Published:  12:09 AM, 21 February 2022

From Ekushey to International Mother Language Day and beyond

From Ekushey to International Mother Language Day and beyond
Like every landmark day of every other country, Bangladesh's Ekushey February, or the 21st of February, 1952, has its roots decades back in its national history. Like all such landmark days of other nations, it has also been gaining in symbolic stature for its people with every passing year. Indeed, in our time, the day can be seen as not only of national significance but of international consequence since from 17 November, 1999 it has become formally recognized by the United Nations as International Mother Language Day. And without doubt the local and international implications of the celebration of the importance of the mother tongue will continue to multiply everywhere in the years to come.

Bangladesh, it is often said, is a twice-partitioned country, but a case could be made for linking the nation's history to three partitions. This is because in July 1905, Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, announced the first partition of Bengal into West and East Bengal. This partition was annulled in 1911, almost as if the British rulers of the sub-continent had conceded that religion could not be the only reason to divide Bengal into two. But the botched partition led to growing resentment against imperial policies throughout India in general and Bengal in particular.  Between 1905 and 1947, Indian Muslims everywhere were drawn into activism against the British. Many Bengali Muslim leaders sensed then that the time had come for them to forge a distinct space for people of their faith where they could be what they wanted to be. By the 1940s, most of them, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, later destined to become "Bongobondhu" or the "Father of the Nation" of Bangladesh, thus subscribed to the notion of a pan-Islamic nation in the sub-continent and contributed to the creation of Pakistan. And so Pakistan was formed out of East Bengal and the western Muslim majority provinces of British India on 14 August, 1947.

But it took a sizeable number of these Muslim Bengali leaders only a few months after Independence Day to realize that their right to speak in their mother tongue would be jeopardized in the very land that they had wanted to make completely their own. One by one, Pakistani rulers who privileged Urdu took a number of decisions that galvanized Bengali leaders into strong and principled opposition. For instance, they protested when a resolution was adopted in a Karachi educational summit soon after independence to make Urdu the state language and the sole language of education of Pakistan and when the Pakistan Public Service Commission decided to not approve Bengali as a subject for its examinations.  On 8 December 1947, Bengali students met in the University of Dhaka's campus to demand that their mother tongue be made an official language of the nascent state. Their demands would be supported by leading intellectuals of East Pakistan. The great Bengali linguist and a professor at the University of Dhaka, Dr. Mohammed Shahidullah, for instance, pointed out that Urdu was not a language rooted even in West Pakistan and declared, "If we have to choose a second state language, we should consider Urdu," implying thereby the claim of Bengali to be the first language. By the end of the year a National Language Action Committee was formed and the movement to counter the imposition of an alien language at the expense of the mother tongue gained momentum throughout East Pakistan.  

But the first real shock for these East Pakistani leaders came on 19 March, 1948. This was the day when Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Bombay-based lawyer who had spearheaded the Muslim move for an independent Muslim state in India in its latter stages, declared arrogantly at a civic reception organized in Dhaka's Ramna Race Course Maidan that "Urdu, and no other language" would be the state language of Pakistan; anyone who felt different, he declared vehemently, were "enemies of Pakistan."   Anger, resentment and the feeling of being betrayed and put down were only some of the emotions that stirred up all the East Pakistanis present there. But Jinnah could not sense the mood of dismay and the indignation he had left in the wake of his speech. A few days later, speaking at the University of Dhaka's convocation, he reiterated his desire to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan.

Not surprisingly, even the Bengali Muslim leaders who had worked actively for the creation of Pakistan reacted sharply and openly to his speech. Among them was A.K. Fazlul Huq, once Mayor of Calcutta as well as Premier of Bengal; Huq had left his privileged position in the city after presenting the Lahore resolution of 1940 that had led to the creation of Pakistan. Among the protesters as well was the young Muslim Bengali student leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had once campaigned actively for Pakistan in Calcutta but had afterwards left India to work for his people directly in East Bengal.

In the Unfinished Memoirs, a book Mujib had written in jail and left behind incomplete but that is now widely available, we can read of the rising political leader's growing dismay at Jinnah's position as well as the attempts being made by Urdu-speaking politicians in leadership positions in East Pakistan who were working to eliminate Bengali from public life in the emerging nation. In fact, Mujib wrote in his unfinished  memoirs that as early as February 1948 it had become obvious to him and to many East Pakistani Bengalis "that a great conspiracy was afoot to make Urdu and not Bengali the state language." Immediately, he and his friends met to "protest" against such a conspiracy (97); they also decided to declare 11 March "Bengali Language Demand Day". On March 11 police assaulted demonstrators in Dhaka. Some of their leaders, including Mujib, were taken to jail, only to be released a few days later. These demonstrations now spread throughout the country; it was clear that the sentiments of an overwhelming number of Bengalis were in favor of giving their mother tongue its rightful place as one of the two state languages of Pakistan. As Mujib puts the case in his Unfinished Memoirs, "Bengali was the mother tongue of 56 per cent of the people of Pakistan. Thus it should have been the only state language of the country. Nevertheless, we wanted both Bengali and Urdu to be state languages." (105)

Mujib was also present on March 19, 1948 when Jinnah declared first in the Race Course ground and later at the university's Convocation Centre that Urdu would be Pakistan's only state language. On both occasions, Mujib records in his memoirs, he and the other Bengali student present 'shouted out, 'No. no, no!'" Subsequently, he and other student leaders kept holding meetings and bringing out processions to assert the claim of their mother tongue. But the resolve of Pakistan's leaders was not shaken; Jinnah, for example, spoke on Pakistani radio on 28 March as he prepared to leave Dhaka to reiterate his "Urdu only" policy.

But Mujib and other Bengali leaders found that the West Pakistani leaders were bent on imposing themselves on their people in other ways as well. The movement against a Pakistan that they had not envisaged gathered momentum as did their attempts to oppose such repressive acts. Soon Mujib was in jail; so would be many others who had also realized that language was only one of many areas where Bengali rights were being trampled upon by the West Pakistani leaders and their few Bengali lackeys and that active opposition was the only way out to reclaim Bengali rights.

By the beginning of 1952 things were coming to a head. On the one hand was Jinnah's successor as the Governor-General of Pakistan, Khwaja Nazimuddin, who was bent on imposing Urdu as the only state language of the country. On the other were the Bengalis of East Pakistan who were determined to resist such a policy and who would now be mobilizing for that reason. When on 27 January 1952  Nazimuddin implied that he was going to go ahead with  policy of "Urdu-only" as far as the state language was concerned, and when after Bengalis got an inkling of the central government's plan to have Bengali written in the Arabic script, many of them got together to form an All-Party Central Language Action Committee. The members of the committee decided to hold strikes and rallies on the 21st of February to demonstrate against these developments.  

It was when students had come together at the university gate on that day and had broken through the police line set up to stop their procession that police fired on them. This led to further protests and rallies and even more police action, including arrests of some demonstrating students. The climax came when students who wanted to enter the East Bengal Legislative Assembly a little later to submit their demands were fired upon by the police. The consequence of this police action was the death of a number of students and people passing by, including Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar. Many others were injured while still other fled to safety for the time being. Even before the day had ended many Bengalis had come to realize what had happened by that time was extraordinary-their people had shed blood for their language and for their rights to break free of arbitrary shackles imposed by men who would have them alienated from their own culture. They realized too that Pakistan could no longer be an excuse to drown out the Bengali side of their lives. In hindsight it is only too easy to see what only a few people could have divined at the end of that day:  for the Bengalis of East Pakistan the 21st of February was the beginning of the end of their relationship with Pakistan.  The path had been opened that would lead them to March 7, 1971 when they would listen to Mujib's call to unite and reject Pakistanis once for all. That path would lead in turn to March 26, when the Pakistanis would adopt much more brutal tactics to stifle Bengali dissent than they had till now. That path would culminate once for all in December 16, 1971 when Bengalis of the region would finally become fully free in their own land to be all that they wanted to be, speak the language that they were born to speak, and claim their rights to be completely free citizens of an independent country.

The Bengali reaction to the brutal police action in Dhaka on the 21st of February and its consequences was electrifying. There was instant and spontaneous mass mobilization everywhere immediately afterwards; processions and protests marked the rest of the day and almost all subsequent days for a while. More and even more stringent measures adopted by the government and further police brutality could do nothing to stop the language movement that began to gather unbelievable momentum with every passing day.  In the end Pakistani imperial policy to denigrate the Bengali language proved futile. The Pakistanis would eventually concede that Bengali would become the other state language of Pakistan. This would happen on 29 February, 1956. The dead demonstrators would be recognized almost immediately after as shaheeds or martyrs who had given up their lives heroically for their language. The day would thus be known as shaheed dibosh or the day of the martyrs.

As early as the 23rd of February, 1952 a makeshift  Shaheed  Smritistombo or martyr's monument had been erected on the site of the protest.  The police would destroy it three days later and still later when it was rebuilt. Thus in 1954 a new monument was built to commemorate the deaths that had occurred in and around the site. In 1957 the architect Hamidur Rahman began work on building a more imposing monument with the help of the sculptor Novera Ahmed. On both these occasions the United Front Ministry, consisting of many of the leaders who would lead the Bengali movement for complete freedom, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, would be supporting the project to build the commemorative structure whole-heartedly. But the second United Front government was forced out of power like the first in 1958, and work on the project was stalled for some time. Nevertheless, Bengalis insistence led the military government to ultimately withdraw its opposition to the construction. Consequently, the imposing monument depicting symbolically a mother standing amidst her martyred sons was completed and inaugurated by Hasina Begum, the mother of the martyred Abul Barkat, on 21 February, 1963. However, the monument would be targeted by the marauding Pakistani forces at the time of the Bangladesh Liberation war-after all, it had become by this time the supreme symbol of the indomitable Bengali spirit to uphold their culture at all costs and a constant reminder of the biggest thorn in the Pakistani path to assume complete control over East Pakistan. Not surprisingly, once Bangladesh was liberated on December 16, 1971, the government prioritized the rebuilding of the monument and it was resurrected completely by 21 February, 1973.

The United Front ministry that had been elected in 1954 to form the cabinet in East Pakistan had decided to create the Bangla Academy in the vicinity of the site of martyrdom to protect, preserve, promote, project and propel Bengali language and culture into the future. The whole month of February is now filled with events commemorating the Bengali language centered on the Bangla Academy. An immensely popular book fair, known as the Ekushey boi mela, is the central event of the month. But Ekushey celebrations are not confined to the Ekushey monument located inside the University of Dhaka or the Bangla Academy book fair. In fact, the whole country now celebrates the month through book fairs, discussions on the language movement and its significance and cultural events. Ekushey monuments have sprung up all over the country by this time as have monuments commemorating the martyrs of the liberation war. Throughout the month newspapers and television give special coverage to the events being held and organize discussions, seminars and cultural events on the day, the significance of the mother tongue in our lives, and the past, present and future of Bengali language and literature. This is the month when the Bangla Academy announces awards for outstanding writers in different fields and when the government recognizes men and women who have made exceptional contribution to the country's arts and culture by conferring on them the Ekushey Padak or awards.

Indeed, the events of February 21, 1952 have by now gained mythic significance for all Bangladeshis. Ekushey, or the 21st of February, has become a national holiday for all Bangladeshis and is as revered by them as 26 March, their Independence and National Day, and December 16, the day when they were finally liberated from the shackles imposed on them by the West Pakistanis.  The rituals of the day begin just after midnight, when first the leaders of the country and then foreign as well as local dignitaries pay their respects to the martyrs by laying wreaths on the memorial. Then, from very early morning onwards, ordinary citizens take part in the Probhat Phere or morning procession. One by one, regardless of age, sex, race or religion, they file past the Ekushey monument, slowly, solemnly and in stately fashion, either singly or with friends or in groups, wearing black ribbons signifying their mourning, with sorrow in their hearts, but also with a sense of pride at what the martyrs had achieved for them and their nation. They start their procession in the graveyard in Azimpur where the martyrs are buried and move on to the chanting of the doleful dirge-like song, "Amar Bhaier Roktey Rangano Ekushey February/Aami Ki Bhulitey Pari" (How can I forget the 21st of February, so crimsoned with the blood of my brothers?"). After they have filed past the martyrs' monument and have placed flowers on it their procession will dissipate. All the time all processions are accompanied by the heartrending tune and poignant words of the Ekushey song. The whole event becomes even more memorable when one remembers that it was composed largely by Altaf Mahmud, himself a martyr of the 1971 liberation war, who worked on the lyrics penned by Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, and the original tune set by Abdul Latif.

Even before the turn of the millennium, Ekushey celebrations had spread to Bengali-speaking communities outside Bangladesh. Inspired by the symbolic significance of a day when one focused fully on the central role played in one's life by one's mother tongue, Rafiqul Islam, an expatriate Bangladeshi residing in Vancouver, Canada, proposed in a letter to the then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Anan on 9 January, 1998 that the day be proclaimed International Mother Language Day. The letter was taken up in all seriousness and by 1999 UNESCO had made the day International Mother Language Day. But the idea, once set in motion, like all momentous ideas, had even more earth-embracing consequences. Thus the United Nations General Assembly resolved formally to proclaim 2008 the International Year of Languages to spread awareness of the importance of multilingualism and multiculturalism. Another resolution adopted by the United Nation General Assembly on 16 May 2009 urged all member states "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world."  Ekushey February had thus now become transformed into a global event and the idea of preserving one's mother tongue and respecting all mother tongues has become an imperative for the nations of the world.

And so the 21st of February is a truly international phenomenon in our time. An Ekushey monument is being built in Kolkata by the West Bengal government; the net has a photo of demonstrators in Islamabad urging the Pakistan government to make Punjabi, the dominant spoken language of the country be given the status of a state language in their country; surely speakers of other threatened tongues will take inspiration from the day and demand that their language be given its due place in the life of the nation and the comity of nations. Indeed, in the last six decades people everywhere in the world have not only become more and more conscious of looking after their mother tongues and protecting them from the onslaught of others indifferent or hostile to them, but also of the dangers to them posed by so-called modernization, globalization and the onslaught of imperial languages. The world has become aware too of the vulnerability of languages, especially of mother tongues of small groups of people, caught up in the maws of imperial policies and insatiable capitalist media barrages. It now realizes that languages are dying by the day and the need of the hour is to prevent them from extinction through research, documentation and other proactive measures.

The Government of Bangladesh, the country where the Ekushey movement began and the nation which was born because it had learned to protect its mother tongue, has been only too conscious of its responsibilities in this regard.  This is why Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh's Prime Minister, decided to establish the International Modern Language Institute in Dhaka on March, 2001.  Determined to get it going, she finished work on an institution dedicated to the mother tongue and built according to the spirit of Ekushey, and was able to inaugurate it on February 21, 2010.

As I conclude, I think of the martyrs of 21 February 21, 1952. They did not die in vain and their spirits live on. This day Dhaka is fully alive, if solemnly so, commemorating them whole-heartedly. The Ekuhey Boi Mela, in and around Bangla Academy, is buzzing as crowds mass all over the area. On television, a telecom company is airing an ad where a Sierra Leone band is singing in the mother tongue of the singers the Ekushey February song. Truly, wondrously, the spirit of Ekushey has possessed us and will inspire us forever to uphold Bengali, our mother tongue, respect all mother tongues of the world, and do our bit for multilingualism and multiculturalism.

Dr. Fakrul Alam is a Bangladeshi academic, writer, and translator.

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