A high, late honour

During Bangladesh's 'language movement' of 1952, scholar Syed Yusuf Hasan was the first Urdu-speaker to issue a statement supporting Bangla as one of the two state languages of what was then East Pakistan. He was also the only Urdu-speaker to be jailed for supporting the language movement, and for taking part in the protests against atrocities committed by West Pakistani authorities. After almost 60 years, in February this year the 85-year-old Hasan was honoured by the Bangla Academy for his contributions to the language movement. As this institution was set up specifically to promote the Bangla language, the decision by the Bangla Academy to officially honour someone such as Hasan cannot be underestimated.

When the state of Pakistan was created in 1947, its two regions were split along cultural, geographical and linguistic lines. In 1948, the government of Pakistan proclaimed Urdu the sole national language of both East and West Pakistan, which led to mass protests among the Bangla-speaking majority of East Pakistan. After many deaths and arrests, Bangla was eventually recognised as a state language, though only in 1956. Today, the language movement itself is regarded as the precursor to the Bengali nationalist movement, which culminated in Bangladesh's independence following the Liberation War of 1971.

Syed Yusuf Hasan was born on 4 November 1926 in Patna. He studied at the Muslim University of Aligarh in 1943, and obtained a masters degree in arts in 1949 before returning to Patna. While he was in Aligarh, the university campuses were dominated by two movements, one led by the Communist Party and the other by progressive Urdu poets and writers. Hasan, who by this time was regarded as one of the most eminent scholars in the history of Urdu literature, said he was influenced by both. After being encouraged by the renowned Urdu writer Sajjad Zaheer, Hasan left Patna for Dhaka in October 1949. 'I had studied the language problem in Aligarh,' he recalled in a recent interview with this writer, 'and when I came to Dhaka I saw that things weren't moving properly. Everybody loves their mother tongue and I love mine. It was for this reason that I supported the Bangla language movement.'

In his writing, Hasan stressed that Bangla and Urdu should co-exist as the state languages of Pakistan, and that recognition and official support should be provided to all minority languages, such as Sindh. This was very unusual for an Urdu writer. At one stage, Hasan wrote on behalf of the Progressive Writers' Association that if Bangla was not recognised as a state language, the group would alter its demand, to instead call that it become the only state language of Pakistan. This was not mere rhetoric: Hasan believed that it was 'scientific' to demand that Bangla that become one of Pakistan's state languages, as 54 percent of the population at that time spoke Bangla. To him, there was simply no rational alternative.

For his role in the movement he was sent to jail four times between 1952 and 1958, ultimately spending more than a year behind bars. 'I used to say that I was passing my life going from jail to jail,' he said. However, he added, 'Conditions in the jails were not too bad. Because I was considered a political prisoner, I did not face as many difficulties as the common prisoners did. And the authorities eventually had to release me each time because they didn't find anything against me.' Despite these periods of incarceration, Hasan's influence in Dhaka's political circles continued to grow rapidly. In September 1952, a Pakistani delegation was sent to China for a peace conference. Five members of the delegation were selected from the eastern wing, including Hasan and the 'father of the nation', Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both before and after Bangladesh's liberation, Hasan maintained strong relations with Mujibur.

After decades of discrimination by West Pakistani forces, full-scale war broke out in 1971, lasing for nine months. It was at this point that Hasan retreated from political activism. 'I left politics in 1971 because I felt I had no alternative,' he said. 'I remained silent. But although I didn't physically participate in the war, I supported the movement for liberation.' However other 'Biharis' – those who had immigrated from Bihar – had collaborated with West Pakistani forces during the war, and after 1971, resentment against them ran high. Tens of thousands were murdered, while many others lost their jobs and property. The Red Cross established refugee camps for the Biharis, and Hasan was assigned the task of bringing the first group to the Geneva Camp, in Dhaka.

Although half a million Biharis eventually fled to Pakistan, two-thirds of those who wanted to leave were not accepted by the government of Pakistan. There are currently around 250,000 Biharis languishing in refugee camps throughout Bangladesh. Although their right to citizenship was recognised in a Supreme Court ruling in 2008, Biharis are still denied Bangladeshi passports, and their living conditions remain abominable. 'The Biharis in the camps are in trouble,' Hasan said. 'They are passing their lives in misery. Neither Pakistan nor India will take them, so they must live in Bangladesh. They deserve to be given their basic rights.' However, Hasan says that unlike the majority of Biharis, he did not suffer any 'serious' discrimination following the war. The most significant offence against him occurred when his house in Mohammadpur, in Dhaka, was broken into shortly after the war ended in 1971. 'People came in a truck and looted everything,' he said. 'We never found out who did it.' Despite now being extremely frail, Hasan continues to be actively involved with the Urdu-speaking community, and continues to push for the realisation of their human rights.

Readers required

In 1971, Hasan completed his PhD titled 'Bangla and Urdu', at Dhaka University. But due to the tense political climate, it was not until many years later that he actually received his degree. Shortly after the end of the war, Hasan went to the southwestern town of Khulna to establish a school. He and his wife, who became the principal of the school, spent 25 years in education in Khulna before returning to Dhaka. Hasan has also written a book about the history of Urdu literature from the ancient period up to 1947, and he is currently at work on his autobiography. The majority of his articles, he says, are based on his research, but he has also written about his life in Aligarh. He submits many articles to a local Urdu newspaper in Khulna. Other opportunities in Bangladesh are scarce, as 'Nowadays there are very few magazines in Urdu – perhaps just two or three. Readers are required for a magazine.'

Last year, a seminar in Dhaka on Hasan's contributions to the language movement was organised by the Bangla-Urdu Sahitya Forum. There, several senior journalists and public figures pointed out that many Urdu-speaking people had supported the language movement, and issued statements of regret that the contributions of these individuals had never received formal recognition. The speakers also emphasised the importance of preserving the languages of the minorities and Adivasis in Bangladesh, including Urdu, and recommended that the Ekushey Padak, one of the country's top awards, be given to Hasan in recognition of his significant contributions. The government of Bangladesh is yet to act on the recommendation.

After being honoured by the Bangla Academy during the month of Ekushey in February, which celebrates the Bangla language and commemorates those who lost their lives in the language movement, Hasan expressed his honour at receiving official recognition. But when asked whether his contributions should have received recognition sooner, he said quietly, 'Yes, definitely. It is late.' He also expressed his concern about the future of his mother tongue in his adopted motherland. 'I don't feel there is a good future for Urdu in Bangladesh,' he said. 'Bangla is a very strong language, and other languages are not being given the chance to develop – there is no state patronisation of other languages.'

By recognising the contributions of Syed Yusuf Hasan, the Bangla Academy has made a small but significant move towards reconciliation between Bangla and Urdu speakers. But until the Bihari refugee camps are flattened and their occupants re-integrated with mainstream society, there remains very little of substance to celebrate.

Jessica Mudditt is an Australian-British journalist and photographer who currently works as a special correspondent for The Independent in Dhaka.

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