Every year people, throughout the world, observe International Mother Language Day with deep respect and love. Through the observance we pay our deepest homage to 1952 Language Movement martyrs who embraced death to establish Bangla as the state language. It can be said without an iota of doubt that those who sacrificed their lives are the real heroes of our nation. It is never possible to forget those brave men who showed us the path of sacrifice and love. We all, more or less, know what happened on the 21st February, 1952. However, many of us do know much about those men who took initiative to take Bangla to International arena. Yes, I would like to tell the less known tales of Rafiqul Islam and Abdus Salam who relentlessly worked to establish 21st February as International Mother Language Day. Their love for their mother tongue and their love for all languages of the world invariably recollect us language is the most valuable wealth of a nation.
On 9 January 1998, Rafiqul Islam (a veteran freedom fighter) who was living in Canada at that time penned a letter to the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to take all possible steps to save those languages which were at the verge of extinction. In his letter he also requested UN Secretary General to declare a day as International Mother language Day to honor all world languages. Rafiqul Islam proposed 21st February - in memory of the Ekushey martyrs of 1952 - as the day for international commemoration. However, his request was declined on the basis that the proposal needs to come from an UN member state rather than an individual or organisation.
Hearing this Rafiqul Islam did not get frustrated. Rather his pure love for language drove him to continue his endeavor. He along with Abdus Salam (he was living in Canada at that time) formed a forum called `Mother Language Lovers of the World'. The organization primarily consisted of ten members. The members are following: Rafiqul Islam & Abdus Salam (representing Bangla), Albert Vinzon & Carmen Cristobal (Philippino), Jason Monir & Susan Hodgins (English), Dr. Kelvin Chao (Cantonese), Renate Mertens (German), Karuna Joshi (Hindi) and Nazneen Islam (Kachi). Amid them Rafiqul Islam became the president of the organisation.
Abdus Salam then re-wrote Rafiqul Islam's original letter on behalf of these ten members and sent it to David Fowler, the then Canadian Ambassador to the UN, requesting him to submit it to the UN. David Fowler sent that letter to the Canadian Foreign Ministry for approval - which came after one year. Appreciating their hard work but recognising that this was bearing no fruit, the then Chief Information Officer of the UN, Hasan Ferdous - a fellow Bengali himself - advised Rafiqul Islam that it'd be more productive to approach UNESCO with respect to this matter. Afterwards, Rafiqul Islam and Abdus Salam contacted the National Commission for UNESCO of Canada, Bangladesh, India, Hungary, and Finland. Hungary was the first to reply on 16 April 1999 giving their full support to the proposal.
In August, 1999, Rafiqul Islam and his organisation approached the then Education Minister of Bangladesh, A. S. H. K. Sadek, who sent the request to the then prime minister Sheikh Hasina. Sheikh Hasina was very keen on the proposal but requested she gets approval from all her ministries before submitting it to the UN. However, time was short. The deadline for submitting any UNESCO proposal was 10 September 1999 (if it was to be acted upon in 1999) - that is, only few days away. Matters were made worse as A. S. H. K. Sadek was out of the country during this period. As panic set in, Rafiqul Islam contacted Professor Kafiluddin Ahmed, UNESCO National Commissioner of Bangladesh Secretary, who conveyed his message directly to A. S. H. K. Sadek. Once A. S. H. K. Sadek returned to Bangladesh he raised the issue directly in the Jatiya Sangshad (Parliament) in the presence of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who gave her instant approval. Now all efforts were made to submit the proposal before deadline - which they did, on 9 September 1999, a day before the deadline. It must be acknowledged that the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina played a substantial role to make the process easy and smooth. Because of her active role, it was possible to submit the proposal before the deadline. In this regard it must be mentioned the then Secretary of the Education Ministry Mr Quazi Rakibuddin, the then education Minister Mr. Sadeq, UNESCO National Commissioner of Bangladesh Secretary Professor Kafiluddin, and Mr. Moshiur Rahman (one of the Directors in the PM's Office) played active role in managing the matter in Dhaka. Mr. Tony Huq who is a Senior Advisor to the Director General of UNESCO and Ambassador Syed Moazzem Ali and Mr. Ikhtear Chowdhury of Bangladesh Embassy in Paris also played a very active role in expediting the process. The entire embassy in Paris was enthusiastic.
After receiving the proposal from a member country rather than an individual or organization, UNESCO made all efforts to convince its member states to sign the proposal. The Bangladeshi proposal in the form of a draft resolution was published on 26 October, 1999. Twenty-eight countries gave their backing - including Pakistan. This larger proposal was then submitted by UNESCO's technical committee, Commission Two, to United Nation's General Assembly on 12 November 1999.
Resolution adopted by the 30th session of UNESCO'S General Conference:
30 C/DR.35 (submitted by Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia; supported by Oman, Benin, Sri Lanka, Egypt, the Russian Federation, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Belarus, the Philippines, Côte d'Ivoire, India, Honduras, Gambia, the Federated States of Micronesia, Vanuatu, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Comoros, Pakistan, Islamic Republic of Iran, Lithuania, Italy and the Syrian Arab Republic) relating to paragraph 05204, the Commission recommends that the General Conference proclaim "International Mother Language Day" to be observed on 21 February.
Five days later, on 17 November 1999, UN declared 21st February - Ekushey February - as "International Mother Language Day". The UNESCO resolution further recognized the supreme sacrifice made by our Language Martyrs on 21 February 1952. Needless to say, ten people of the organization 'Mother Language Lovers of the World' have honored the people who speak 6528 Mother Languages across at least 188 countries spread over all continents.
Ekushey reminds Bengalis that regardless of their religious differences, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians suffered West Pakistani violence and oppression. Ekushey, with all its invented traditions, is the source of a political myth that fed Bengali secularism and independence, and the result is the common slogan 'Our identity is in Ekushey.'
The writer is Editor-in-Chief, The Asian Age