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Jinnah, Culture and Language-II

When it was decided that Bengali was not Muslim enough and so did not qualify to become a state language in Pakistan

Jinnah, Culture and Language-II
Movement for the Bengali language.

Soon after the independence, it had to be decided which language, or languages would the new Muslim nation speak, officially and colloquially.

Several people in East Bengal too, despite being Bengalis themselves, supported the cause of Urdu. For example, Mr Badruddin Ahmad from Dacca wrote to Jinnah a few days before his tour of East Bengal and narrated “East Pakistan’s Immediate Danger.” In his detailed enumeration, Ahmad warned against the “cultural conquest of the Muslims by the Hindus…” in which attachment to the Bengali language was one central feature.

Lamenting the decline of Persian and with it the Muslim culture and influence, Ahmad charged that as a result, “The hapless Muslims thus left adrift began to swim with the current, and took to the Bengali of the Hindus, a language free from all Islamic influence…The continued influence of such a literature could not fail to develop an inferiority complex in the Muslims, and for the non-proselytising nature of the Hindu religion a large number of them would perhaps have gone back to fold of Hinduism.”

To the charge that imposition of Urdu might lead to the cultural degradation of Bengali, Ahmad had a very clear answer: “…for Muslims there can be but one kind of culture and that is the Islamic culture, and, from the Islamic point of view, it does not matter in the least, if the Bengali or any other culture is destroyed. They cannot, like all other Muslims, go on shouting the national slogan Islam Zindabad and at the same time unlike them hug to their bosoms a culture begotten of heathen literature.”

Ahmad, who had been in government service, noted that he had been aware of such ‘un-Islamic’ tendencies of the Muslims of Bengal and that the time had come to put an end to such practices with the strong hand. He continued: “…my official tours took me into the interior of the country, which enabled me to see how 99 per cent of the Muslims of Bengal thought and lived. I was surprised and rather shocked to notice that the Muslims of my province had nothing in common with our co-religionists of those independent Muslim countries and very little with those of northern and western India. It looked as if they were an entirely different people though passing by the name of Muslims.”

Read also: Jinnah, culture and language

He realised that the reason for this state of the Bengali Muslims “lay in the fact that they did not know any Islamic language, and received their primary and middle education through the medium of Bengali and higher through that of English, both non-Islamic languages.” Hence the solution was simple and straightforward: “…unless the system of education prevailing in the province is without any further delay thoroughly overhauled, so as to make the learning of Urdu compulsory,” a dire future was awaiting Pakistan. “Any opposition from any quarter should be suppressed with a strong hand and without the least hesitation,” Ahmad exhorted Jinnah in his long missive.

To put it simply, Bengali was Hinduised and the Bengali Muslim under its influence had become a Muslim only in name, and therefore needed to be ‘educated’ in a ‘Muslim language’ in order to become part of a ‘Muslim culture.’

How Urdu became Muslim and Hindi became Hindu can not be dealt with in this work, so it is suffice to mention that by the early 20th century the ‘protection’ of Urdu became synonymous with the protection of Muslim rights.

Lawyers and religious scholars in East Bengal were also at the forefront of advocating Urdu as the sole state language. A memorandum by the Chittagong Bar Association to Jinnah during his visit categorically stated: “We reiterate that we fully agree with the policy adopted by the Govt. of Pakistan in the matter of State language…”

Similarly, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam in Chittagong stressed the importance of Urdu in their address of welcome for Jinnah in their city. The Jamiat stated: “We strongly support your recent declaration of the State language of Pakistan which you made at Dacca.” They further noted that “The Jami’yyat considers it its duty to make this fact clear to Quaid-e-Azam that the overwhelming majority of East Pakistan is in favour of Urdu,” and that they possessed innumerable testimonials to support their assertion.

They also hastened to add that they “highly appreciate your statements which you make now and then that the Pakistan Government will be based on Qur’anic principles. It is a heart-felt desire that sooner the Government started on Qur’anic principles the better.” Hence, the learned Maulanas were staunch in their support of Urdu and eagerly awaiting the introduction of the sharia and ‘Islami Nizam’ as their resolution prayed.

At the other extreme, the Joint State Language Committee was adamant in its preservation of Bengali at the national level. Their leaders knew that Bengali was being labelled as Hinduised, and they called Muslims in name only. Therefore, when they presented their memorandum to Jinnah on March 24, 1948, they argued that they too were Muslims like the vast majority of Pakistanis, and that Bengali could also be a language of Muslims.



At the outset, the memo clarified that the committee was only composed of “Muslim young men/ladies representing Dacca University and other institutions,” so that the charge of being Hindu-led could not be labelled against them.

They then narrated the fact that Bengali was spoken by the majority of Pakistan’s population, that several modern states — like Belgium, Canada, and Switzerland — had more than one official languages, and that the Bengali language was rich enough to be a state language. However, the emphasis was on the ‘Muslim’ nature of the language, so as to assuage the concerns of their compatriots who saw only Hinduism in the tongue.

The committee argued that “the Muslim poets and authors like Alwal, Nazrul Islam, Kaikobad, Syed Emdad Ali, Wajed Ali, Jasimuddin and host of others have enriched the language by their contribution.” They also emphasised that “this language had been developed by Sultan Hossain Shah of Bengal as a court language against Sanskrit and fifty per cent of its vocabulary comes from Persian and Arabic languages.” They even pleaded that their leaders have all been stalwarts of the Muslim League and government officials including ‘Moulana Akram Khan, Hon’ble Nurul Amin, Hon’ble Habibullah Bahar and other Bengali speaking ministers, and officials like Mr. Zakir Hossain, I.G.P., Mr. Ismail, D.I.G., and other high Govt. officials…” so as to counter the propaganda against them.

Hence they prayed: “That in a completely democratic country every citizen has certain fundamental rights and the right to agitation and movement constitutionally, and this movement for the Bengali language will be continued till our right is vindicated.” These supplications and arguments, however, fell on deaf ears — Bengali was not Muslim enough and so did not qualify to become a state language in Pakistan.

How Urdu became Muslim and Hindi became Hindu can not be dealt with in this work, so it is suffice to mention that by the early twentieth century the ‘protection’ of Urdu became synonymous with the protection of Muslim rights. Such was the closeness of this association that as Bayly notes, ten out of the thirteen patrons of the Muslim League in Allahabad in 1912 were sons of the members of the Urdu defence associations.

Hence, together with the fact that the Muslim League was most popular in the Muslim minority provinces — obviously why and how would a Muslim majority province be scared of the Hindus — and the fact that in the largest among them, the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Urdu was the mother tongue of most Muslims, protection of Urdu became almost the battle cry for Pakistan. The depth of thinking about the proposed Pakistan in the UP has recently been detailed by Dr Dhulipala and it is clear that even in this ‘New Medina’ Urdu played a central part.

Therefore, by the time of the creation of Pakistan, the ‘elision of Urdu-Muslim-Pakistan was complete,’ in the words of Ayres, and was to manifest itself in the discussion over Pakistan’s culture and identity after its creation.

While Urdu was supposed to be ‘protected’ from the ‘threat’ of Hindu — Hindi in India — one would have thought that it would not feel the need of the same heightened security and protection in Muslim Pakistan; after all, Urdu was a Muslim language and Pakistan being nearly 80 per cent Muslim was now its natural homeland. However, even though the armed convoy of Urdu reached Pakistan safely during the carnage of the summer of 1947, the Muslim homeland seemed a bit alien.

Despite the large number of migrations from the UP and Bihar — where Urdu was the mother tongue — the percentage of people who spoke Urdu as a first language stood at an abysmal 3.3 per cent in the first census of Pakistan in 1951. Bengali led the way as the mother tongue of about 54.6 per cent of the total population, followed by Punjabi at 28.4 per cent, Pashto at 6.6 per cent, and Sindhi at 5.3 per cent. Even when the figure for Urdu as an additional language were added in west Pakistan the percentage only just managed double digits at 14.7 per cent. Such indices made Urdu more akin to English in Pakistan, rather than as the lingua franca of the country, spoken and understood by all.

Since Urdu still required ‘protection’ in Muslim majority Pakistan, steps had to be taken to ensure that it became the lingua franca of the country, or else its high protection costs would simply eat into the military’s budget which had to contend with the more dangerous Hindu-Hindi duo across the Radcliffe line. Hence, no other language could be tolerated to question let alone challenge the supreme position of Urdu in Pakistan, not even the majority of the people of the country. After all, UP Muslims were used to protecting Urdu in front of a Hindu majority, and so they were not willing to let a majority [this time in Pakistan and mostly Muslim] thwart their efforts.

The language debate continued for years and several attempts were made to make Bengali more ‘Islamic’. Among the suggested though unimplemented ideas were attempts to introduce the Persian script to Bengali and the creation of a Language Committee to strip Bengali of its ‘Hindu’ i.e., Sanskrit words and connotations. Even as late as the late 1950s, attempts were made to use the Roman script for Bengali so that its ‘Hindu’ character could be removed. People even, and especially a civil servant from East Bengal in this case, suggested a new language — Pakistani — out of the mixture of Urdu and Persian and Arabised Bengali, to serve the needs of the country.

In the end, Bengali was conceded equal status with Urdu in the first constitution of Pakistan, however, begrudgingly. But this uneasy marriage was not to last long. The initial mistrust and animosity and especially the legacy of the February 21, 1952 killings in Dacca, sowed seeds for a tree which was to bear fruit within a lifetime.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.


  • This article makes it clear that the founding principle of Pakistan was hatred of Hindus. Jinnah came to power using this hatred and then talked of secularism! Really crazy.

  • interesting article, it clear why we lost Bangladesh and we blame India for it.

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