Ekushey February and Bangladesh

Hiren Pandit: Ekushey February has taught the spirit of self-sacrifice and made Bengalis great. As a nation, we were inspired to establish the right to self-determination and adopted a non-communal spirit combined with a language-based Bengali nationalist ideology. The spirit of great freedom came along the path of the great language movement. In fact, the language movement to protect the rights of the mother tongue started on 11 March 1948, under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In his ‘Unfinished Autobiography’, he wrote, “We saw that there is a big conspiracy going on to exclude Bengali and make Urdu the national language. East Pakistan Muslim Chhatra League and Tammadun Majlish protested and demanded that both Bengali and Urdu should be made state languages. We held a meeting and started the protest. At this time, the East Pakistan Muslim Chhatra League and the Tammadun Majlis jointly convened an all-party meeting and formed a ‘Rashtra Bhasha Sangram Parishad’. In the meeting, March 11, 1948 was declared as ‘Bangla Language Demand’ day.”

It was 71 years ago in this month of 1952, that Bengalis gave full support to the mass movement to protect the dignity of the mother tongue. On 21 February 1952, the courageous men and women of Bengal took to the streets to fight for Bengali language. Many brave sons of the soil sacrificed their lives to make the Bengali language a state language. This is a rare event in the history of the world. In exchange for their sacrifice, the right to speak the mother tongue, the dignity of the mother tongue and social and political motivation have been gained. The month of February is sad on one side but has its glorious chapter on the other.

Many languages around the world have become extinct after. People suffer from losing their spoken language. But the heroism of Bengalis has given their language recognition on 17 November 1999, by UNESCO. UNESCO recognized 21 February as International Mother Tongue Day around the world. At the final stage of Bengali’s cultural and socio-economic development, the struggle for its existence began. It is no less a credit to them that Bengali has sustained a language. In that one language, they speak and dream fluently. There are about 17 crore Bengali speakers today.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah addressed students at Dhaka University’s Curzon Hall and said “Pakistan’s provinces can use any language for their official work, but the state language will be only one, that will be Urdu.” At that time some students present in Curzon Hall protested by shouting ‘No’ ‘No’ and later gave a memorandum to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, many of whom were members of Jinnah’s Muslim League at that time. The memorandum gives examples of different countries in the world claiming to make Bengali one of the national languages, where multiple national languages have been accepted.

In protest of the then prime minister of Pakistan Khawaja Nazimuddin’s statement that “Urdu and only Urdu shall be the national language of Pakistan,” on 31 January 1952, the All-Union Central State Language Struggle Council was formed by the joint initiative of all political and cultural parties and convened by Kazi Ghulam Mahbub. The Sangram Parishad declared 21 February 21 as Language Day and called a strike across the country.

The Nurul Amin government-issued Section 144 on 21 February and opened fire on the students gathered in the premises of Dhaka Medical College and martyred Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Abdus Salam, Shafiur Rahman and one named Ahiullah. The boy, who was shot dead by the police on Dhaka’s Nawabpur Road.

Then on 23 February 1952, the first Shaheed Minar was built overnight and inaugurated by Shaheed Shafiur’s father. Later, in 1954, the National Assembly of Pakistan recognised Bengali as one of the national languages, and in 1956, Bengali was constitutionally given the status of the national language, which is one of the achievements in the history of the glory of Bengali nation. The students, intellectuals and politicians of East Pakistan soon realized that the central government of Pakistan planned to impose discrimination and exploitation.

East Pakistan became weaker in terms of education, health, and infrastructure due to this discriminatory economy of the central government. Bangabandhu presented the historic six points at a conference of opposition political parties in Lahore. The historic six-point declaration or certificate of the then East Pakistan’s autonomy and later the birth of Bangladesh. The main objective of the six-point demand was to make Pakistan a federal state like the United States and give full autonomy to each state.

The six-point charter proposals made in 1966 are more astute than the thinking of the developed countries of today. Pakistan’s policy of discrimination and exploitation of hopes of living independently resulted in mass agitation and bloody war that led to the birth of an independent Bangladesh on 16 December 1971.

Independent-sovereign Bangladesh was born in the language movement and its continuation, if we do not win the battle to achieve excellence in the field of science and technology, that country cannot truly be called a free country. February is the immortal commemorative month of today’s language movement. Throughout this month, we remember those who gave their lives in the police firing in the then capital of East Pakistan, Dhaka, to give Bengali the status of the state language. Despite being the majority in Pakistan, the ruling group was not willing to give Bengali the status of ‘only state language’. Even MA Jinnah, considered the undisputed leader of the Pakistani state, took a very negative stance on the issue, angering the students and educated community of the region. Its subsequent history is known to all.

It is the consciousness that arises in the language movement that brings us a sense of independence. It became more intense as the Pakistani authorities continued to insult it. Our unique history and traditions come forward gradually. The question of our identity and rights started to emerge strongly in literature as well. The poems written by the Bengali poets of the region in response to the incident of self-sacrifice in the language movement are still read with deep emotion. Not only the love for one’s own language but also the welfare of one’s own people comes to the fore in this way. The demand for autonomy began to grow. Attempts were also made to suppress it with decades of military rule. In the meantime, efforts are being made to diminish and destroy the glory of Bengalis. Attempts to deny Rabindranath. The educated community emerging from the rural society of East Bengal declared Nazrul as well as Rabindranath as its main source of literature and culture. Throughout the 1960s, the Bengali political and cultural awakening went hand in hand, sometimes intertwined. It inevitably leads us to freedom. It is therefore very reasonable to say that independence, namely independent Bangladesh, came through the language movement.

Although a large number of Bengalis live in different countries of the world, even in West Bengal, different people of the world know and respect Bengali because of Bangladesh. They respect that Bengali has not only sacrificed them to protect the dignity of the mother tongue but has also established it in a worthy place. The people of the world know today that the people of this region have also established a country on the basis of language-based nationality. They also enshrined nationalism as a fundamental principle of the state in the post-independence constitution, which a military government later tried to debunk. By confusing nationality and citizenship, they took a trick to mislead the people of this country. But people could not be kept confused for long. They have once again returned to mainstream nationalism. Our national consciousness has become stronger politically as the country returns to the path of the liberation war.

The country is moving forward economically. It is now self-sufficient in the production of many staple food grains, including rice. Bangladesh has prospered not only by sending manpower abroad but by exporting domestically produced goods. Bangladesh can now implement mega projects, even with its own financing. It is said that there are no undernourished people in the country. There has been a drastic change in the way of life of the people in the villages. The image of the country has changed in 52 years of independence. Bangladesh is moving from agriculture to industry and the service sector is also developing here. The martyrs of 1952 and 1971 must have dreamed of such a country.

We may not have got everything we aspired in Bangladesh. There is no doubt that we have spread education. We have been able to increase the number of educational institutions, even the number of universities; private universities, and technical universities are no less. But the question remains as to how much quality education is being ensured. Different streams of education from the primary level are not allowing our new generation to stand on the same footing. As the children of wealthy families go ahead with a different kind of education, it is again a cause of the disparity. We will make the mother tongue the medium of education or introduce Bengali at all levels—this was our pledge. To what extent have we been able to take the concerted effort required to accomplish that? How much progress has been made in Bengali quality book writing and even translation at the higher education level?

Bangla Academy organises a book fair in the month of the language movement. The book fair has expanded over time and its fame has spread far and wide. On this occasion, various types of books including literature are also being published. But if you look at the quality, someone may be disappointed in many cases. Anarchy is also going on in the use of language. Subjective use of language on social media is also responsible for this. However, writing in Bengali online has increased a lot. The participation of young people is significant. We need translation and promotion of high-quality literature written in Bengali in widely used languages including English. The ‘symbol of the nation’s mind’ Bangla Academy should also come forward in this work. It should not be forgotten that the Bangla Academy is a direct creation of the language movement.

The fact that 21 February is now declared by UNESCO as ‘International Mother Language Day’ is an honour for us. To protect the dignity of such recognition, we must again pay attention to protecting the spoken language of small ethnic groups in our country. Arrangements should be made so that their children receive education in their mother tongue and at the same time join the mainstream of development. As the language movement has made us proud, it has also made us responsible for certain tasks, which cannot be avoided. We cannot glorify our own language and country if we fail to advance in education, and culture and become better human resources. In this case, steps should be taken to eliminate discrimination to ensure equality of opportunity.

In addition to working for economic liberation in this country, political and cultural development must be ensured. During the Pakistan era, we rejected the cultural divide and advanced by fostering the democratic spirit, which should not be avoided. We must move forward on the path of unity, not division. We need to nurture progressiveness. In the changing global situation, it is difficult to move forward in a different way between the backward elements in each country. There is no option to proceed in this way. Regarding our non-communal spirit and democratic culture, opportunism and compromise cannot be tolerated. It will cause great disaster in national life. As a result of this, one day it may be seen that even if we can move forward economically, politically and culturally we have fallen far behind. At the core of this fight is education. Therefore, the basis of unity rather than division should be strengthened in the field of education. Unfortunately, despite this progress, state-funded written and printed textbooks are facing unexpected controversies. The power of division is also getting an opportunity to appear with a statement. The supporters of the liberation war should be careful about these things.

February, the commemorative month of the language movement, should also bring us an opportunity for introspection. Let’s not get bogged down in the euphoric talk of great achievements that have not yet been achieved or are in danger of being undermined.

  • Hiren Pandit is a columnist and a researcher

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