Protest tide in Dhaka as Bangla remembers language martyrs

The Shahbagh Square uprising received extra vigour on Wednesday as thousands of protesters demanding death for the war criminals of 1971 were joined by men, women and children fired by the sentiment of Ekushey February — February 21 — Bangladesh's historic Language Day.

At one minute past midnight, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was to place a wreath at Dhaka's Martyrs' Column in memory of students who had laid down their lives in 1952, paving the way for the recognition of Bengali as a state language by the then government of Pakistan.

President Zillur Rahman and other leaders, including those from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, were scheduled to participate in the ceremony that was to stretch into Thursday morning.

As evening rolled into night on the sixteenth day of the biggest mass uprising in Bangladesh in decades, people of all ages and from all sections of society surged in two teeming rivers of humanity at Shahbagh Square and Shahid Minar, holding banners, chanting slogans and waving the red and green national flag.

By late evening, Shahbagh Square was jampacked with students, activists and the Muktijoddha (freedom fighters), lending their voices and support to the bloggers, social media protesters, artistes, singers and members of cultural organisations who have turned Dhaka's streets into a battleground for the nation's history and its political soul.

The numbers, which had appeared to be dwindling a little over the last couple of days, were likely to surpass previous records on Wednesday night, several organisers of the protests said.

"The protests in Shahbagh will come to have the same historic significance as Ekushey February," predicted an activist who gave his name as Shakil, manning what has come to be known as the Shahbagh "Generation Circle" camp of predominantly young protesters.

"Ekushey February is about our identity and unity," said E Ali, an Awami League MP from Rajbari, who is also a member of the Bangladesh Sansad's standing committee on cultural affairs.

In the years leading up to the independence of India and the partition of the subcontinent, Bengali civil servants, students, academics and the middle class had spontaneously thrown their weight behind the demand for Bengali as one of the state languages. By the end of February 1948, the demand, spearheaded by the East Pakistan Student League founded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman a month earlier, had spilled out on the streets.

Sixty-five years later, Mujib continues to be the driving force of a new generation of Bangladeshis at Shahbagh Square agitating for what they hope will be a better, freer, more equitable order. That their struggle won't be easy was demonstrated also by protests by their political opponents in Dhaka and other cities on Wednesday. Calls for hartals by Islamist student groups received varying responses in Rajshahi district; in Dhaka, anti-Shahbagh rallies were taken out by groups allegedly backed by the Jamaat-e-Islami.

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