was finally passed. In Article 214(1) of the constitution Bengali was recognised as the second official language of Pakistan – four years after Ekushey February.
From these experiences in Bangladesh it can be said that the best language planning is possible when the language is in action
In the new constitution Pakistan was renamed to “Islamic Republic of Pakistan”, and though it remained in the Commonwealth of Nations, other norms of allegiance to the Queen of England finally came to an end that day as Pakistan declared itself a republic.
The constitution also required the Bengalis to sacrifice their numerical majority in the population and agree to equal sharing in the national parliament. There would be 310 members – 150 from each wing of Pakistan, and 10 reserved for women. This meant that the votes of Bengalis counted for less than the votes of West Pakistanis.
Pakistan took an inordinately long time in framing its constitution, being governed in the meantime by the Government of India Act of 1935 as amended by the India Independence Act of 1947, both acts of the British Parliament. These were acts that continued and preserved a viceregal form of government, one in which the governor-general would have ultimate power, as the viceroy had before 1947. That is, this would be the system unless the governor-general were a Bengali.
Though Bengali was declared a national language along with Urdu in Pakistan’s 1956, this was never implemented. Ayub Khan took over the presidency from Mirza in 1958 and became Pakistan’s first military dictator. The 1956 Constitution was abrogated, the governments – that of the centre as well as those of the provinces – were dismissed, the Assembly was dissolved, and political parties were declared illegal. Nearly 150 former ministers, from national as well as provincial governments, and 600 ex-deputies were put on trial for corruption. Among them was Huseyn Suhrawardy.
Viewed from the lens of language policies and ethnic conflict, however, Pakistan’s historical narrative was troubled from the beginning.
Less than two months after Pakistan gained independence in 1947, Jinnah suspended the Provincial Assembly of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) in response to what he perceived to be a threat of Pakhtun secessionism in the form of a Pakhtun demand for greater autonomy. Less than six months later, Karachi was relieved of its status as a city of Sind Province and placed under federal control. The Bengali language movement was launched in 1948, and flare-ups involving language issues occurred in East Pakistan in 1951, 1952, 1954, 1956, 1966, and 1970-71. Meanwhile, linguistic movements in southern Punjab under the Siraiki banner were gaining momentum as early as 1956, with demands for the creation of a separate Bhawalpur Province.
The idea of a cohesive Muslim Pakistan was a fiction from the earliest days of its existence.
Pakistan was beset with significant inter-regional rivalries from the very beginning and the imposition of Urdu enhanced differences and people of East Pakistan became the language-activists and language-martyrs. This movement led them to think about the liberation from the subjugation of West Pakistan and laid down the foundation of separate homeland.
Event by event, the destiny of my country was changing at an alarming speed. We neither knew in which direction our fate was going to be shaped, nor did I know whether my own destiny would ever be fulfilled. The effect of the sacrifice by the Dhaka University students had left a permanent injury on all of us students, but it became a powerful source of motivation to protect our identity, our dignity as the Bengali race, and above all, to save the dignity of our mother tongue, Bangla Basha.
Although the question of official languages was settled by 1956, and Bangla was adopted as a national language after inflicting a lot of damage, the Bengali complained about the military regime of Ayub Khan for promoting the interests of the Punjabi, Muhjir and Pashtun communities at the expense of the Bengalis. Despite forming the majority of the national population, the Bengali community remained under-representation in the civil and military services, and received less funding than other wing. Consequently, sectional divisions grew which subsequently led to the Swadhinata Juddho (Bangladesh Liberation War) of 1971.
"Ekushe February" or "21st February" became the red letter day to the Bengalis all over the world. From 1952 onwards the Bengalis of Pakistan drew their inspiration from the sacrifices of the 21st February in all their subsequent struggles. It is interesting that 21st February had in fact, shaped the destiny of East Pakistan and is now considered that the freedom movement of Bangladesh owed its origins from that date.
The language controversy catalysed the assertion of Bengali national identity in Pakistan and became a forerunner to Bengali nationalism. This in turn provided the foundation for the Six-Point movement of Awami League demanding greater autonomy and democracy. One demand was to rename East Pakistan as Bangla Desh (Land of Bengal), which increased the division even more.
Language issue also heightened the cultural animosity between the two wings of Pakistan. It generated a much deeper seeded sentiment of hatred within East Pakistan, which extended into other issues such as those concerning economic discrimination and the increasing concentration of political power in the western segment of the country. Primarily, the two wings of Pakistan were separated by Indian territory of thousand miles and this distance enhanced differences in social, cultural and even in religious attitudes. In early years, Bengalis believed that their economic, social and cultural aims are fit within the framework of a united Pakistan, but that illusion was soon to be shattered.
The worst on the government’s part was to degrade and destroy the local languages and cultures in the name of national language. No doubt, language alone neither separates nor integrates a nation but lasting legacies of the Bengali language movement and the language martyrs have transcended the test of time.
Infact, the imposition of Urdu without much consideration was resented among many people of Pakistan and it was the biggest mistake to choose it as the national language of Pakistan with long-term negative consequences. Ignoring this issue with falsehoods and illusions brought the worst result. The language issue was one of the major causes for the loss of East Pakistan. There were language riots in Sindh during 1970s and it was argued that learning of Urdu is simply for social and economic communicational necessities under Urdu-dominated system of the country. Urdu has no basis in Pakistan prior to 1947 when it was declared as national language. The British colonialists applied this instrument to keep Indian Muslims away from the Muslim culture of Afghanistan, Iran or Central Asia. Persian was the language of the Muslim rulers and the British’s recommendation of Urdu as the Court Vernacular was a conspiracy against Persian, that was official language of the Muslim rule and was the source of the union among the Muslim tribes of the adjoining areas.
East Pakistanis fought against the West Pakistanis in a 9 month bloody battle which started in the midnight of 25 March 1971. An estimated 3 million people died and over 10 million people were left homeless.
The formal victory of the East Pakistanis were declared on 6 December 1971 and a new nation was created – Bangladesh. The following year, under the leadership of the Awami League, the First Constitution of Bangladesh was written and adopted on 4 November 1972.
We, the people of Bangladesh, having proclaimed our Independence on the 26th day of March, 1971, and through a historic struggle for national liberation, establish the independent Sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh; pledging that the hight ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the national liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the Constitution.
In it, 'nationalism' was defined as:
The unity and solidarity of the Bengali nation, which deriving its identitiy from its language and culture, attained a sovereign and independent Bangladesh through a united and determined struggle in the war of independence, shall be the basis of Bengali nationalism
And no doubt was left regarding the state language of the newly formed country:
The state language of the Republic is Bengali.
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