There is a certain resonance which comes with every observance of International Mother Language Day, known as ‘Ekushey’ in Bangladesh. There are the tales of old we recall every time the season of remembrance comes around. And then there are the dreams we keep building upon the old sacrifices, telling ourselves and our children that on 21 February 1952, it was the cause that mattered. It mattered because it was a nation, proud of its cultural heritage, that was jolted into a new awareness of the struggles that lay ahead.
An assault on language is forever a questioning of the forces of history. Which is why the manifest and decidedly sinister attempt to undermine the Bengali language in the early years of the state of Pakistan was considered, for all the right reasons, a move by an entrenched class of politicians to cause a chasm to grow between the Bengali and his legacy. And so grew the spontaneity of a movement, one which was determined to send the message home to the ruling classes of Pakistan that East Bengal was not to be taken for granted. If in 1948, Bengals could let Pakistan’s founder know that they did not share his view of the language issue, four years later they were ready to offer the supreme sacrifice of dying in defence of their language. When a few brave young men succumbed to the ferocity of the state on 21 February 1952, they only paved the road to a wider dimension of politics for the Bengals. Suddenly the seeds of nationalism seemed to sprout; and the plant would down the years fortify the people of East Bengal in the battle for autonomy. Soon the battle would take the form and shape of a decisive war of national liberation. Between February 1952 and December 1971, the Bengali nation would come of age.
Origins of International Mother Language Day
February 21 is International Mother Language Day. The observance is held annually worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. Though the first worldwide inception was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999, its history runs deeper and darker than its current state of celebration might indicate.
International Mother Language Day exists because of a battle over the right to speak a language. It originated as Language Movement Day, which has been commemorated in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) since 1952. During that year, a number of University of Dhaka students were killed by the Pakistani police and military during Bengali Language Movement protests.
The events that led up to that day started on 21 March, 1948, when the Governor General of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, declared Urdu as the only official language for both West and East Pakistan. The mainly Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan (which is now Bangladesh) protested against it, starting the Bengali Language Movement. On 21 February, 1952, students in the present day capital city of Dhaka called for a provincial strike. The government declared a limited curfew to try and prevent this. Though the protests were tame and the students unarmed, the Pakistani police fired on them anyway, killing at least four. Four more were killed the following day.
The first anniversary on 21 February, 1953, was observed in the country as Martyrs’ Day. More than 100,000 people assembled at a public meeting held in Armanitola in Dhaka. West Pakistani politicians exacerbated the situation by declaring anyone who wanted Bengali to become an official language to be an “enemy of the state.” February 21st 1954 and 1955 were equally tense and as the movement spread through East Pakistan, the whole province came to a standstill.
The first peaceful observance of Language Movement Day was in 1956. The government had relented during the previous year. On 29 February 1956, Bengali was officially recognized as the second language of Pakistan. The country’s constitution was reworded to say “The state language of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali.” Language Movement Day is thought to have been the start for the independence movement, which eventually resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.
The observance spread beyond the young nation. International Mother Language Day has been observed worldwide every year since February 21, 2000. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism. On 16 May, 2009, the General Assembly called upon Member States “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”.
Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing heritage and history that can date back thousands of years. Every action to promote the dissemination of mother tongues encourages linguistic diversity and multilingual education. Their study also helps to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world, inspiring solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.
21 February, 1952: On This Day In History
The state language movement began as a middle class protest. Students and teachers of Dhaka University were at the forefront. And it was only after students gave their life on that fateful day of 21 February 1952 that the movement took on the character of a mass uprising.
That the middle class should have been the first to speak out against the imposition of Urdu as the only state language of the newly established state of Pakistan was only too natural. This class has always been both sensitive and responsive, and it saw in the threat of Urdu being the state language a very real danger to its hope of advancement, perhaps to its very existence.
Through much pain and labour the Bengali Muslim middle class had acquired some skill in English, and would not, perhaps, have reacted violently if English were to continue as the language of the state for some time to come. But with Urdu attempting to come as a usurper the middle class was alarmed by ominous signs of the imposition of Urdu in different fields of governmental activities. On currency notes and coins as also on postal forms and envelopes Urdu had made its appearance. Non-Bengali immigrants from all over the subcontinent were busy occupying posts in government offices and manufacturing companies. They were setting up trading and business firms and making themselves owners of houses and property left vacant by migrating Hindus.
Even the Bengali language was being intruded into by words and expressions of Urdu and Persian origin. That independence should turn into a new kind of subjugation and the Bengals would be reduced to second class citizens only because they did not speak Urdu was totally unacceptable to the middle class. It came out on the streets to make its protests heard.
But the middle class movement could not have been what it became later, namely, almost a revolutionary uprising against the state, without the participation of the people at large. That participation happened because there was a rising tide of frustration and resentment in East Bengal. Pakistan was made possible mainly because the Bengals had voted for it and they constituted no less than 56 per cent of the population of the new state. They had supported the Pakistan demand not to see one set of foreign occupiers to be replaced by another but in the hope of achieving material advancement. But to their great disappointment, the public found out that the conditions of their life and livelihood were worsening instead of improving. Their resentment vented itself through the language movement.
Language, of course, is dear to everyone’s heart. So it was to the Bengals. Their hope was that independence would not only bring them opportunities for material prosperity, but also create a way for cultural and educational enrichment through a promotion of their mother tongue. In the usurpation of Urdu they found a denial of all opportunities and promises. Quite reasonably, they felt betrayed.
To the man in the street the educated were role models. They took pride in the students. And when the students were being fired upon and killed, the resultant indignation was as deep as it was widespread. The students had been at the forefront of the Pakistan movement and the public looked upon them as natural leaders. Seeing the students at the leadership of the new movement the common man took heart and lent his support as much as he could. Not to speak of the students only, there were leaders like Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. Abul Hashim and the young Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whom people had seen fighting for a common cause and whom they now found thrown into prison because they were demanding that Bengali be made one of the state languages. People were dissatisfied and angry.
Then there was the question of nationalism waiting to be resolved. The class conflict was, of course, very real and important. But for the middle class, and through them for the general public as well, the question of national identity was more immediate and visible. The state language movement proved beyond doubt that the Pakistanis were not a nation in any visible sense, and that language is a more effective and abiding force of unity than religion. The two-nation theory on which Pakistan was based had already been abandoned by, of all persons, Mohammad Ali Jinnah himself in his inaugural address to the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947, three days before the new state came into existence. Pakistan, he famously declared, would be a secular state where, to quote his own words, ‘Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.’ He admitted that religion does not unite and noted that ‘even as regards Muslims you have Pathans and Punjabis.’ He could, and indeed should, have mentioned the Bengals because they constituted the majority of the citizens of Pakistan and the majority of them were Muslims. However, he did not remember the Bengal. In that same sentence, albeit a bit later, he said, ‘Among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vaisnavas, Khatris, as also Bengals, Madrasis and so on.’ Does that ‘as also’ signify that to his mind the Bengals and Madrasis were all Hindus? There is no way of getting a clarification. Nor do we need quarrel with his placement of Bengals and Madrasis so close together, although Madras, to be sure, was not in Pakistan. But the words of the ‘father of the nation’ are now all part of history and cannot be altered. One can only note that Jinnah’s attitude to the Bengals was not untypical of the rulers against whom the language movement was the first mass outburst.
But what could have brought the Punjabis and the Bengalis together within a single nationalism? Not surely geographical contiguity because East Bengal was separated from West Pakistan by more than a thousand miles of ‘enemy’ territory. Now that the founder of the state had dismissed religion, what remained to act as the unifying force? In hindsight, it seems that Jinnah was depending on language and perhaps that is the reason why he had come out with the fantastic and wholly undemocratic proposition that Urdu and Urdu alone should be the state language of his new nation. Maybe he had, mistakenly, been encouraged by the thought that it was Hindi which was likely to keep India, which he called Hindustan, together as a nation.
These are things of the past. Yet the fact remains that language cuts across class and religious divisions. Our language movement went beyond the middle class to become a people’s revolt against the state, contained within it the spirit of nationalism based on language, gained in strength and ultimately led to the establishment of the sovereign state of Bangladesh. In a way, this has resolved the national question. But the class contradiction remains and has already proved more difficult to resolve than the problem of nationalism.
That this is so is borne out by, among other things, the state of the Bengali language itself in the state of Bangladesh. To be sure, the state has a single state language; but Bengali is yet to become the language of the state. Its use has been denied in the highest courts of justice as also in the fields of higher education. The higher bureaucracy uses English more comfortably than it does Bengali. Even socially, the use of Bengali is less prestigious than that of English.
This downgrading of Bengali is due largely to the attitude and role of the middle class, that very class which once spearheaded the language movement and carried it to its successful and legitimate conclusion. The middle class, however, is not what it was during the Pakistan days. After 1971 it has split itself into two, with one part rising higher and the other pushed downward. The prosperous upper middle class controls both the state and society and prefers, for local as well as global reasons, to cling to English in personal, social and educational spheres. The lower middle class remains under its superior’s cultural and material sway.
The persistent, indeed increasing, class division is responsible for much of our backwardness inasmuch as it helps the exploiters against the exploited and makes exploitation itself the ruling ideology. The use of Bengali can, in its own way, bring the classes together and make us aware of the urgent necessity of the resolution of the problem of class separation.
That the right to the use of the mother tongue is natural and inalienable does not need to be demonstrated. It is the birthright of every individual and its denial signifies both unnaturalness and the hegemony of the powerful over the powerless. Therefore, the meaning of the movement we began in our country goes beyond territorial boundaries. It upholds the fact that in the last resort mother tongue is the space on which a people can stand in togetherness, locate itself, draw sustenance from inside as well as the world outside and, also, stand up against aggression from within and without. Patriotism and progress are promoted and brought together in a harmony by the use of the language one is born into.
The world has been globalized. Globalization is not only contrary to but also works directly against internationalism. Globalization would be happy to see the erasure of cultural diversity. Internationalism, on the other hand, is based on recognition of the rights of nations to exist through retaining their identity.
It is thus that the state language of Bangladesh has become part of both national and international heritage.