Muhammad Ali Jinnah declaring Urdu and only Urdu as state language of Pakistan in civic ceremony at Racecourse Maidan, Dhaka, in 1948

Quaid-e-Azam declares Urdu as state language in East Bengal in 1948

In the height of civic unrest, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the all-powerful leader of Pakistan (he was governor general, president of the constituent assembly and president of the ruling Muslim League all at once), arrived in Dhaka in the afternoon of 19 March 1948 on what would be his first and last visit to the eastern province of the country he and the Muslim League had created months earlier. Thousands of people assembled at the airport to welcome him and several thousands gathered by the roadside to have a glimpse of him. However, as events were to show, Jinnah would only make matters worse for himself and for Pakistan during his Dhaka visit by rekindling the language issue.

During his nine day stay, he delivered several speeches in Dhaka and Chittagong, including two speeches in English in Dhaka.

Declaration of "Urdu, and no other language" at civic reception at Ramna Race Course Maidan

On 21 March 1948, Jinnah addressed a huge public rally at the Ramna Race Course Maidan (currently Suhrawardy Uddyan), where he warned the people of East Bengal to be on guard against the activities of "subversive elements" out to divide and destroy Pakistani Muslims. In his long speech Jinnah spoke about conspiracies by communists and fifth columnists (or internal mischief makers) to undo Pakistan. He warned that no mercy would be shown to quislings (i.e. traitors who collaborate with enemies), though he did not mention who the quislings were. Jinnah further declared that "Urdu, and no other language" embodied the spirit of Muslim nations and would remain as the state language, labelling those who disagreed with his views as "Enemies of Pakistan".

Let me make it very 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 shall be Urdu.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah in a public meeting at the Race Course Maidan, Dhaka, on 21 March 1948

These comments fuelled enormous anger and resentment in the hearts of the Bengalis of East Bengals and prompted voices of protest even at the public rally. And as Bangladesh's history was to later show, it was a line of thinking that would be adopted by all Pakistani rulers and other West Pakistani politicians every time legitimate demands for social and political justice were made by Bangali, such as the 1971 autonomy.

Jinnah left to the government and to the elected representatives the job of deciding for themselves what language should be used by the administration, in education and in the courts - for East Bengal alone. He was delighted that Khawaja Nazimuddin had been so firm in his efforts to restore order. He considered the promises made by the Chief Minister to the students invalid, saying they had been extorted from him. He overruled the contract that was signed by Khawaja Nazimuddin with the student leaders which contained the 8-Point agreement.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah visited East Pakistan from 19 - 28 March 1948. The visit was a disaster, seeing that instead of reassuring the Bangla-speaking people of his country on the language issue he ended up making them angrier than they were before.

For perhaps the very first time in his long political career, Jinnah came face to face with a situation where he was not exactly looked upon as a revered individual. He, like so many other Pakistani rulers after him, smelled a conspiracy in the demand for Bangla as a state language.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

Jinnah's abrasive remarks were severely condemned by Prof Abul Kashem who, on the same day, came down hard on the governor general's attempt to paint the advocates of Bangla as fifth columnists and communists and as enemies of Pakistan. Two days later, on 23 March 1948, Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq denied that there were any quislings, fifth columnists or enemies of Pakistan. He made it clear that Jinnah's language had not been polite and that his insistence on Urdu being the state language of Pakistan had been wrong.

This insinuation that support for Bangla meant disloyalty to the unity of Pakistan meant that, through the act of speech, Bengalis became disloyal citizens from the outset of Pakistan's nationbuilding. He [Jinnah] expressed similar feelings two days later, at a Dhaka University convocation. As such, the political elite, especially the 'visionary' of Pakistan, framed the language controversy as a commitment on the part of loyal citizens to the unity of the Islamic identity of Pakistan - contrary to the traitors and enemies of the new country.

Bina D'Costa, author of "Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia" (2011)

On this occasion, Jinnah - who had no doubt been badly advised - lacked his customary shrewdness.

Christoph Jaffrelot, editor of "A History Of Pakistan And Its Origins" (2002)

Reaffirms Urdu stance at Dhaka University

But the speech that created the biggest uproar was the one that Jinnah delivered to the special convocation of Dhaka University at Curzon Hall on 24 March 1948. Here, he was the chief guest tasked with awarding graduation certificates. In his speech to the students he dwelt on the refugee issue, the need to guard against conspiracies and the place of Urdu in national life. Jinnah linked support for Bengali with opposition to Pakistan, calling advocates of the Bengali language enemies of Pakistan, Communists, and traitors, among other terms.

Once again, he showed his strong categorical and emphatic support for Urdu by advocating that it would the state language, since it was 'nurtured by 100 million Muslims' and 'embodies the best in Islamic culture'. He linked language with national unity when he declared that "without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function".

Unlike your predecessors you fortunately leave this university to enter life under a sovereign, independent state of your own...

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...

...Thwarted in their desire to prevent the establishment of Pakistan, our enemies turned their attention to finding ways and means to weaken and destroy us...

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 subcontinent, 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.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah warns students to be vigilant against mischief makers

In many literature Jinnah is frequently quoted as stating 'Urdu and Urdu alone would be the State Language of Pakistan'. This is a misquote. Nevertheless, his intention was very clear. Jinnah linked support for Urdu with Pakistani patriotism, as well as with Islam.

Students were stunned at these utterances of the most powerful man in Pakistan. At this point his speech was interrupted by loud protests from a large segment of the audience in the hall. Some of them shouted 'no, no' to record their protest. Amongst these was Abdul Matin, a student leader who later formed the Purbo Pakistan Jubo League (East Pakistan Youth League) in March 1951, and then, the Chhatra (Student) League, both Awami League fronts and instruments of the incipient nationalist movement. Waiting to receive his diploma from the Quaid-i-Azam, Abdul Matin stood up on his chair and shouted "No, it can not be!" when Jinnah made his declaration. He was supported by many other students.

This was a new experience for Jinnah. Unaccustomed to people defying him, Jinnah stayed silent for a few moments before resuming his speech. For the first time in his long political career, the Quaid-e-Azam faced a challenge to his diktat. However, he interpreted this outcry as further proof of the conspiracies to undo Pakistan. He went on to warn the students:

...beware of the fifth columnists among yourselves... guard against and weed out selfish people who only wish to exploit you so that they may swim...consolidate the Muslim League party which will serve and build up a really and truly great and glorious Pakistan.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah on 'Fifth Elements'

Meeting with Shorbodolio Rashtrabhasha Sangram Parishad bears no fruit

On the evening of 24 March 1948, i.e. the very day on which Jinnah spoke at the Dhaka University convocation, Jinnah agreed to meet a deputation on behalf of the Shorbodolio Rashtrabhasha Sangram Parishad. But the talks failed as both sides stuck to their pervious positions. Mohammad Toaha submitted a memorandum to on behalf of the students demanding Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan, but to no avail. Jinnah refused to see the students' point of view over the language question and reiterated his refusal to grant Bengali a status equivalent to that of Urdu. He tried to persuade the student representatives of the necessity of having one national language, but the students were not convinced.

The simmering tension reached boiling point when rather bizarrely Jinnah demanded to know from the students if Bengalis could boast any great men of letters in their history. Outraged and shocked by his poor knowledge of Bengali culture, and offended by the crudity of the question from their 'Father of the Nation', the students' reminded him of prominent figures such as Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Mir Mosharraf and a host of others. Jinnah made no response to this prompt comeback from the well-prepared and understandably irreverent youngsters. He merely resorted to warning the students against a deep-rooted conspiracy against Pakistan by communists and fifth columnists. The students clearly did not agree with him.

Jinnah 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 Bengalis. For his part, the governor general thought the students were being led astray by the enemies of Pakistan.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

This experience proved to be a bitter pill and embarrassing experience for the language activists. The seeds of discontent had been sown. In spite of all their best efforts it was not possible immediately to rejuvenate the Movement due primarily to the mass popularity of Jinnah at the time.

In the days following Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah's address at Dhaka University, the atmosphere in the city and indeed in the province was one of deep disappointment. As the founder of Pakistan, in the view of many Bangalis, Jinnah ought to have been more receptive to the popular grievance where the language question was concerned. That Jinnah was not ready to give an inch baffled many. His combative meeting with student representatives after his Curzon Hall appearance did not go down well with people. The governor general was inclined to think that a strong handling of what he considered misguided young people was necessary. Among the students, a subtle rebellious streak began to manifest itself.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

24 March 1948 could have been the day when Muhammad Ali Jinnah would rise to the occasion and assure Bengalis 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.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

Jinnah spent the remaining part of his visit to East Pakistan in meetings with local Muslim League leaders and workers as well as government officials. Accompanied by the general officer commanding (GOC), Mohammad Ayub Khan (later president of Pakistan through a coup d'état ), he also visited troops of the fledgling Pakistan army.

Radio broadcast announces Urdu-only stance to the whole eastern province

On the eve of his return to Karachi on 28 March 1948, Jinnah spoke to the people of East Bengal over radio. Amazingly, he only repeated what he had earlier stated at the Race Course Maidan and the DU 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 for proffering some advice to Bengali students who, he suggested, should take what he called the right course to the future. However student rallies and protests erupted immediately after Jinnah's week long visit.

Muhammad 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 Bengalis set in immediately with his departure for Karachi.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

The fall of united Pakistan seems to many observers to have been the final act in a play that began in 1947... Many would say that [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto was responsible in the final act, but others would maintain that Jinnah may have played the key role in the first act.

Craig Baxter, author of "Bangladesh / Government and Politics in South Asia"

Kobita - Ora Amar Mukher Kotha

"Ora Amar Mukher Bhasha" by Abdul Latif

Jinnah "misinformed"

The insistence of the Muslim League and its leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah to impose Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan fuelled wider support throughout East Pakistan for the language movement. However, this insistence was a surprise. Traditionally, the Muslim League are known to favour devolution – more powers to the provinces, less to the centre.

The Lahore Resolution had envisaged two autonomous and independent states. Even when, in 1946, the Lahore Resolution was virtually amended to make the demand for a separate state for the Muslims, the question of provincial autonomy was not compromised. Yet the Muslim League leaders miserably failed to conceive in terms of linguistic autonomy.

Anisuzzaman, Professor Emeritus at Dhaka University

The fact that the west Pakistanis were ready to provoke the east Pakistanis – traditionally peaceful, hardworking people of the soil – demonstrates not only their arrogance but their lack of insight into the high esteem in which the Bengali Muslim held their language.

Such indications were abound. Let us cite an example. A few days after the Lahore Resolution was adopted, the Bangya Musalman Sahitya Samiti organized a discussion on the poetry of Iqbal. The Mayor of Calcutta, Abdur Rahman Siddiqui (later governor of East Pakistan) was invited to chair the session and Amiya Chackravarty, the poet, as the main speaker. Although the speakers were given the choice of using English or Urdu, then chair would not allow anyone to speak in Bengali. This led a section of the audience, with Habibullah Bahar and Shaukat Osman in the forefront, to make such hue and cry that the chair himself had to leave the premises. The very next day Amiya Chakravarty narrated the incident in his letter to Rabindranth Tagore and expressed both his surprise and admiration at the love of the young men for their mother language.

Anisuzzaman, Professor Emeritus at Dhaka University

It is also alleged that Jinnah was given one-sided briefing on the language issue and half-truth was presented to him. The picture presented to him depicted that the demand for Bengali as State language was nothing more than a conspiracy of disgruntled leaders of the Muslim League, the Hindus, the communists and anti-Pakistan elements.

Time did not allow Quaid to apply his political wisdom to explore and resolve the issue, as he did in 1937. During a session of the All India Muslim League at Lucknow, a proposal was tabled for making Urdu as official language of the Muslim League in 1937 but it was strongly opposed by the Bengali delegates. Quaid intervened and final version of resolution carried that wherever the Urdu language was the language of area, its unhampered use and development should be upheld, and where it is not the predominance language, adequate arrangements should be made for teaching it as an optional subject.

Mussarat Jabeen, Amir Ali Chandio & Zarina Qasim, Analysts

Nevertheless, after Jinnah’s visit the controversy temporarily cooled down but the issue remained unresolved.

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