Language Movement veteran Professor Monowara Islam speaks to Shuprova Tasneem about her experiences during those unforgettable few days in February, 1952
There aren’t too many people left today who can claim to have not only witnessed the Language Movement of 1952 but to have actively participated in it as well. At first glance, Professor Monowara Islam does not seem to be old enough to have done both.
“I started my Intermediate studies at Eden College in 1950,” she shares, “and in 1952, I had just started my BA in the same college. Before that, I finished my matriculation exams in Madaripur, before moving to Dhaka.”
Professor Islam then went on to earn an MA from Dhaka University, followed by a Bachelors and then a Masters of Education. She spent her life in education, and as Head Teacher at Azimpur Girls’ High School, she taught a number of illustrious students, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, BUET’s first female Vice-Chancellor Khaleda Ekram and former Rotary Governor Safina Ahmed.
While she is well-known for her lifelong commitment to education as well as social work — she served as the President of the Bangladesh Federation of University Women and personally supervised the degrees of many talented, underprivileged young women — her involvement in the 1952 Language Movement has not received as much attention.
‘We were too headstrong to care about breaking the rules’
A smiling, soft-spoken lady, Professor Islam struggles to speak for too long at a stretch — yet every time the Language Movement was mentioned, her eyes shone brighter and she threw up both hands and gestured with great energy to get her point across.
“It was an incredible time, and I don’t know how I can ever explain what it was like,” she says. “We were young but we weren’t a bit scared. Of course at the time, we did not really understand what the consequences might be.
We all wanted to claim our rights, but no one thought that it would lead to this level of violence.”
In February 1952, the student-led movement against Pakistan and their choice of Urdu as the official language was in full swing on Dhaka University (DU) campus, and every day, protest meetings and processions were being arranged. In what was then a male-dominated movement, Monowara Islam was part of the small number of women who persistently turned up at every event.
“The authorities at Eden College were very adamant that we should stay out of trouble. Our Hostel Super used to warn me specifically, because my father was in a government job, and she always reminded me that my actions could hurt his position. But I was too headstrong to care about all that! So when we weren’t being watched, we would climb over the back wall of the college and run to the University campus to take part in the protests,”she remembers.
In the morning of February 21, the hostel peon reported that there was trouble on the streets. A little while later, he confirmed the news — the police had opened fire and people had died, and many more were injured.
A heinous attack on a peaceful protest
“As soon as we heard the news, my friends and I were restless to go outside, but the super had already given the orders to lock the doors so no one could get in or out. We waited and then sneaked out again by climbing over the back wall, and we went straight to Dhaka Medical Hospital.”
When Professor Islam reached the hospital, she finally realised the gravity of the situation, and how completely unjustified the Pakistani response had been.
“We had been organizing peaceful protests throughout,” she says, “but at the hospital I only saw young men, even school children, who had been injured by tear gas. In a corner, the doctor and nurses were busy with one student, and they kept telling people to stay away. I caught sight of a bloodstained shirt. It was much later that we found out that they were trying to save the 25 year old martyr Abul Barkat.”
The following days were marked with widespread arrests of anyone connected to the Language Movement, especially students. On February 23, Monowara Islam and her friends again slipped out of Eden College.
“We knew that a lot of Dhaka University students had been arrested. So we saved up the money that was meant to be for our morning breakfast and bought boiled eggs, bread, butter and jam, and took the food to Dhaka Central Jail. We had already been raising money from before to fund the movement, often going door to door to ask for donations. Some people would turn us away, and some would give two to four ana.”
However, public sentiment turned completely after the massacre of February 21. According to Professor Islam, “people really rallied together after it happened. Imagine how quickly the original Shaheed Minar was erected — by February 23! I remember I saw an elderly lady slip a gold bangle off her wrist and give it to the students to erect the monument for the boys who died. Everyone gave whatever they could.”
But the Pakistani police force destroyed the monument within a day. It was a horrible, shameful act.”
The little acts that made up a turning point in our history
The movement on the streets may have lost traction after the killings of students on February 21 and the imposition of a curfew, but Monowara Islam and her compatriots continued to aid the movement for as long as possible, in any way they could.
“About four or five days after the killings, the girls at the hostel were on the field around late afternoon some of us were playing badminton when we suddenly saw one of the young men from Dhaka University calling us from outside the gate. The gate was locked, but he handed us a packet that had a portion of a mic in it.”
“It was because at the time, all the halls were being raided by the Pakistani police,” she explains, “and they were arresting anyone who held anything suspicious. The mic would have been gotten them all in a lot of trouble.”
The girls took the packet and buried it in a pile of leaves at the roots of a mango tree. They were also instructed to throw it in the Eden College pond if the man didn’t return to collect it within a week.
“Thankfully, he came back within that time and took it. We were all very relieved!”
“They were very tragic times of course, but they were also times that we now take a great deal of pride in when we look back,” she adds with a smile.
“We all believed in a cause, and wanted to do whatever we could for it. Despite all our restrictions, the Eden College girls joined the Language Movement spontaneously, and we believed in it with all our hearts. It is something we will carry with us for as long as we are alive.”