Bengalees, who speak Bangla, constitute 54% of the population of Pakistan at its inception. But Urdu is widely favored by the establishment in the Western wing, even if only a tiny minority really speak it. The major native languages in the West are: Punjabi, Baluchi, Sindhi, and Pashtu (Pakhtun).
In 1947, a key resolution at a national education summit in Karachi advocated Urdu as the sole state language, and its exclusive use in the media and in schools. Opposition and protests immediately arose. Students from Dhaka rallied under the leadership of Abul Kashem, the secretary of Tamaddun Majlish, a Bengali Islamic cultural organisation. The meeting stipulated Bengali as an official language of Pakistan and as a medium of education in East Pakistan. However, the Pakistan Public Service Commission removed Bengali from the list of approved subjects, as well as from currency notes and stamps.
Leading Bengali scholars argued why only Urdu should not be the state language. The linguist Muhammad Shahidullah pointed out that Urdu was not the native language of any part of Pakistan, and said, “If we have to choose a second state language, we should consider Urdu.
In 1948 at the first session of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP), Dhirendranath Datta moves a resolution for recognizing Bengali as one of the state languages. The leading politicians — including representatives from East Bengal, almost all of whom are non-Bengalees — ignore Datta’s plea. This is viewed by the Bengalees as a sign of unfair dominance by the minority elites of the Western provinces, and a step towards eradication of Bengalee cultural identity, the latter being “tainted” by Hindu influences and therefore not in full compliance with the principles and ideals of Pakistan.
In the height of civic unrest, Governor-General of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah arrived in Dhaka on 19 March 1948. On 21 March, at a civic reception at Racecourse Ground, he claimed that the language issue was designed by a “fifth column” to divide Pakistani Muslims. Jinnah further declared that “Urdu, and only Urdu” embodied the spirit of Muslim nations and would remain as the state language. He called those “Enemies of Pakistan” who disagreed with his views. This sparks off immediate student protest.
* Martyr Dhirendranath Datta: My tribute to the forgotten Harbinger of the Bengali language movement (including Dhiren Datta’s historic speech in the Assembly on Februray 25, 1948) – M. Waheeduzzaman Manik