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The language of other people

Bengali poetry on a plaque at a Dhaka street junction.

Bengali poetry on a plaque at a Dhaka street junction.  

Mother tongue and Bangladesh: you can’t talk of one without talking about the other. So, as I write on International Language Day, which in a way celebrates mother tongues, let me begin at the beginning.

Historians may cringe if I suggest that the seed of Bangladesh — and of International Language Day — was planted by Mohammad Ali Jinnah way back in 1948, but on that sultry September morning last year, that’s what I realised acutely.

We were driving down High Court Street in Dhaka. Shaikh Jameerul Rahman asked the driver to stop and pointed at an impressive red building within a sprawling campus. Jameer bhai is touching 70 with the youthfulness of a teen. He has been a ‘Mukti Yodhya’, a freedom fighter in Bangladesh, and right then, for reasons I did not yet understand, his hands were shaking with excitement.

“That is the famous Curzon Hall of Dhaka University,” Jameer bhai said. I looked up at the building, ornate even from outside, an interesting mix of colonial and Mughal architecture. But Jameer bhai’s mind was elsewhere, not on architecture. “On March 24, 1948,” he said, “here, at Curzon Hall, Jinnah imposed Urdu as the official language of Pakistan, both East and West.” He then swirled around, looked me in the eye and asked, “Do you realise what that meant?”

In the confines of the back seat of a refurbished Japanese sedan, with Jameer bhai’s eyes boring into me, I tried hard to think. But thought wasn’t easy to come by. Fortunately, he answered his own question. That evening, Jameer bhai and I returned to the Dhaka University campus and not finding a bench to sit on, squatted on the lawn below Curzon Hall. Soon it became dark, but the moon flooded the lawn with its delicate glow. Jameer bhai was in full flow.

Jinnah died within six months of the Curzon Hall speech, perhaps oblivious of the tryst he crafted with history that would bring so much misery to the nascent country he fashioned out of British India.The Bengalis of East Pakistan would not accept Urdu as their official language over the claims of their beloved Bangla.

A simmering discontent began to grow. “Then, four years later, came ‘Ekushe’,” said Jameer bhai. But there was a build-up to that.

The sporadic protests for primacy of Bengali had continued in the years since Jinnah’s speech, mostly on college campuses. Intellectuals joined in. Prudent voices among them, like those of the linguist Muhammad Shahidullah, suggested accommodating Urdu as the second language of East Pakistan without shifting focus on Bengali as the primary official language.

Organisations such as Tamaddun Majlish and Rastrabhasa Sangram Parishad (National Language Action Committee), which had sprouted at the dawn of independence, now became more vocal and confrontational. Rapidly, the protests grew bigger and bolder. But the Pakistani government, represented lopsidedly by politicians from its western parts, suppressed the movements with strong hands. Subjugation rather than dialogue was the policy adopted. They were convinced of Jinnah’s doctrine stated unequivocally at Curzon Hall that without a state language, no nation can remain solidly together.

“Then came ekushe,” said Jameer Bhai. The government had outlawed protests and public meetings. But the Language Movement was proving unstoppable. In 1952, on ekushe February or February 21, defying prohibitory orders, the students of Dhaka University along with other political groups organised a massive protest.

Students started streaming into the campus from all directions. Their restlessness was palpable as the crowd swelled. The police encircled the entire campus. The situation was ominous. The Vice-Chancellor and other professors came out, urging both sides to calm down. But the inevitable happened. The police resorted to fire. Young blood was shed — Abdus Salam, Abdul Jabbar, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat…. The city went into a frenzy. And the winds blew across all of East Pakistan.

The next day, February 22, brought more agitations and more deaths, including that of activist Sofiur Rahman. Slowly, the unrest subsided. But it gave rise to new resolve and new songs such as ‘ Amar bhaier rokte rangano ekushey february’ (Soaked in the blood of my brother, 21st February). The word ‘ ekushe’ was born. And in less than two decades, in 1971, the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan broke away to become independent Bangladesh.

In 1999, UNESCO chose February 21 as International Mother Language Day, a tribute to the ekushe protest . And the word assumed cult status for all indigenous languages across the world in their fight for equal rights and recognition.

How relevant is it to pick up ekushe from the archives of fading memories and hold it under the arc light today? For one, ekushe is as much about honouring the mother tongue as it is about the voice of the marginalised. And in that context, it is relevant to an India where the teeming diversity ensures that each one of us is a “minority” in one sense or the other – linguistically, religiously, or ethnically.

The narrative of ekushe is not about tolerance but acceptance of the other, however minor or marginalised. And in a Bangladesh torn by fundamentalist onslaughts and the murders of free-thinking bloggers, any narrative of tolerance is worth retelling.

Ashis Dutta is a Bangalore-based software entrepreneur and freelance writer.

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2020 2:44:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/ashis-dutta-on-ekushe-and-why-unesco-chose-february-21-as-international-mother-language-day/article8257182.ece

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