Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury: his journey to ‘immortality’ began at 17

On February 21, 1952, the police opened fire on the Bangali population seeking their birthright – the right to use their own mother tongue. A 17-year-old boy, then a student at Dhaka College HSC, Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury had rushed to the hospital to visit the injured.

At the OPD of Dhaka Medical College, he came across the decapitated corpse of language martyr Rafiq. Teenager Abdul Gaffar felt waves of strong mourning; it was as if he had lost his own brother. This pain is what is embodied in the timeless verses of “Amar bhaiyer rokte rangano Ekushey February”.

Around the same time, this poem resulted in a manifesto; published during a clandestine meeting which took place in the Gendaria district of the capital. Initially, in 1953, the poem was given a melody by Abdul Latif. That same year, the song was performed for the first time at Brittania Hall in Gulistan, during the inauguration ceremony of the recently elected Students’ Union of Dhaka College.

In March of that year, the poem was published in “Ekushey February”, a historical collection edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman. Later he again received a melody from Altaf Mahmud. This tune was first used when the song was performed during the 1954 probhat ferry.

Since then, every year on February 21, countless Bangladeshis have sung this timeless tune while riding the probhat ferry to pay their respects to the martyrs of the language movement, a practice that has now spread across the globe. Later, this song was voted as the third best Bengali song in history in an audience poll conducted by BBC Bangla.

Many consider the language movement to be the first step towards the eventual struggle for freedom in Bangladesh. And Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, who actively participated in every stage of the Bangali nation’s freedom struggle, including the language movement, would be a keen witness to the various twists and turns in the nation’s history.

This renowned journalist and founder-editor of independent Bangladesh’s first registered newspaper (established by the Mujibnagar government) “Joy Bangla”, died in a hospital in London on May 19, 2022, at the age of 88.

Although he had lived in London since 1974, the pen of Abdul Gaffar never ceased to defend the spirit of our war of liberation and secularism. Although a non-residential Bangladeshi, he continued to write commentary articles on politics and various other contemporary topics for national dailies. He also wrote poetry, novels, stories, dramas, memoirs and articles.

Abdul Gaffar’s writings were particularly popular among politically aware readers in the country during the entire 1980s, when General Ershad’s dictatorial government was in power.

This is how he became a household name in the Bangladeshi media and in the cultural, political and intellectual spheres of the country.

However, there is no doubt that Abdul Gaffar will be remembered most vividly for writing the timeless song that immortalized the memories of our linguistic struggle. Whenever and wherever this song is spoken, Bengali language speakers will remember it.

As lyricist Gazi Mazharul Anwar said, “As long as Bangladesh exists, this song will exist alongside it.” He adds, “That (song) had unveiled new ideological standards. (Abdul Gaffar) had satisfied our need of the hour – which was to fight back – through his song.”

Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury was born in Ulania under Mehendigonj thana on September 12, 1934. Despite being a zamindar, his father, Wahed Reza Chowdhury, was best known as a freedom fighter and a member of the All India Congress Working Committee in within the British. -ruled India. He had even worked as a secretary to then Congress Minister Motilal Nehru.

Abdul Gaffar graduated from Dhaka University in 1958. In 1950, during his student life, he joined the Daily Insaaf newspaper. Later, he took charge of Mohammad Nasiruddin’s monthly Saugat. He became deputy editor of the Daily Ittefaq in 1956. Two years later, he took over the management of Tofazzal Hossain Manik Miah’s political magazine, “Chabuk”.

Subsequently, Abdul Gaffar worked for Daily Azad, Monthly Mohammadi, Daily Jihad and eventually became editor of the weekly Shonar Bangla in 1963. As a spokesperson for the Six Point Movement, he published Daily Awaaz in 1966. He returned to Daily Azad in 1967, then joined Daily Ittefaq in 1969. After Manik Miah passed away, he joined Daily Purbodesh.

After liberation, in 1974, he traveled to London with his family to acquire treatment for his sick wife. There he published a magazine named “Notun Din”. He continued to pen in Bengali and English.

For veteran journalist Abed Khan, Abdul Gaffar was the “heart” of our liberation war spirit and non-sectarian beliefs. According to him, Abdul Gaffar was the “most reliable” pillar in the history of Bangladesh, the history of the liberation war and the political movements of Bangladesh.

Many literary critics also felt that if Abdul Gaffar had focused more on literature than on politics and writing chronicles, Bengali literature would have been much richer.

Professor Abul Quasem Fazlul Hoq was the organizer of the “Rastrobhasha Bangla Rokkha Committee”, formed in the context of the language movement in 1952. According to him, “Ekushey February is our path, it is the path of people’s struggle. Abdul Gaffar walked this path through his writings on Bangalis and the spirit of being a Bangali. He could have become famous just as an author. However, writing the anthem of the Language Movement brought him and his work, at an unprecedented height.

Abdul Gaffar has been recognized for his work in the form of the Bangla Academy Prize (1967), Ekushey Padak, UNESCO Literature Prize and the Shadhinota Padak (2009). He also received countless other awards and accolades throughout his life.

In 2014, while receiving the Sohel Samad Memorial Award in the auditorium of the Bangladesh Press Institute, Abdul Gaffar lamented the commercial nature of contemporary journalism. The legend had evoked the “ideological” journalism of his time.

It is therefore undeniable that not only in the context of Bangladeshi journalism or contemporary history, but whenever the indestructible tune of Ekushey February, mired in memories of Bangali martyrs, is repeated, it will also be accompanied by the remembrance of the indelible Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury.

Mamunur Rashid is a reporter for the Daily Star.

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