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OP-ED: Dhirendranath Dutta: The last full measure of devotion

  • Published at 09:05 am February 24th, 2021
Dhirendranath Dutta

He was the first Bengali to rise up and remind the powers that Bangla was a language of consequence

Dhirendranath Dutta gave to this country, in that Lincoln-esque manner of speaking, his last full measure of devotion. When he was picked up by the Pakistan occupation army, along with his young son, in 1971, he did not flinch in the face of danger. He went off, to his death. That was sacrifice at its noblest.

But then, Dhirendranath Dutta had never been one who cowered before danger or genuflected before threats hurled at him by men of a calibre below his, but whose pomposity and arrogance closed off all avenues to reason for them. Parochial men like Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan exercised political power. But the moral power which defined Dutta’s personality spoke of the greatness in his being, in all its dimensions.

By any stretch of the meaning, Dhirendranath Dutta was a great man. In him was a patriot who rose, in those early days of Pakistan, above the communal to proclaim that democracy was an idea resting on principled politics. One of those principles, he argued, was for the state to take realities into cognisance. That Bengalis formed 56% of the population of Pakistan was truth not to be ignored. Their language and culture mattered and could be elbowed aside only at grave risk to the state.

That was Dhirendranath Dutta as we recall him, as we travel back to the history of the Language Movement. The pity, though, is that even as we remember Dutta, there appears to have gone missing in our national narrative the truth of how he was the very first Bengali to rise and remind the powers that were that the Bangla language was consequential in the new country.

And this is how Dutta, in the full force of his patriotism, presented our case in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly on February 25, 1948:

“But, Sir, if English can have an honoured place in Rule 29 -- that the proceedings of the Assembly should be conducted in Urdu or English -- why Bengali, which is spoken by four crores forty lakhs of people, should not have an honoured place, Sir, in Rule 29 of the Procedure Rules? So, Sir, I know I am voicing the sentiments of the vast millions of our state and, therefore, Bengali should not be treated as a provincial language. It should be treated as the language of the state.”

Dutta was a Hindu, a Pakistani, a Bengali. Above all, he was a secularist acutely conscious of the requirements of politics in a modern nation-state. Nothing of the parochial or provincial defined his beliefs. If Pakistan had to be a democracy, he argued, it would not do to ignore the aspirations of its majority population. He was going beyond the two-nation theory, to put forth the idea that while Bengali Muslims were part of Pakistan, they remained loyal to their heritage. It was a proposition the ruling classes would not understand or acknowledge. 

And this was the angry response of a myopic Liaquat Ali Khan to Dhirendranath Dutta:

“He should realize that Pakistan has been created because of the demand of a hundred million Muslims in this subcontinent and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu … Pakistan is a Muslim state and it must have as its lingua franca the language of the Muslim nation … The object of this amendment is to create a rift between the people of Pakistan. The object of this amendment is to take away from the Mussulmans that unifying force that brings them together.” 

And so it was that the state was being commandeered by a class whose sense of history was poor at best and atrocious at worst. Making matters worse was the fact that not a single Muslim Bengali member of the Constituent Assembly rose to defend or support Dutta’s contention. The only compatriot who echoed Dutta was, again, a Hindu Bengali. And that was Bhupendra Kumar Datta, who spoke thus:

“Urdu is not the language of any of the provinces constituting the Dominion of Pakistan. It is the language of the upper few of Western Pakistan. The opposition to the amendment proves an effort, a determined effort, on the part of the upper few of Western Pakistan at dominating the state of Pakistan.” 

Yet the window to reason remained shut. Men like Ghazanfar Ali Khan and Khwaja Nazimuddin ardently defended the imposition of Urdu, even venturing the ludicrous notion that the people of East Bengal would warm to the idea of Urdu being the language of the state at the expense of the their own.

Dhirendranath Dutta was no ordinary man. He was no run-of-the-mill politician. Like so many others, he could have opted to move to West Bengal, to India in the aftermath of partition in 1947. He did not, would not do that. Jogendra Nath Mondol, unable to take the pressure of growing communalism, would abandon politics in Pakistan and make his way to India. Dutta’s resolve to stay never wavered. 

Certainly his heart was cracked, as the hearts in millions were cracked, when the country was vivisected. But it did not blur his visions of the future, a future he thought could be shaped in a land calling itself Pakistan. Ironically, it would be Pakistan that would take his life.

In Bengal’s tales of heroism, Dhirendranath Dutta is part of a rich pantheon of the illustrious. The moral fibre in him was strong, the convictions unequivocal. Listen to him, again, speak in February 1948:

“I know, Sir, that Bengali is a provincial language, but, so far as our state is concerned, it is the language of the majority of the people of the state. So although it is a provincial language … 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, four crores and forty lakhs of people speak the Bengali language. So, Sir, what should be the language of the state? The 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 the Bengali language is a lingua franca of our state.”

In another February 23 years later, in 1971, Dhirendranath Dutta sensed danger. He wrote to his son Sanjib Dutta, then in Calcutta, of the ominous clouds of insidious intent beginning to come over the skies of East Bengal. Yet he would not seek safety, would not run from the ferocity of the Pakistan state. And he paid the price. 

The Pakistan occupation army abducted the 85-year-old politician and his son Dilip Dutta. They were not to be seen or heard from again.

It is a selfless and humble man, a thinker and scholar, a politician of unswerving commitment to the high principles which make of life a majestic experience that we recall today. Dhirendranath Dutta cared about Bangladesh, for Bangladesh was his home. His life was a relentless story of conviction and vision. He gave us a dream. He showed us the path to the future on a February day. Because of him, we could seize history and mould it into an epic story to our specifications. 

All these decades after Dhirendranath Dutta spoke for us in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, all these 50 years after his supreme sacrifice for Bangladesh, we need to remember him in love, in terms of ensuring that his legacy lives. Should the nation not be privy to a Dhirendranath Dutta Centre of Historical Studies? Should the People’s Republic of Bangladesh not put in place a Dhirendranath Dutta Memorial Museum in Comilla? Should we not organize an annual lecture series on Dhirendranath Dutta, to recall his role in promoting the cause of the Bangla language, to remember his martyrdom as we went to war for freedom a half century ago?

(Dhirendranath Dutta -- crusader against colonialism, parliamentarian, scholar, Bengali nationalist -- was born on November 2, 1886 and abducted by the Pakistan occupation army along with his son on March 29, 1971. His remains and those of his young son were never found.)

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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