There are many festivals and celebrations in Bangladesh which often attract visitors and travelers due to their brightness and gaiety. However, not every holiday in Bangladesh is a cheerful occasion. Such is the case on Shaheed Day which is also sometimes called ‘Martyrs Day’.
This official holiday, which takes place every year on the 21st of February, is held in memory of a number of youths who died on the 21st of February 1952 during a protest against the imposition of the Urdu language as the only state language of Pakistan. Since Pakistan exercised authority over Bangladesh at the time, it was taken as an attempt to suppress the Bengalese culture of the people.
Things got ugly when a number of demonstrators – mostly students but also some members of the public – decided to march in protest of this imposition. The march was in violation of an official prohibitory order so Pakistani police were sent to dispel the protestors. They fired at the demonstrators and killed hundreds. The resulting upsurge was so chaotic that eventually the Pakistan government simply had to recognize Bangla as a state language of Bangladesh. This was one of the first important milestones in the Bengalese fight against cultural domination by the Pakistani government. It played a major role in inspiring the Bengalese people to struggle, first for autonomy, and finally, for independence.
Because of the tragic event that played out on this day, Shaheed Day is observed with great solemnity. Also sometimes called Omar Ekushey, which means the Immortal 21st, the memorial day begins at midnight when thousands of people pass by the steps of the Central Shaheed Minar (or a replica thereof in other parts of the country). Here they lay a wreath in memory of those who lost their lives in what was meant to merely be a protest. The people may choose to remain silent as they do this or they may chant the Ekushey Song. After they break their silence, observers remove their shoes and walk barefoot to the graveyard where these memorable martyrs have been laid to rest. Here they may pay their respects to the dead before returning home and spending the day in contemplation of the historic event.
By the following day the Shaheed Minar is a beautiful sea of flowers. It is quite something to see and is fitfully accompanied by poets reciting poems along the roadside and a book fair at the Bangla Academy.