Bengali Language Day: Celebrating A Universal Human Right

Today, the 21st February, marks a significant point in the global calendar. Exactly sixty Nine years ago some brave men laid down their lives for Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan), so that Bangla could be established as a state language. It is a tragic tale with a happy ending as Bangla eventually achieved the status it deserved, albeit at the cost of valuable lives. Later, the international community recognised the significance of this day as UNESCO declared it ‘International Mother Language Day’ in honour of the Bangladeshi struggle.

When the British invaded the region, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India were part of a single nation. However, when the colonisers finally left almost two centuries later, two new nations emerged, India and Pakistan, on the basis of the ‘two-nations theory’ with the Muslim majority areas under Pakistan and the Hindu majority areas under India. Pakistan was divided into East and West, separated by India – two regions geographically apart with distinct languages and cultures, yet sharing Islam as the common religion of the majority.

An inevitable consequence of the emergence of a new nation state is the establishment of one language as the national or state language that would enjoy official status in education, politics, media, administration etc.  People in the newly created nations, India and Pakistan, spoke hundreds of languages between them. It is always a tricky situation for policy makers to choose an official language due to the wider implications it may have by granting pre-eminence to one language, and with it its culture, over others. The policy makers of India came up with a pragmatic ‘three-language formula’ to cater for the multilingual context of the country. Hindi was made the national language, English retained its high position and was made a co-official language, and each state was allowed to choose a state language on the basis of the lingua franca of the region. As many as 15 languages (later raised to 18) were incorporated in the Indian constitution as ‘official’ languages.

In contrast, the policy makers of Pakistan decided on a more repressive approach, one that spelled a recipe for disaster. Completely disregarding the demographical make up of the country, they attempted to impose Urdu as the only state language. It is obvious that the language of the ruling class often achieves the status of ‘official’, ‘national’ or ‘prestigious’ language. This also occurred in India where Hindi was the language of the people who ran the government. However, the Pakistani regime decided that there would be only one state language: Urdu. It is important to note that Urdu is a minority language even in present day Pakistan with little over 7% of the population speaking it as their mother tongue. In 1948, when the language issue began to unfold, there were 69 million people in East Pakistan, the majority of whom spoke Bangla as their mother tongue, and 44 million in West Pakistan, the majority of whom did not speaking Urdu as their first language. Yet, the policy makers decided that Urdu would become the only state language.

The founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared in his famous speech at Dhaka Race Course on 21 March 1948 that “Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the state language of Pakistan.” It was a telling irony that his statement was made in English and that he came from a Gujarati speaking background. Jinnah’s announcement sparked huge outcry among the already agitated Bengali population of the East. Later that year, on 27 November, the then General Secretary of Dhaka University Students’ Union, Ghulam Azam, presented a memorandum to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liakat Ali Khan at Gymnasium Ground, Dhaka University, demanding Bangla to be the state language of Pakistan. However, the petition received nothing but denouncement.

The struggle for the Bengali language continued for the next few years. On 27 January 1952 things took a dramatic turn after Khwaja Nazimuddin, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, reiterated with his predecessor’s statement that Urdu be the only state language. The leaders of the ‘Language Action Committee’ in East Pakistan decided to call a hartal (general strike) and organised demonstrations and processions on 21 February throughout East Pakistan. The government imposed a ban on demonstrations, a ban the people defied. Police fired upon the defiant activists, killing several with more killed on the following day. These activists would come to be known as the ‘martyrs’ of the language movement and a monument, the ‘Shaheed Minar’, would later be erected in their memory. Four years later, on 16 February 1956, the struggle for language rights eventually succeeded as the National Assembly of Pakistan amended the previous legislation and declared both Urdu and Bangla as state languages.

On 17 November 1999, UNESCO proclaimed 21 February as the International Mother Language Day to commemorate the sacrifices of those people who sought to establish one of their fundamental human rights – the right to use their mother tongue. However, the significance of this day is far greater in the present context. The world is now witnessing a catastrophic decline in languages. It is estimated that more than half of the approximate 7000 languages in the world will be dead by the turn of the present century. One language is dying every two weeks. A staggering 96% of the world population speaks only 4% of the world languages. Considered the other way round, 96% of the world languages are spoken by only 4% of people. When a language dies, its culture dies with it. If the present trend continues, the world will lose half of its culture in less than a hundred years, a catastrophic loss in a shockingly short space of time.

The history of the Bangla language movement teaches us an important lesson. The governments of the world have an intrinsic responsibility to ensure the linguistic right of their citizens. The Pakistani language policy was an extreme case, where a majority community was deprived of its linguistic right. However, many smaller languages are dying around the world due to the negligence of the policy makers in those countries. UNESCO’s declaration of ‘International Mother Language Day’ was made more than 12 years ago, yet, we still don’t have any ‘Universal Declaration of Linguistic Right’. Linguists feel that people have the right to preserve their mother tongue, but this human right is not yet ensured by any UN charter.

It is true that many languages will naturally die, but with some effort by governments around the world, a large number of the endangered languages can be saved. We often consider factors such as economy and environment as key issues to preserve, but ignore the fact that language and culture are integral parts of our existence which can’t be materially measured. Can we imagine the loss the world will endure when the last speaker of a language passes away, taking with them the culture of that language which the world can never reclaim?

Published in The Platform, UK on 21 February 2012. url:

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