Bangla spelt in Arabic

Arabization of Bangla

Last updated: 5 October 2017 From the section 1952 Bhasha Andolon

On 27 December 1948, Education Minister Fazlur Rahman stated in an All Pakistan Education Conference of teachers that the old and traditional scripts or writing systems - which included Bangla - should be changed in favour of Arabic or Urdu script "for the sake of Islam".

The board is of the opinion that in the interest of national unity and solidarity and the rapid advancement of general education in Pakistan, it is necessary to have all the regional languages of Pakistan written in the same script; the Arabic script was most useful for this purpose…

Fazlur Rahman, Central Minister for Education, on why it's important to introduce Arabic script

He elaborated on this matter at the education conference held in Peshawar on 7 February 1949. As a result, the Central Pakistan Education Advisory Board strongly recommended the Arabic script as the only script for all Pakistani languages. And since Arabic was already the common script of the different languages of West Pakistan such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi and Pashtu, the proposed change would only affect one language - Bangla.

Not only Bengali literature, even the Bengali alphabet is full of idolatry. Each Bengali letter is associated with this or that god or goddess of Hindu pantheon...Pakistan and Devanagari script cannot co-exist... To ensure a bright and great future for the Bengali language it must be linked with the Holy Qur'an...Hence the necessity and importance of Arabic script.

Fazlur Rahman criticises Bangla language for its 'idolatry'

None of the West Pakistan provinces Punjab, former NWFP and Balochistan and even Sindh supported the Bengalis' just demand because all were beneficiaries through Urdu.

Dawn (Pakistan)

Predictably, this move raised howls of protest in Bengali intellectual circles and prompted sharp reaction among the students. Once again the students of Dhaka University reacted promptly sending a protest memorandum to the education advisory board.

The attempt of introducing Arabic script for the Bengali language, which has a rich heritage and tradition, is an attack on our language, literature and culture. This attempt has created a fear of new colonial design and of slavery in the minds of Bengalis.

The protest memorandum of DU students to the Education Advisory Board

Efforts were made to gain Dr Shahidullah's support for the proposal. In the event, the Bengali scholar refused to be associated in any way with the move.

East Bengal Language Committee recommends writing Bengali in Arabic script but in 20 years time

Instead of taking steps to calm the anger, the Pakistani government moved to edit the style and diction of the Bengali language. The Urdu agenda that started in 1947 became firm in 1949.

On 9 March 1949 the East Bengal government, in keeping with the spirit of the central government, set up the 'East Bengal Bhasha (Language) Committee' to prepare a report on the language problem. The Committee was presided by Maulana Muhahammad Akram Khan and contained 16 members including Dr. Muhammed Shahidullah, Habibullah Bahar, Dr. Muajjam Hosan, and Abul Kalam Shamsuddin. The Committee completed its Final Report on 6 December 1950 and submitted it to the East Bangla Education Ministry. However, the Federal Government didn't publish the report until 1958, eight years later.

The theme of forming Bhasa Committee was to collect a recommendation in favour of scheme ‘Bengali should be written in Arabic script’. As the scheme was not successful, the Education Ministry didn’t pay any interest to the other recommendations. Moreover, they held up the report for being published and continued the scheme.

This report of East Bangla Bhasa Committee came into light in 1958 in the regime of Ayub Khan which was another step of the then autocratic Government to suppress the cultural independence of East Bengal.

Bangladesh News website

The report suggested that Bengali 'may be' written in Arabic script, as a potential solution to the language conflict, but the process should be delayed for 20 years. In addition, it recommended that the "Sanskritization of the language be avoided", removal of Sanskrit principles from Bangla grammar, and the introduction of Urdu as a second language in the secondary and higher stage of education to make the linguistic, social, politicial and cultural "bonds" between the two wings of Pakistan "closer and deeper". The Committee also suggested drastic modifications of the Bengali writing system and issued a model chart as a guide.

The key findings of the East Bengal Bhasha Committee were:

  1. The Sanskritisation of the language be avoided as far as possible by the use of simple phraseology and easy construction in vogue in the speech of East Bengal.
  2. The expressions and sentiments of Muslim writers should strictly conform to the Islamic ideology.
  3. All the Sanskritic principles having no direct and important role to play in the principles of Bengali grammar be omitted and only genuine Bengali principles existing in the language and envisaged in this report be found out and established as the principles of Bengali grammar.
  4. The unintelligible technical terms of Sanskrit grammar imported to Bengali grammar which made the confusion worse, be substituted by the simple nontechnical terms of the Bengali language.
  5. Urdu be studied as a second language in the secondary and higher stages of our education in order that we may make the linguistic, social, political and cultural bonds between the two wings of Pakistan closer and deeper.

Subsequently, Pakistan's government sought to replace the Bengali writings system with Arabic writing, and later with Roman script, but these efforts to refashion the Bangla language were met by popular resistance and were unsuccessful.

What the report wanted to say by "Sanskritization of the language be avoided" was to exclude the Sanskrit words from Bengali and replace them by Urdu, Arabic or Persian words to “conform to the Islamic ideology”. But Bengali like other Indo-Aryan languages including Urdu had assimilated large numbers of Sanskrit or old Indo-Aryan words in the course of its thousands years of evolution and it would be impossible now to undo this historical process.

The recommendations of the Committee were highly tendentious and at once politically motivated, in that they were meant to "create" a new-fangled Bengali different from that of West Bengal. Needless to add, the report was jettisoned by the linguistic scholars and Bengali intelligentsia.

A plethara of political, ideological, constitutional, and economic problems had been progressively burgeoning since Pakistan emerged. The two wings of Pakistan were virtually plagued with the quoted controversies. As the year 1951 wore on, the problems multiplied further.

Rafiqul Islam's contribution in "Language and Civilization Change in South Asia" (1978)

Arabic education centers funded

Despite the protest, from April 1950, the Central Education Office of the Pakistan government started 20 adult education centers in various districts of East Bengal with the intention of teaching primary Bengali through Arabic script and bringing about linguistic reform. Each centre contained 25-35 students who were admitted for 6 months. Countless centres were also opened by general public to 'try out' the Arabic script. A huge sum of money was spent on such an experiment. The Central Government sanctioned Rs. 35,000 for the education of adults in 1949 and next year the amount was increased to Rs. 67,764. The whole amount was spent in East Bengal to introduce the project of introducing Arabic script for the Bengali language. A list of Bengali reference books was prepared which were to be printed in Arabic script at the expense of Central Government, and circulated at free of cost. The Government also declared that awards would be given to those authors who wrote Bengali books in Arabic script.

Once again, leading exponents of Bangla such as Dr. Shahidullah and Dhirendranath Datta questioned the logic behind adopting Arabic script for writing Bengali and openly opposed it. The students of the Bengali Department of Dhaka University, among others, declared that they would not allow the script of their language to be changed as they would alienate them from cultural heritage. Apprehensions of such change were also expressed in the Legislative Assembly as they had been even earlier.

The question of the state language for which I, as President of the East Bengal Arabic Association hold a definite view well-known to the public should not be mixed up with the question of the script of regional languages. When Persian was the state language, Bengali was written with the Bengali script. It was so during the British period when English became the state language of the country.

The script question should be considered from the point of view of its scientific accuracy, its suitability for short hand, type writing, printing and rapid writing, and also the sentiment of the people in general who are expected to use it... I myself have written against the Arabic (Urdu) script for the Bengali language in my booklet Āmāder Samasyā (our problems)... one is bound to accept the logical conclusion that is a highly controversial matter. But the removal of illiteracy is an essential thing and, at the same time, a universally accepted primary duty of the government. For running 21 adult education centres for teaching Bengali in Arabic script the Central Government had to spend Rs. 130500/- in two years and a half. This huge amount if used for teaching Bengali in the Bengali script, could have surely shown hundred times better result.

Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, in his article 'Urdu Script for Bengali' published in the Pakistan Observer on 5 February 1952

I represent not only Hindus but also the Musalmans. I can tell you that the ordinary people will not understand the language (i.e. Arabic) that is sought to be introduced in Eastern Bengal. That policy shall have to be changed. I do not know whether the Government is aware of this fact that amongst the large sections of the people and especially among younger generation there is a demand made in a certain conference that the Bengali language should be made one of the State languages of Pakistan.

Dhirendranath Datta pointed out in the CAP (Constituent Assembly of Pakistan) on 27 March 1951

Efforts to promote Arabic remained unabated throughout the 1950s. The Islamic cultural conferences held in Dhaka in 1952 and 1956 and the East Pakistan literary conference held in Chittagong in 1958 repeatedly exhorted that it was the duty of writers in East Pakistan to adhere to Islamic culture and principles, emphasize the Muslim tradition, strengthen the ideology of Pakistan, and always be on guard against and frustrate the designs of those who aim to unite the two Bengals.

Sensing public hostility to the matter of Arabic, the plan was eventually scrapped.

It seems that Fazlur Rahman's love for using Arabic script for writing Bengali knew no bounds. His name lives on infamy for his anti-Bengali stance. He introduced the same issue once again on the CAP floor on 27 March 1951. Among others, Dhirendranath Datta and Mohammad Habibullah Bahar from East Bengal promptly criticized the nefarious design of transforming the people of East Bengal into an inferior class of illiterate citizens of Pakistan by introducing an alien script for writing Bengali. Dhirendranath Datta, an ardent defender of Bengali language, strongly demanded the outright rejection of the discriminatory decision for introducing Arabic script in lieu of Bengali alphabets. He also urged the Government of Pakistan for immediately adopting Bengali as one of the State languages.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

The attempt of introducing Arabic script for the Bengali language, which has a rich heritage and tradition, is an attack on our language, literature and culture. This attempt has created a fear of new colonial design and slavery in the minds of Bengalis.

Rafiqul Islam's contribution in "Language and Civilization Change in South Asia" (1978)

Dr. Shahidullah declares "Muslim + Hindus = Bengalis" in first literary conference

Few days after Fazlur Rahman had expressed his views, a 'Purbo Pakistan Shahitto Shommelon' (East Pakistan Literary Conference), the first of its kind to be organised since the setting up of the Pakistan state, was held in Dhaka over two days on 31 December 1948 and 1 January 1949. The conference was the initiative of Habibullah Bahar, then the Health Minister of the East Pakistan government, and presided over by Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah.

In his presidential speech at the concluding session of the Conference, Dr. Shahidullah made it clear that Bangla being a rich language qualified as the medium of instruction in East Bengal. In his view, Bangla was the language of the people of both East and West Bengal and though the people of the two parts of Bengal might be classified into Hindus and Muslims by religious denomination, they were bound by a common cultural heritage.

It is reality that we are Hindus and Muslims, but the greater reality is that we are Bengalis... Mother nature has put such indelible mark on our appearance and language that no camouflage of Hindu and Muslim external markings could hide this basic reality. We need as free citizens of post-independent East Pakistan a properly developed literature covering every branch of it. Such a literature will be invariably in the mother-tongue Bengali. No nation can thrive on literature in the world written in a foreign tongue.

Famous declaration by Bengali Muslim scholar Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah in the first Bengali literary conference of East Bengal held at Dhaka on 1 Jan 1949

Dr. Shahidulllah reacted sharply against Khwaja Nazimuddin's resolution by emphasising the distinct ethnic and cultural entities of the Bengali-speaking people of Pakistan. From him, these qualities were 'transcending' and 'stamped' by nature 'that it is no longer possible to conceal it'. But the rulers of Pakistan did not accept the reality that Pakistan was a multilingual and multi-national state.

[Dr.] Shahidullah's statement was one of the earliest expressions of what would in time come to be regarded as Bangalee nationalism in Pakistan.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

This declaration by a very respected university man [i.e. Dr. Shahidullah], who was clearly above suspicion as neither a communist nor a foreign agent, marked the beginning of the linguistic and cultural identity of Bengalis, whatever their religious affinity.

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

These bold and forthright remarks of the venerable Professor did not go down well with the ruling circles as well as the proponents of Urdu in Pakistan. The Dainik Azad newspaper bitterly criticised it in its editorial on 1 January 1949.

Along with the cultural observation, (in his address) Dr. Shahidullah also proposed the establishment of a language academy. Ultimately, Bangla Academy was established on 3 December 1955 at Burdwan House - ironically, once the official residence of Chief Minister of East Bengal, Khwaja Nazimuddin, known for his anti-Bangla stance.