Bangladesh, Calendar, Events

Ekushey February: Rediscovering International Mother Language Day


Ekushey February: Rediscovering  the International Mother Language Day



Amor Ekushey 21 February: International Mother Language Day in Bangladesh

The 21st of February is a date like any other on the calendar. But Ekushey February is much more. True, “the 21st” in literal Bengali translation reads as “ekushey”. However, beyond its numerical value, “ekushey” is not a date, but a phenomenon in our national life. The tremendous power of this phenomenon, its élan vital, is reflected in the ambivalence of its commemoration every year. The formal trappings of the day, designated as “Martyrs Day” and the only holiday when the national flag flies at half mast, is of mourning. The ambience, however, is celebratory. People walk barefoot wearing black badges to the Central Shaheed Minar. The somber monument however, stands proud and flood-lit, flower-bedecked. Brilliant alpona motifs and quotes from Bengali poetry emblazoned on the walls and streets all around the monument create an aesthetic experience far removed from grief. What is this Ekushey February anyway?

Ekushey February is history goes back fifty-five years ago to 1952 when Bengalis, as a nation, were caught up in a struggle against the then state dispensation for the recognition of Bengali as one of the state languages of the then Pakistan. Ironically, the Bengalis constituted more than half of the population of the new state carved out of British India. On 21 February 1952, students held a mass demonstration in Dhaka against the decision to impose Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan. Police opened fire killing and wounding several of the demonstrators. This massacre aggravated the situation and soon shaped a national movement for rights, Constitutional rule and devolution. The rest is history. Ekushey February is also more than history because it shaped our history. Suffice it to say that Ekushey February earned for Bengalis the recognition that they wanted for their mother tongue, and train of events from that day led inexorably to the birth of Bangladesh. Ekushey, therefore, is about remembering and mourning for the martyrs as well as about celebrating the achievements Ekushey brought home.

Ekushey is significant from one other consideration. Unlike other national holidays that are of the state, synonymous with the state, Ekushey was born in defiance, and for 19 years, was commemorated by the Bengali people within an adverse state. Its essence drew from our collective defiance in the face of denial and exclusion, in our aspiration for dignity and assertion of our cultural identity. It has fired the imagination of creative Bengalis over the last five decades and more. Ekushey February has always been a truly non-denominational holiday commemorated across the country by all communities. The Shaheed Minar has tremendous symbolism. Its replicas are as essential components of an educational institution as the classrooms or the faculty building. The power of this symbolism goes back to the raising of a monument on the spot where the first martyr fell on that day and its demolition by the authorities in the dark of the night. The Pakistan forces in occupation during our liberation war had also demolished the memorial to the language martyrs in March 1971, realizing full well the potency of its symbolism in rallying Bengali resistance. The familiar shape of the Shaheed Minar keeps the faith alive and transmits the symbolism across generations.

Ekushey February is a day off from school or work, it is a celebration of our national identity, commemoration of mourning for those who laid down their lives for our language and our heritage; it extols the courage immanent in our people to defy and to take a stand for their rights, and indeed, Ekushey is the beginning of our epic struggle for freedom. All these are true, valid and appropriate. Ekushey is the big bang that has defined the course of our history since.

As I reflect on this, I am reminded of how Ekushey is celebrated our lyrics and poetry. The first poem, written on the spur of the moment by Mahboobul Alam Chowdhury responds to the massacre and vows of avenging the deaths. His poem is a spontaneous expression of resistance. And Alauddin Al-azad wrote when the first monument to the martyrs was raised to the ground. He discovers the power of symbolism in the “smreetir minar” (the memorial column) and does not despair in its demolition; he transfuses its force into each Bengali as living monuments. The Ekushey anthem (amar bhaier rokte rangano…) is a dirge. In this, Ekushey epitomizes all the bloodshed, all the oppression, all the tears and all the resolve a day splattered in the blood of the martyrs and drenched in the tears of their mothers. It also calls on the furies to rise and avenge these deaths. And the plaintive lyrics of “ora amar mukher kotha kaira nite chae” sees in the denial of recognition to Bengali as an effort to snatch away our faculty of speech, through the imposition of an alien tongue. Abu Zafar Obaidullah anoints the martyr as a fallen soldier (“Kumro phule phule nue porechhe lotati…”. There is the pathos and the dignity that we saw in the Ballad of a Soldier.

Indeed, Ekushey February stood us in revolt against an assault on our language. It saw the blood of common citizens spilled by law enforcers of the state. It was both a dirge and defiance a funeral procession and a rebellion. Ekushey was a war made up of battles such as these dirges, defiances, rebellions and resistance and more. Interestingly, most of this Ekushey phenomenon was to unfold in the future. And that is where its living significance rests. We take a brief look at four aspects of this phenomenon.

The political dimension apart, the popular appeal of the language movement lay in the emotive appeal to the common man of ones own mother tongue. This found a brilliant concord with the Dhaka University youth that found a romantic appeal in revolt and defiance. There is something magical in the aspiration to become a Garibaldi or a Khudiram. While the students found in it a cause to fight for, the ground swell of support came from the indignation of the common man at the indignity meted out to his mother tongue. The ethos of Ekushey February translated thus in the United Front’s 21 point programme:

1. Bengali shall be made one of the state languages of Pakistan.

2. Arrangements will be made to impart education through the mother tongue only.

There was unfortunately, one element missing in this. It satisfied the emotive need of the common man, but not perhaps of the need for access to opportunities that would make this meaningful. The demand for “Rashtro bhasha Bangla chai” should have been accompanied by “Shobar jonno shikkha chai”. The second point would have served the need for inclusion better if it read “Arrangements will be made to impart education through the mother tongue only; and education will be provided free to all”. To that extent, an essential (potential) component of the spirit of Ekushey has been lost to us.

At the turn of the last century, we find the political landscape in Bengal take a significant turn with a segment of the Bengali Muslim elite propounding the idea of Bengali Muslims being distinct from the inclusive Bengali nation. There emerged two ideological camps the samannita (Muslims as part of the larger Bengali identity) and the swatantra (Muslim Bengalis as a stand alone distinct community). Elements that went into the creation of the second strain are several. However, the tension between the two has shaped outcomes over the last one century. The first partition of Bengal went to the swatantra while the annulment to the samannita, the Bengal Pact to the samannita, while the separate electoral rolls to the swatantra, and on this latter the second partition of Bengal. The single most distorting gain of the swatantra school came with the partition of India in 1947 and the splitting of Bengal into the two new entities of India and Pakistan. The swatantra found its berth in the Muslim League and the “Muslim” state of Pakistan. Within a few months of the birth of Pakistan came the cultural disillusionment of the Bengali people. Bengali members of the Constituent Assembly were not allowed to speak in their mother tongue. It became apparent that the endemic to the newly created state of Pakistan was an attempt to culturally subjugate the Bengalis. The language movement, beginning as early as 1948, was the reassertion of the inclusive character of our heritage and cultural roots. This rediscovery defined the direction of our history. Ekushey February is the celebration of the non-communal inclusive Bengali spirit. This tide of history saw us through the 1954 elections that routed the Muslim league in Bangladesh, in the celebration of the Tagore centenary in Dhaka despite a ban by the Pakistan Government on Tagore. And again, the foundations of the six points lay in this samannita ideology and construct of the polity. The mass upsurge in 1969, the manifesto for autonomy and the independence movement drew strength and ideological moorings in the spirit of the Ekushey.

It would be seen that the samannita represents a higher and enlightened disposition. The high point of Bengali achievements have invariably resulted from an inclusive ideology. Consider the unmatched creative surge against the partition of Bengal. The outpourings of patriotism in the poetry and music of DL Roy, Tagore and others to this day fire the patriotic zeal of Bengalis. The Bengal Pact was a result of pro-active engagement, not the result of petitioning the Raj, as was the case with the Morley-Minto reforms. This has been the ethos behind the emergence of Bangladesh, from Ekushey February to independent Bangladesh, at least until the tragic events of 15 August 1975.

With the demand for recognition of Bengali as one of the national languages, the leaders of East Bengal also demanded as early as in February 1948 equality for Bengalis in the armed forces and civil administration. We thus see the forging of a political agenda reflecting once again, the people’s aspiration, free of sectarian distortion. Finally, the sustained impact of the language movement compelled the Constituent Assembly to recognize Bengali, along with Urdu, as a state language on 7 May 1954.

The denial of provincial autonomy in the then Pakistan was the natural consequence of the unitary structure of administration in which decisions taken at the central level had to be executed by the bureaucracy responsible to the centre, and naturally the provincial government responsible to the provincial legislature had little say in the matter. At the Central level, the first attempt was made at framing a constitution nearly two years after independence, on 12 March 1949, when the Basic Principles Committee of 25 members was appointed for the purpose. Successive attempts were made by the Committee to frame a constitution without conceding the democratic right of the Bengali people to representation proportionate to the population.

The life of the Provincial Assembly in East Bengal was due to expire in 1953, but it was extended by a year by the Constituent Assembly. Elections to the Provincial Assembly in East Bengal, which took place in March 1954, became a turning point in the history of Pakistan. The non-Muslim League opposition parties, including the Awami Muslim League, formed a United Front under the leadership of A. K. Fazlul Huq, H. S. Suhrawardy and Maulana Bhashani, which approached the electorate with its 21-point manifesto. In fact, the election was a referendum for and against the demand for autonomy. The electorate voted overwhelmingly in favour of the United Front and the ruling Muslim League was completely routed with the United Front capturing 95% of the Muslim seats. The Centre was, however, determined to prevent the implementation of the 21-point programme. Seven cabinets were formed in East Pakistan and Governor’s rule was imposed thrice between March 1954 and August 1958. Martial Law was imposed throughout Pakistan on 7 October 1958 and within a short span of time, Ayub Khan emerged as the strong man.

The demand for autonomy of East Pakistan became stronger due to discriminations it endured in different fields, failure to get desired results from elections and the inadequate defence status of the province and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman raised the 6-points charter of demands for autonomy of East Pakistan at a convention of opposition leaders on 5-6 February 1966 in Lahore. The Awami League then started a countrywide campaign for realizing the 6 points. There was unprecedented public backing in support of the 6-points.

Not relating the demand for recognition of the mother tongue to the larger scheme of policy and deliverables of governance referred to above, prompted elements of parochialism. There was a trend to see in the language debate a conflict of Bengali with other languages. There was a rejection of Urdu as also of English. It took us 49 years to see Ekushey in its true global context. It was in essence a resistance against the marginalization of a language, of a culture, of a people. In that it symbolizes the celebration of mother languages and the diversity it provides to the human collective. Ekushey stood against the exclusive recognition of one language and stood for an inclusive recognition of and respect for diversity. The long journey begun by Bengalis in 1948 through 21 February in 1952, reached a global base station on 17 November 1999 in Paris with the decision of the UNESCO General conference to designate the Ekushey February of Bengalis as the International Mother Language Day for every nation.

Even as we pay tribute to the valiant Bhasha shoiniks (those who fought for their language), we celebrate Ekushey February as the phenomenal moment that shaped our destiny. Ekushey February has enriched our aspirations, our ethos, our creativity and ennobled our struggle as a defining achievement for all peoples of the world. Ekushey February does us proud as Bengalis, and as vanguards of diversity, linguistic and otherwise.

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Bangladesh, Calendar, Events

International Mother Language Day 2012: On This Day In History


International Mother Language Day 2012


International Mother Language Day 2012

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


21st February, 1952: Historic students meeting in front of old arts faculty building (kola bhaban) in Dhaka University

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.


21 February,1952: The History of International Mother Language Day

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.


A potrait of Language Movement of Bangladesh: 21 February, 1952

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.

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