The Indo-Pak war of 1971 took place this week fifty years ago, when India and Pakistan became embroiled in conflict due to India’s support for the Bangladeshi liberation war. The Bengali-speaking population of the East Pakistan province, who were a cultural and linguistic minority in a predominantly Urdu-speaking country despite comprising 30% of the total population, fought to create the new state of Bangladesh.

One of the contributing factors to this war, which was broadly caused by the political and cultural isolation of East Pakistan, was the treatment of the demand for official language status for Bengali.

The Constituent Assemblies of both India and Pakistan had to grapple with the question of national or official language. Given the linguistic and cultural diversity in both countries, the matter had to be carefully considered.

In 1948, the-then Governor-General of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared that “Urdu, and only Urdu” would be the official language. However, Urdu-speakers were in the majority only in the politically-powerful West Pakistan, with Bengali speakers dominating East Pakistan.

The contentious nature of the official language question came to the fore during the first session of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. A member from East Bengal, Dhirendranath Datta, moved a motion to include Bengali as one of the languages of the Constituent Assembly along with English and Urdu. The motion was rejected, and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan commented:

“The object of this amendment is to create a rift between the people of Pakistan…to take away from the Mussalmans that unifying force that brings them together”.

Later, the Basic Principles Committee of the Assembly made a recommendation to only adopt Urdu as the official language of Pakistan. This resulted in widespread protests among the Bengali-speaking population, culminating in the death of protestors at the hands of police on 21 February 1952. While Bengali was eventually granted official status under the 1956 Constitution, the drawn-out fight for recognition and the subsequent protestor deaths inflamed Bengali nationalist sentiments, and played a role in the Bangladeshi liberation war.

Language has also been a contentious question in Indian constitutional history. The Nehru Report, 1928 proposed Hindustani – a hybrid of Hindi and Urdu – as the national language. In the Constituent Assembly of India, R.V. Dhulekar proposed that the proceedings of the Assembly should take place in Hindustani rather than English, although this was rejected.

The Assembly was greatly divided on the language issue, with some members strongly advocating for Hindi while others suggested languages such as English and Sanskrit. Realizing that it was too controversial to propose only one language as the national language, Gopalaswami Ayyangar on behalf of the Drafting Committee proposed a compromise: there would be no national language. Instead, Hindi and English were adopted as the official languages in which the business of the Union would be conducted. Other prominent languages such as Urdu were also recognized in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.

Why was language so hotly debated in the Assemblies of both India and Pakistan? Perhaps because language is the 'primary constituent of identity'– it is the main tool that people use for both social and political participation. In the case of East Pakistan, the rejection of Bengali by political leaders contributed to Bengali-speakers feeling isolated from mainstream politics.