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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015

In Dhaka Language Movement: Lessons in Student Politics

Saturday 26 December 2015, by A K Biswas

Kanti Biswas took up teaching in Quaid-i-Azam Memorial College, Gopalganj in his native place and earned unreserved goodwill and approbation from all sections—students, guardians and the public alike. As a student of Dhaka University he was a member of the Action Committee which launched the historic language movement against the imposition of Urdu as the country’s sole official language on the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan. His celebrated friends—Barkat, Salam, Rafique and Jabbar—laid down their lives in police firing on February 21, 1952, which proved fatal for Pakistan leading ultimately to the birth of the new nation, Bangladesh. February 21 became a red letter day for the whole world, not to speak of the Bengali-speaking people alone. Declared by the UNESCO and recognised by the United Nations General Assembly, this day is the International Mother Tongue Day.

 A towering political personality, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, founder of the National Awami Party, offered Kanti, much against his sincere entreaties, a ticket to contest the elections to the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly from Gopalganj against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. High concentration of Namasudras in Gopalganj, according to the respectable Maulana, held bright prospects for his victory. But Kanti and Mujibur Rahman were not only residents of neighbouring villages in Faridpur, both were intimately known to each other also. Kanti immediately met and disclosed his intractable predicament to ‘Mujib bhai’. The tall man received Kanti with characteristic affection marked by a warm hug and wished him well in the upcoming hustings. Strangely, Field Marshal Ayub Khan appeared as Kanti’s saviour. The military dictator placed Pakistan under martial law at this juncture and countermanded all elections much to the sigh of the people and Kanti’s relief.

Kanti Biswas joined the communist movement while teaching in college. One day, in 1960, a friendly police officer tipped him of the government’s intention to arrest him. To evade arrest he fled to West Bengal and soon began his life there as a school teacher in Nahata High School, North 24-Parganas district.

Madrasa education was under the umbrella of school education with Kanti Biswas. He was in favour of modernising and remodelling the curriculum and courses of Madrasa education. But his party and colleagues firmly opposed the idea. One of his influential ministerial colleagues publicly declared: “Madrasas have become breeding grounds of divisive forces!” This led to sullen resentment in the Muslims. Biswas argued that Muslims were educationally backward for social and historical reasons and their handicaps deserved to be removed urgently by educational empowerment. He cited instances from the life of celebrated educationist and social reformer, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, who, though a Sanskrit scholar, never opened Tols and Pathshalas to promote Sanskrit learning, which had little bearing on material well-being. Biswas advocated in several public meetings in Muslim-dominated areas that opportunities for Muslim students, both boys and girls, should be created by establishing more schools, colleges with hostels in their areas to facilitate access to modern and professional education coupled with technological knowledge. He received overwhelming support of the Muslim public as well as representatives. In the teeth of his opposition, the Madrasa education department was separated from the school education department and attached to the Home Department in the 1990s much against his wishes. Biswas counted as his own failure to carry the Party and Cabinet with him.

Kanti Biswas left his imprint at the national level by his meritorious performance. The Central Advisory Board of Education on Autonomy of Higher Educational Institutions in India was constituted with Kanti Biswas as its Chairman in September 2004. The committee submitted its report to the Minister, HRD, Arjun Singh, in June 2005. Though a School Education Minister, his appointment to head an office of the Union Government as such speaks volumes about Kanti Biswas’ standing.

In 1999, the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS or NUJS), an autonomous law university, was established. Kanti Biswas had proposed that the university be named as the Dr B.R. Ambedkar Law University to commemorate the great leader’s contribution in drafting the Constitution of India and eradicating untouchability, besides his indefatigable struggles for social justice. His proposal was not accepted; rather one of its buildings has been named after Dr Ambedkar. He had pointed out that Jogendranath Mandal, Mukunda Behari Mallick, Dwarikanath Barui, Nagendranath Roy and Kshetranath Singh—all untouchable legislators—worked to elect Dr Ambedkar from East Bengal for the Constituent Assembly when the Maharashtra Congress had closed all doors on his face. Dr Ambedkar, in any case, does not command any admiration in the mainstream academic discourses in West Bengal. The bhadralok are too narcissistic.

The autobiographer has erred by stating that in a report in 1913 or before that the Namasudras were returned as Chandals. He further noted that they were recorded as Chandals (Nama-sudras) in 1921. (p. 88) Finally in 1931, they were recorded as Namasudra. Following the census operation in 1911, the Government of Bengal notified, inter alia, that “.......... the Chandals have been entered (in census report) as Namasudras and the Chasi Kaibarttas as Mahishyas. The case of Namasudras is curious and instructive. A generation ago they were content to call themselves Chandals. Advancing with wealth, they adopted the title of Namasudra and at the census of 1901 they were entered as Namasudra (Chandal). In 1911 Chandal was dropped but their further prayer to be called Namasudra Brahman was disallowed.”13 There is a widespread misconception that only low castes had approached the British authorities for change of caste name. Baidyas and Kayasthas from Bengal and Babhans from Bihar, occupying high social standing, submitted memoranda at various points of time till 1931 to the colonial authorities urging change of their caste name. In the 1911 census, the sheer weight of the petitions submitted for this purpose was tad one-and-a-half maunds!14 Baidyas had prayed to be returned as Brahmans; Kayasthas as Kshatriyas; and Babhans as Kshatriya Brahmans or Bhumihar Brahmans. Save and except Namasudras and Mahishyas, representations of all others were rejected.

The silence of Kanti Biswas over the abolition of English teaching from primary school may not evade the reader’s notice. The LF Government’s landmark policy-decision invited bitter criticism from all corners. The education the boys and girls received made them almost unemployable, ultimately turning them into angry street agitators, who swelled the political stable to be used by political parties for destructive activities occasionally. Media reports at various points of time suggested that special trains were arranged for exodus of students, both boys and girls alike, for seeking admission elsewhere outside West Bengal. One effect of the LF’s education policy can be traced in the State’s contribution to higher civil services (for example, IAS, IPS, IFS etc.). The UPSC reports of 2010-11 and 2011-12 show that no alumni of the Calcutta University, the oldest in the subcontinent, has qualified for higher civil services whereas five of the Ranchi University alumni did it in 2010-11. I am aware of weighty counter-arguments that the Bengalis are more into science, technology, medicine, management etc. Those are mostly English-educated urbane youth from affluent families. What about the poor and deprived sections steeped in the dark abyss of rural West Bengal? With determination to serve their motherland young boys and girls, with all those qualifications, from all over India, however, have, since a few years, started trooping into the nation’s higher civil services. Their success rate is admirably high. Tracing Bengalis out of the UPSC list of successful candidates, sadly, seems like searching the needle in a haystack.

Finally, Kanti was the Minister of Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation for five years (1996-2001). But he has refrained from recording the officially sponsored genocide in Marichjhapi. A regimented party imposes Stalinist discipline which might have sapped his uprightness and courage to record the bloody carnage committed on the poor and helpless people, all underdogs. Readers will view this as another glaring lapse.

 The forcible eviction of Bengali refugees and the subsequent deaths due to police firing and “unknown number due to starvation and disease” in 1979 are refereed to as Marichjhapi massacre on an island of Sundarbans, West Bengal.15 Nobody knows exactly the number of victims of police brutalities under the cover of darkness. The refugees provided the instant ladder for political power. After they were rehabilitated in Dandakaranya [Madhya Pradesh and Orissa] by the Union Government, the Left party leaders and cadres kept hopes burning in their hearts, saying if and when they came to power, those settled in the rocky, inhospitable Dandakaranya would be brought back for resettlement in West Bengal.

It can rarely be denied that initially careful caste profiling was done for throwing refugees out of West Bengal. Only the low castes—overwhelmingly Namasudras—were shipped out of West Bengal. When the refugees from Dandakaranya arrived in West Bengal, they were cold-shouldered by the LF Government. Faced with inhuman rejection, they moved to an unmanned island, Marichjhapi, in the Sundarbans and self-helped themselves for settlement. But the Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, raised the bogey of a foreign power engaged in conspiracy with the refugees against the Left Government. So the government launched an offensive on January 31, 1979 to evict them forcefully deploying the police and cadres. The police action was prompted by the alibi that the settlees of Marichjhapi had attacked a police camp with traditional weapons. After 15 days the Calcutta High Court ruled that “the supply of drinking water, essential food items and medicines as well as the passage of doctors must be allowed to Marichjhapi”.16 Imagine, traditional weapons drove the State Police to resort to firing on settlers!

Media reports sometimes compared the Marich-jhapi massacre with the Jallianwala Bagh carnage which sounds a distant ripple in comparison to what happened in Marichjhapi under a democrati-cally elected government. The authors of the pogrom and authorities of the State did not have the moral courage or probity in public life to hold a formal inquiry into the gruesome tragedy. The Secretary of State had instituted the Hunter Commission to investigate into the Jalliawanwala Bagh massacre for fixing the onus of the cruelties.17

The allegation of a foreign power engaged in a conspiracy to topple the LF Government was a serious issue to merit a high level independent probe. It was nonchalantly ignored. Inaction of the government proves that the allegation of conspiracy by a foreign power was merely concocted and motivated for maligning the refugees. It was basically a fight of the bhadralok wielding official powers against the chhotalok. The LF and its government were accountable for the genocide. And justice yet eludes the victims who were mostly Namasudras. Are Bengalis nonetheless free from caste bias?

The volume is useful to those interested in understanding the Bengali society through the prism of non-conventional writers. This should help disabuse the impression created by the sono-rous and motivated propaganda that Bengali society does not suffer from the virus of caste. Caste is very much a living evil there. Those living in the paradise of the privileged do not see caste in play. The worldview of the underprivileged is vastly different and deeply dark. More and more underprivileged should take up the pen to record their experiences of life. They have to tell whether caste has ceased to survive in the Bengali society. Those propagating to the contrary can no longer be taken without serious reservation.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._R._Narayanan

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Stalin, K., India Untouched, a documentary on caste discrimination.

5. Biswas A.K., Namasudras of Bengal, Blumoon Books, Delhi, 2000, p.

6. Biswas, A.K., Anweshan, Kolkata, 1996, pp. 393-346.

7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhatpara

8. Biswas, A.K., Merit: a Curse for Dalits? Elucidation of Discrimination, Mainstream weekly, New Delhi, vol. L, No 17, April 14, 2012.

9. The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 16, 2006.

10. Biswas, A.K., West Bengal Election 2006—A Review of Results and Analysis of Social Implications and Political Repercussions, Journal of Social and Economic Studies, vol. XVIII, January-June 2006, no. 1, A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna (India), pp. 1-27.

11. Biswas, A.K., West Bengal Election 2006. 

12. Ibid.

13. Biswas, Sipra, Anweshan (Bengali) Adal Badal Patrika, Calcutta, 1996, p. 294

14. Ibid., 246

15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marichjhapi_incident

16. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jallianwala_Bagh_massacre

17. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jallianwala_Bagh_massacre

A retired IAS officer, Dr A.K. Biswas is a former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted at e-mail: biswasatulk@gmail.com