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The language movement that led to freedom

21 February, 2021 13:32:43
The language movement that led to freedom

How old is the Bengali language? No scholar, expert, researcher has been able to decide on a specific date or year. Do we need one, really? No. Languages are, after all, born of ethnic cultures.

Bengali stayed number one. The language movement became a freedom movement. And 24 years later, Bangladesh was free, the Muktijuddho having claimed the lives of 30 lakh martyrs.

Several mighty kings held successive sway over the eastern regions of the country, over Bengal, when India was still undivided, but Sanskrit, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, never found a place in the public consciousness. The average citizen never mastered them. Instead, they were pushed away. No priest or mullah could scare people into accepting the ‘language of Ishwar’, or the ‘language of Allah’. That is the glory, the greatness of the Bengali language. As the poet says, there is no satisfaction save the language of one’s soil. 

Had India remained undivided, for political reasons, plenty of people have voiced their apprehensions of what the fate of Bengali would have been. As an example, post-Independence India saw the crafty attempts to impose Hindi on various states. Look at Kolkata itself, where 53 percent of the population are non-Bengali, mostly Hindi speakers. In central and north Kolkata, English and Hindi signboards abound, in offices, malls. English-medium schools grow like mushrooms. There are even some Hindi schools, but Bengali schools are gradually headed for extinction. The logic behind not teaching Bengali, the mother tongue, is that it is useless in other states of India, other countries of the world. It can ensure neither jobs, nor business. Do Kolkata and West Bengal have enough jobs and businesses?

To get back to the political divisions, and the division of India. India was split in two, of which one piece became Pakistan. That in turn was divided into East and West. Undivided Bengal was sliced, too, as was Punjab. 

From East Bengal to East Pakistan. It is a historic joke that the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, spoke no Urdu, a mere five percent of West Pakistanis spoke Urdu, and yet he declared that Urdu would be the language of Pakistan. In 1948, at Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan, he made his announcement, forgetting that Bengali belonged to 70 million people.

From East Bengal to East Pakistan. It is a historic joke that the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, spoke no Urdu, a mere five percent of West Pakistanis spoke Urdu, and yet he declared that Urdu would be the language of Pakistan. In 1948, at Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan, he made his announcement, forgetting that Bengali belonged to 70 million people. The resistance that began in the days to come sowed the seeds for the eventual movement for the independence of East Bengal. In every heart and mind, Bengali stayed number one. The language movement became a freedom movement. And 24 years later, Bangladesh was free, the Muktijuddho having claimed the lives of 30 lakh martyrs. 

On February 21, 1952, a few students died, were killed actually, as they agitated for their mother tongue. In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day. While languages are born of ethnic cultures, it is also a fact that around the world, ethnic cultures are losing nearly 1,500 words per day, as is Bengali, perhaps. Alien languages are making their way in. 

The Constitution of Bangladesh names Bangla as the national language, yet English rules over its government offices and courts. Schools that teach English are everywhere. On the other hand you have a flourishing Arabic culture in the name of Islam, madrasas mushrooming everywhere at government expense. And then there’s always Saudi Arabia, pouring in its petro dollars.

The entire month of February is dedicated to the observation of ‘Ekushe’ through a book fair, one of the largest in the world. And the world over, Bengalis are making their presence felt in country after country, Bengali culture is spreading its wings. That ought to make us happy, certainly.

February 21 used to be a day of mourning. But it is now a festival, a festival celebrating language. I sometimes joke that I am as old as Bengali. Or Bengali is as old as me. Reason, I was born on February 21, 1952. Our pride, our hope, oh our Bangla.

Story Tag:
  • Bhasha Andolan

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