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Remembering Dhirendranath Datta: Hero of the Bengali language movement, who was abducted and murdered by the Pakistan army

Dhirendranath Datta was the first East Pakistani to openly advocate for the inclusion of the Bengali language as a medium of instruction in the Pakistani Constituent Assembly.

The day was March 29, 1971. The Pakistani military junta had launched its infamous ‘Operation Searchlight’ to clamp down on Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Dhirendranath Datta, the 84-year-old freedom fighter, became the target of the onslaught against the Bengali community.

He was arrested along with his son, Dilipkumar Datta, from his residence in the Comilla district by the Pakistan army. The duo was taken to the Mainamati Cantonment where they were tortured to death. Their bodily remains were disposed of in such a manner that they were never found.

The name of Dhirendranath Datta, who died such a tragic death for his nation at the hands of the barbaric Pakistan military, still remains unknown to the Bengali community and the people of the Indian subcontinent at large.

India’s independence and contribution to the Bengali Language movement

Born on November 2 in 1886, Datta fought for India’s independence from British rule. He participated in agitation against the Partition of Bengal (1905), the Non-Cooperation movement (1920-1922) and the Quit India movement (1942-1945).

He was arrested several times for his anti-British stance. A lawyer by occupation, Dhirendranath Datta devoted his time and energy to social welfarism (including relief work during the devastating Bengal famine of 1943).

In 1937, he joined politics and became a member of the Bengal Legislative Council. Although he opposed Partition along religious lines, Dhirendranath Datta refused to flee East Pakistan after India’s Independence.

Dhirendranath Datta on the right, image via Archives/ The Daily Star

Instead, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan to frame the Constitution of Pakistan. The defining moment of his political career came on February 25, 1948, when he proposed the use of Bengali at par with Urdu and English in the Assembly.

Dhirendranath Datta thus became the first East Pakistani to openly advocate for the acknowledgement of the Bengali identity and inclusion of the Bengali language as a medium of instruction in the Pakistani Constituent Assembly.

However, his motion was turned down both by then CM of East Bengal, Khwaja Nazimuddin, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan. This resulted in widespread resentment among the students and intellectuals of East Pakistan and culminated in the Bengali Language movement.

Political analyst Syed Badrul Ahsan wrote in BDNews24, “…Not a single Muslim Bengali politician could call forth the courage to support Datta on that day. Not one Muslim politician rose in that chamber to support Datta, to speak for their land.”

“They remembered they were Muslims but conveniently forgot that they were Bengalis first and foremost. Their loyalty to the Muslim League proved to be deeper than their concern for their language and for their distinctive cultural heritage.”

Dhirendranath Datta in a group photo with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, image via BD News 24

A month later on March 21, 1948, Muhammad Ali Jinnah announced in Dhaka that only Urdu would be the official language of Pakistan. “Let me make it very clear to you, it is no doubt that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language,” he remarked.

“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 should be Urdu,” Jinnah had emphasised.

The historic speech of Dhirendranath Datta at the Pakistan Constituent Assembly

Some of the excerpts of the historic proposition of Dhirendranath Datta in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on February 25, 1948, are reproduced below:

I know, Sir, that Bangla is a provincial language, but so far our state is concerned, it is the language of the majority of the People of the state.

So although it is a provincial language, as it is a language of the majority of the people of the state and it stands on a different footing, therefore. Out of six crores and ninety lakhs of people inhabiting this State, 4 crores and 40 lakhs of people speak the Bangla language.

So, Sir, what should be the State language of the State? The State language of the state should be the language which is used by the majority of the people of the State, and for that, Sir, I consider that Bangla language is a lingua franca of our State.

A poor cultivator, who has got his son, Sir, as a student in the Dhaka University and who wants to send money to him, goes to a village Post Office and he asked for a money order form, finds that the money order form is printed in Urdu language. He can not send the money order but shall have to rush to a distant town and have this money order form translated for him and then the money order, Sir, that is necessary for his boy can be sent.

These are the difficulties experienced by the Common man of our State. The language of the state should be such which can be understood by all. The common man numbering four crores and forty million feels that the proceedings of this Assembly which is their mother of parliaments is being conducted in an alien language.

So, Sir, I know I am voicing the sentiments of the vast millions of our State and therefore, Bangla should not be treated as a Provincial Language. It should be treated as the language of the State. And therefore, Sir, I suggest that after the word ‘English’, the words ‘Bangla’ be inserted in Rule 29.

The struggle for Bengali and a forgotten legacy

Dhirendranath Datta played a pivotal role in representing the aspirations of the Bengalis living in East Pakistan. Following his historic address at the Constituent Assembly, the Urdu-loving Pakistanis attempted both Arabisation and even Romanisation of the Bengali language.

Faced with resistance, the Pakistani government outlawed public rallies and meetings. This resulted in the infamous 21 February 1952 incident during which several students of Dhaka University were gunned. The day is now recognised as “UNESCO International Mother Language Day” (IMLD).

In 1954, Datta expressed his discontentment against the high-handedness of the West Pakistani government by moving an adjournment motion against the imposition of Governor’s Rule in East Pakistan.

Family photo of Dhirendranath Datta, image via BD News24

He continued his political career under Ataur Rahman Khan and served as the Minister of Health and Social Welfare in the East Pakistani government between 1956 and 1958.

In 1960, he was handed an Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO), two years after martial law was declared in Pakistan. Dhirendranath Datta was placed under house arrest during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965.

Although he retired from active politics soon after, he continued to uphold the spirit of Bengali nationalism and maintained good relations with prominent Bengali leaders.

The dilapidated condition of the house of Dhirendranath Datta, image via Dhaka Tribune

On March 29, 1971, he along with his son Dilipkumar Datta was forcibly disappeared by the West Pakistani army and killed at the Mainamati Cantonment. He was 84 at the time of his death.

While he was not alive to witness East Pakistan’s Independence and the formation of present-day Bangladesh, his contribution to the Bengali language movement has been immense.

However, his legacy has been forgotten by the citizens of Bangladesh. Today, his ancestral house in Comilla lies in tatters. In 2010, it was declared that the residence of Dhirendranath Datta would be converted into a museum but no progress has been made so far on that front.

In his memory, granddaughter Aroma Datta said, “He (Dhirendranath Datta) was a secular person and peace-loving person. He used to read books of all religions. He advocated religious harmony. He always dreamt of living in a secular country. ”

Operation Searchlight and the atrocities committed by Pakistani Army

The story began in 1970. In the General elections held on December 7 that year, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League secured a huge majority (167 seats) in the provincial legislature in East Pakistan.

With constant interference in the affairs of East Pakistan by its Islamic counterpart, Rahman had begun demanding greater regional autonomy. This was just within 13 years of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent when Muslims sought a separate country of their own.

Although united by the common Faith, the resentment between West and East Pakistan towards each other continued to grow. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who won the most seats in West Pakistan in the 1970 elections, was opposed to the demands of Rahman.

He had threatened to boycott the Assembly and sought the dissolution of the provincial legislature in East Pakistan if PPP was not included in the government. Miffed over the denial of power and autonomy to East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called the civil disobedience movement, on March 7, 1971.

Bhutto feared civil war and President Yahya Khan, therefore, declared martial law and ordered the arrest of Rahman and other leaders. In order to contain the civil and political unrest, the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight on March 26, 1971.

Rahman, disillusioned by the high-handedness of West Pakistan, had already called for independence from West Pakistan. The Pakistani soldiers launched their attack on the Bengali population in Rajararbagh and Peelkhana area.

They put Mujibur Rahman behind bars and ambushed the Dhaka university, resulting in the death of 9 teachers and 200 students in Iqbal Hal. Similarly, the Pakistan army continued with its barbaric attacks on civilians in Old Dhaka, Tejgaon, Indira Road, Mirpur, Kalabagan and other places.

On the same night, several people in Chittagong were shot dead by army personnel. National newspapers, including, Daily Ittefaq, the Daily Sangbad were shut down and their offices were set ablaze, resulting in the death of several media personnel.

Mass graves were dug out and hastily bulldozed. An estimated 700 people were burnt to death in Dhaka. Similarly, they set fire to the houses of slum dwellers, fired bullets at those running away to save their lives, razed a Kali Mandir and also destroyed the Central Shaheed Minar.

It is believed that around 10,000-35,000 Bengalis were killed by the Pakistan army under Operation Searchlight while the death toll increased to over 3 lakhs in the months to follow. “Thanks to God that Pakistan could have been saved,” Bhutto had famously remarked.

The genocide against the Bengali population intensified. In the following months, around 4 lakh Bengali women were raped by the Pakistan army while a majority of the victims were Hindus.

The situation worsened, forcing neighbouring India to step in to prevent the further continuation of genocide. In 14 days, Pakistani forces under AK Niazi signed the Instrument of surrender and thus a new nation of Bangladesh was born.

While Bangladesh has tried and hanged several war criminals, Pakistan continues to dispute the 1971 genocide, far from being apologetic about the heinous crimes.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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Searched termsDhirendranath Datta
Dibakar Dutta
Dibakar Dutta
Centre-Right. Political analyst. Assistant Editor @Opindia. Reach me at [email protected]

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