Ekushey February: Rediscovering the International Mother Language Day
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.