Bangla: The history of a language
Language is the dress of thought. It is this language which enables human beings not only to communicate with each other, but also to give vent to feelings and emotions, and express or record thoughts and ideas, dreams and desires. Wherever there are men, there is language. Language has always accompanied man in his slow and difficult climb to higher civilization. Without language for communication, there would be little or no science, religion, commerce, art, literature, and philosophy.No wonder Webster claimed, "Language was the immediate gift of God."
We, the Bangladeshis, are grateful to Benign Providence that He has, in His infinite Mercy, blessed us with a language which not only has a great tradition behind but also occupies a unique place in the annals of history. We are really proud that Amor Ekushey, the Red Letter Day in the history of language, the well-spring of our deepest emotions about our cultural heritage and the harbinger of all our hard struggles, has been singled out of the 4000 plus mother languages and blessed with the unique honour of the International Mother Language Day.
Bangla, the blood of our blood and the bone of our bone, is no ordinary language. The heartthrob of more than 140 million Bangladeshis, Bangla indeed is no language of common rank or trifling merit. It is a language capable of expressing the finest modulations of thoughts and feelings, never failing to respond to the ever-changing play of life, a literature worthy to be taught in any university in the world a language which, in the words of the great Maestro Tagore, “belongs to the procession of life, making constant adjustments with surprises, exploring unknown shrines of reality along its path of pilgrimage to a future which is as different from the past as the tree from the seed.
Bangla also occupies a unique prestigious place in the annals of civilization simply because it is the only language in the world for the recognition of which people have smilingly embraced bullets and shuffled off the mortal coil, the only language on this globe for the legitimate and rightful status of which people have braved the bitterest ordeals, have faced the gravest trials and tribulations, have unhesitatingly accepted the cold and cruel kiss of death, the only language on earth the struggle for which has helped a nation achieve an independent and sovereign state. No language on the clay of this cold star can boast of such unparalleled devotion, dedication and sacrifice from those speaking it.
The renowned Mahastan Plaque discovered by Baru Fakir in 1931, considered by some as the earliest evidence of "primitive" Bangla (the famous Charya-Charya Binischaya is, however, almost universally accepted as the earliest available specimen of Bengali literature), testifies to the fact that Bangla is no newborn baby in the cradle of languages. Although it originates from the Eastern Prakrit group of the Indo-Aryan family of languages, its history dates back to the Aryan days. Some scholars even go to the extent of claiming that the emperor Ashoka, and even Lord Buddha, occasionally used a certain type of Bangla "Lipi" while communicating with their subjects and disciples in the eastern regions of this subcontinent.(Incidentally, a research-paper written by Dr. Mohammed Rezaul Karim, published in "Itihas" edited by Profs.Wakil Ahmed and Habiba Khatun, in 2007 AD, claimed that the first inscription in Bangla was made by Mohammed Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1205 when a bi-lingual coin was issued in Gour with the words "Gosur Bijoy" inscribed on it in Devnagri script.)
In the pre-Aryan days the people living in Bengal were of Dravidian, Mongolian, Bhot-Chin or Kolomboda origin. They used to speak in Dravidian, Bhot-Chin or Munda languages.
It was in Gupta era that Bengal had first contact with the Aryan civilization. But before any intimate or effective acquaintance could be established with the Aryan civilization, the Pal kings turned Bengal into one of the citadels of Buddhism. The Aryans realised that the first step to pollute or cripple a culture is to destroy or distort its language. As a result of systematic oppression by the Sanskrit and Prakrit speaking people the innocent indigenous inhabitants of Bengal started forgetting their languages. But Sanskrit was no effective spoken language, almost everything it had at the time was in black and white. So a section of the people started speaking in a particular type of Prakrit known as Gouriya-Prakrit. The Gouriya-Prakrit being used by the non-Aryans, Dravidians, Kot-Chins, Mundas and Kols took a distorted form and many a word from their dialects had slow but steady access into it. Slowly and silently this distorted form of Gouriya-Prakrit (Gouriya Apabhramsa) gave birth to ancient Bengali language. But the people who used to speak in this ancient form of Bangla were looked down upon as an inferior caste by the Aryans. It was claimed that anyone who spoke in this 'disgraceful' dialect of the untouchables would inevitably go to hell. It is really unfortunate that although Bengal reached the peak of glory in almost every domain of thought during the reign of Gopal Dev and his descendants, who ruled over this part of subcontinent for more than three hundred years, the Bangla language could not make any remarkable progress. The reason was plain and simple - the then Hindu society always despised and hated this 'ignominious dialect of the untouchables'. Written form of Bengali was yet to come.
After the Pals came the Sens who ruled over Bengal for nearly one hundred years. To them also Bangla was the language of the untouchables.
It was the conquest of Bengal by the Muslims in 1201 AD which ushered in a new era for Bangla, providing it a congenial environment and proper facilities to thrive into a major language. When the Muslims first conquered Bengal there was hardly any Bengali literature worth the name. Nor was the language cultivated by the educated class. The language of the Charya-Charya Binischaya, now referred to as Charyapads, comprising 47 poems making a total of some 480 lines, according to competent sources, was "but poor fragments of the literature" which owed its origin "chiefly to earnestness of Tantrik Buddhists for popularizing their creed and which was just evolving out of Laukika".
Whatever might be the exact date of the Charyapads it is generally recognized by scholars that no vernacular language could have found a scope for free literary expression under the Brahmanical system which preceded the coming of the Muslims and which interdicted the study of any but the Sanskrit language. A well-known Sanskrit Sloka (couplet) states that if a person hears "the stories of Ashtadash Puranas or of the Ramayana recited in Bengali, he will be thrown into the hell called Raurava" Bangla, "the language of the untouchables" would have surely been nipped in the bud had there been no patronage from the Muslim kings like Sikander Shah, Hussain Shah, Yusuf Shah, Barbak Shah and Paragol Khan.
One of the most important results of the establishment of Muslim rule was the break-up of the Brahmanical monopoly of knowledge and literary activities and a general freeing of the Hindu intellect from the bondage of caste system. The Muslims could not be expected to make any distinction between Brahmins and non-Brahmins in any legitimate sphere of activity, all of them being equally eligible for acquiring knowledge and official positions according to merit. The Muslims not only welcomed Bangla with an open heart but they literally gave a new birth to this hitherto neglected language. By 1350 AD Muslims had united different regions of Bengal and started becoming patrons of Bengali language and literature, thus providing an impetus to new literary productions in Bengali.
Blessed with the royal patronage the swelling waves of Bangla started reaching every nook and corner of Bengal. It reached the high and the low, the rich and the poor and played a dominant role in every sphere of activity and in every domain of thought. Hindus and Muslims alike welcomed the royal patronage and enjoyed its benefits with all their heart. Ramaya Pundit eulogized in unequivocal terms the Muslim conquest of Bengal as a heavenly bliss. In Niranjaner Rushma, a section of his Shunnya Purana, the Muslims are portrayed as Religious Incarnate releasing people from the tyranny and oppression of the Brahmins and the Sen rulers. No wonder, Promatha Chowdhury has unhesitatingly admitted : "Bangla literature had its genesis in the Muslim era." Dinesh Chandra Sen further corroborates : “We are led to believe that when the powerful Moslem sovereigns of Bengal granted this recognition to the vernacular literature in their own courts, Hindu Rajas naturally followed the suit.” (History of Bengali Language and Literature)
The renowned historian Dr. Muhammad Mohar Ali gives a vivid description of the commendable Muslim patronage of Bangla : "The first notable literary production in Bengali was a translation of the Ramayana by poet Krittivas during the first quarter of the 15th century, most probably during the reign of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Shah (1415-1431). The poet praises the Gauda ruler for his patronage and also states that the work was commissioned by him. The next notable work was by poet Maladhar Vasu, an inhabitant of village Kulin in Murshidabad district. He lived during the time of Sultan Yusuf Shah (1474-1482). Under the latter's patronage the poet composed his Srikrishna-Vijaya on the basis of the 10th and 11th chapters of Bhagavad-Gita. The poet also received the title of Gunraj Khan either from Barbak Shah or from Yusuf Shah. The poet takes care to state that he composed the work because the Sudras, the lowest caste of the Hindus, were not allowed to read the Puranas in their originals. Some other poets also flourished during the Ilyas Shahi period.
During the Hussain Shahi period a number of important poets like Vijayagupta, Vipradas Piplai, Yasoraj Khan, Kavindra Parameshwara and Srikara Nandi composed their works. Early in Hussain Shah's reign (1493-1519) Vijayagupta composed his Padma Purana (most probably in 1494-95), while Vipradas Piplai wrote the Manasamangala, an epic on the snake cult, about the same time. Also during the same reign Yasoraj Khan composed his Srikrishna-Vijaya. Kavindra Parameshwara received the patronage of Hussain Shah's general and Chittagong governor Paragal Khan and at his instance translated a part of the Mahabharata into Bengali. A number of Sanskrit works like Haricharita Krishnalila, Udbhava-Sandesh, Gitabali, Nilmani, etc. by various poets were also composed during the time and under the patronage of Hussain Shah. His son and successor Nusrat Shah (1519-1532) was an equally enthusiastic patron of learning and literature. His Chittagong governor Chhuti Khan, son of Paragal Khan, patronized poet Srikar Nandi who translated the Asvamedha Parva of the Mahabharata under his orders. Nusrat Shah himself sponsored another translation of the Mahabharata, but that work has not hitherto come to light. Another poet, Dvija Sridhara, composed an epic named Vidyasundra under the patronage of prince Firuz Shah, Nusrat Shah's son." (Muhammad Mohar Ali, History of the Muslims of Bengal, Riyadh, 1985, Pp.856-858).
The Muslim rulers indeed made every effort to patronize Bangla. Baru Chandidas of Srikrishna-Kirtan was blessed with a royal invitation to sing at the court of Gaur. Maladhar Vasu of Srikrishna-Vijaya could complete his works with much-needed royal patronage for seven years from Sultan Barbak Shah. Krittivas also had the unique distinction of being personally garlanded by the Sultan himself. None indeed can deny the fact that the patronage of the Muslim kings was the most effective and greatest factor in Bangla's transition from the spoken stage to the written one. Mention may be made in this connection that Bengal had also numerous Muslim writers in those days. Great personalities like Muhammad Sagir of Yusuf-Zuleikha fame wrote fearlessly and freely ignoring totally the hoodwink of the then orthodox Mullahs. Syed Sultan, Haji Muhammad, Sheikh Mutalib and Abdunnabi also openly advocated the cause of Bangla. In the thirteenth century the illustrious father of Hazrat Nur Kutubul Alam, who migrated to Bengal from Punjab, even went to the extent of affixing the title Bangalee to his name and he was known all over Bengal as Sheikh Alaul Huq Bangalee.
And it was the Muslim poet Abdul Hakim who was the first litterateur to criticize in writing the nefarious activities of the Bangla-haters as far back as 17th century. He had the courage and conviction to urge the enemies of Bangla either to change their attitude or to leave Bengal for good. The people of Bengal had indeed started struggling for the legitimate rights and recognition of their mother tongue - a struggle which continued for centuries, and being rejuvenated by the historic Ekushey, culminated in the very birth of an independent and sovereign state known as Bangladesh. As we celebrate and mourn on Amor Ekushey, a spark of light, indefinable and beautitully etched in the mind, which links the sadness scrawled on the Shaheed Minar with the poignancy of the National Memorial in Savar, none can afford to forget even for a moment that this red letter day, tinged with the sacred blood of martyrs like Barkat, Salam, Jabbar and Rafique, owes its very sustenance and nourishment to the glorious patronage of the Muslim era in Bengal.
Bangla nationalism Identity and state
As Bangladeshis, we trace our roots to the language movement which began almost immediately after our second host country, Pakistan, came into being soon after it was split up from our first and primary host country, British India. Our sense of identity produced by language was always high, even in the founding meeting of the Muslim League at Dhaka in 1906. At this meeting seen as a rallying gathering of Indian Muslims, Bengali leaders raised the issue of their own language based identity and culture along with their faith based politics.
Urdu's journey to and in Pakistan
Urdu emerged as the lingua franca of the Pakistan movement that was led by the Urdu speaking elite of the erstwhile United Provinces of India, roughly aligned to present day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and adjoining areas. It was also the language of Pakistan after 1947 too partly because the Urdu speaking elite who ran the early days of Pakistan were largely from the same zone led by the first Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, a Muhajir. Pakistani historians will have to analyse if he was good or bad for Pakistan in the long run, but his assassination was an indicator that he had made powerful enemies within the Pakistani ruling class.
Urdu declined in power and status not much because Bengalis refused it universal status but mostly as the Punjabi and Sindhi elite --- geographically Pakistani locals, fought back and ultimately drove them from leadership, political and commercial. Subsequent violence against the Biharis of Pakistan and Bangladesh probably carry the code of revenge against Pakistan as a language based ideological state.
The 'Pakistan' of pre-1947 imagination was a restoration aspiration of the cancelled Mughal supremacy represented by the overthrown Urdu elite of India that led the Pakistan movement. This contest of Hindus and Hindi based ideology birthed Pakistan, kept it going through the early years but began to retreat around the decade of 50s as industrialization took off in Pakistan and money shifted largely to non-Muhajir hands.
The Pakistan state was always anti-Hindu but not anti-Hindi soon after 1947 since Hindi had had no cultural existence in Pakistan. On its own, Urdu declined as a political force and was further reduced into a political force of a city based ethnic elite MQM- after 1971. In fact, after Pakistan's humiliation in 1971 it too died and it was therefore possible to leave behind hundreds of thousands of Urdu speaking Biharis in Bangladesh to face the savage wrath of Bengalis hungry for revenge. There was no longer any political cost in abandoning those who were loyal to a nationalism that birthed Pakistan, created a new elite class and finally failed to create a functional state because the ruing class had largely changed.
The new post-1971 Pakistan is not a product of Urdu language based culture looking for a home. Pakistan is created by aspirations of a new elite class that uses the state itself as a source of ideology. Hating India is more important than loving what birthed Pakistan. It is not a continuation of the older Pakistan with its cultural roots now lying in primary host country India and now its prime enemy. While the common element is anti-Hindu feelings, present Pakistan is more about anti-India, more about contesting a state rather than any cultural identity. It's more about itself and its geography.
Bengali: The identity and the state
If one nationalist ideology died in 1971, another successful birth was Bangladesh where language and its cultural expression became the dominant state ideology. Unlike Urdu, however, Bengali was not upheld by immigrants from another land but residents of the state themselves. Thus, there was no ethnic conflict about the ruling class structuring. All were Bengalis and spoke Bengali and were Muslims. The issue lay in the aspiration of the people who took power and refusal to segregate the Bengalis as per their socio-economic conditions.
In Bangladesh, language became the tool for post-state nationalism building coupled with religious identity expansion which the present face of the constitution shows. Historically, nationalism is an effective instrument to fight domination of another state or ethnic elite but in case of post-1971 Bangladesh, no such issue remained so the produced nationalism became a surplus product that has instead of building political muscle generated a great deal of not so useful political obesity. It doesn't serve any meaningful purpose if cultural celebrations became an end in themselves as Ekushey appears to have become over time. Or did they?
Celebrations can produce new nationalisms but their role in contemporary Bangladesh is not so clear. Of course, it has a role in celebrating the concept of 'Bengali' nationalism but, otherwise, one may ask about the link between the nationalist celebration of Bengali and the relationship with the state.
Of course, celebrations affirm the identity of the state and the state leadership from whichever construct they may emerge but the split in Bangladesh is not ethnicity based barring the small CHT population of several shades. Language has provided a common cloak for all which has also forced a sense of unanimity and uniformity of the population although the socio-economic spaces they occupy vary from each other. The split is the divide between the less and the more.
With the death of class politics and absence of any nationalist content, there is no pressure on the ruling class to share state benefits with others because modern states deliver either under threat of nationalist movements or because of demands of their own democratic structures.
In the case of Bangladesh, the language based ruling class has used the lingo-ethnic identity to build nationalism, cause birth of the state and continue ruling without facing any threat from any quarter. They have also faced little pressure to build democratic governance structures so they neither feel obligated to change the way the people are ruled. It seems it is rather nice to be a Bengali Muslim in Bangladesh with regular affirmations of national identities through public celebrations which shield any scrutiny of the construct that birthed the state and continues to sustain it.
Let not Bengali slide down
Who would have dreamt that a demand for making one's mother tongue a state language, for the realization of which a supreme sacrifice was made, would one day elevate all languages and dialects in whatever form they are from around the world to the highest status of recognition and honour?
This year Ekushey assumes special significance in terms of completing a decade of its being adopted as the International Mother Language Day on November 17, 1999 by the UNESCO. This admirable task was made to be a success by the initiative and determination of two Bengalis coincidentally bearing the same two great names of the martyrs of 1952, Rafiqul Islam, a great freedom fighter in the War of Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, and S. M. Salam, both of whom are residents of Canada. We have traversed a bumpy long way in getting Bangla recognized as one of the state languages, then another considerable period of time to transform it into its usability in offices, courts, colleges and universities of all kinds. Although the achievements so far have been commendable, yet much remains to be done in order to retain its purity and naturalness as a rich and refined language.
Pakistan witnessed the consequences of ignoring Bengali spoken by the majority of its population. Nonetheless we have been confronting another kind of indifference if not negligence to the proper use of Bengali with much of its consequential ramifications. Bengali as we have been hearing for quite a considerable period of time has very much deviated from its normal look that comprises the quintessence of its construction, beauty and elegance which by no means indicates perceptual differences due to a generation gap. Or else, evolution of Bengali language from the days of Michael Madhusudan Dutta, Bankim C. Chatterjee, Vidyasagar and others of a later date would not have been appreciated by the readers and writers belonging to the younger generations. Therefore, the problem that we have been facing lies in a peculiar kind of mind-set that is everything but Bengali. Infiltrations of elements of other cultures were always there that were absorbed by stylistic assimilations in the language that those made an incursion into.
Against this backdrop of an anomalous state of Bengali that we have been experiencing, a brief survey of some aspects reveal a quiet acceptance of Bengali words and their pronunciations besides some other irritants that have undergone mutations as heard even in the utterances of educated people. Some of the examples are: (a) an age-old practice of mispronouncing Bengali letters and their phonic sounds, e.g., ebong (aebong), kebol (kaebol), shamanno (shamainno), broto (brot), mon (mwan). One latest addition to this already long list of mispronunciation is the word 'birodhi' that is mostly used by both politicians and so-called politicians as 'brodhi'. A hurried 'br' sound is heard in place of 'biro' that mars the opposition completely as desired by the party in power of any period to fulfill its wild dreams into actuality. (b) The latest fad of pronouncing 'chhe' as used in the present perfect tense of verbs as 'saeh' that creates words like bolesaeh, koresaeh, etc., sound most weird particularly when heard on audio and audio-visual media. Such an attempt to modernize Bengali pronunciations is absolutely ridiculous.
It has often been noticed that many speakers on TV programmes grope for appropriate words in Bengali only to end up using words in English. A little homework would have saved them from our feeling of embarrassment if not theirs. It is very well understood that many words in English have since long been used more or less by all of us while speaking in Bengali, a matter about which no one should be so pedantic as to thwart the flow of one's communication. Nevertheless, all efforts should be made to keep this habit at bay. In this connection, the present day fashion of using too simple English words like 'so, but, always, again, because, then', etc., in spoken Bengali has rendered the language into a cheap and a hybrid one that can very well be described as pidgin Bengali. Some well thought of people describe such a morbid situation as Bangraji or Benglish.
The spellings of words have granted almost absolute liberty tantamount to a license to their users. Oversimplification of spellings vis-à-vis the policy and practice of doing away with chondrobindu (the nasal sound) is deemed most atrocious, more so in view of a prevalence of our already flawed kind of pronunciation. It puts us in double jeopardy. On top of all such messy and, therefore, confusing situation concerning Bengali, the way calendar dates in Bengali are uttered nowadays adds insult to injury at least to my auditory sense organ. For example, aek Magh, dui Srabon, etc., that very well can be put as 'Magh masher / Magher aek tarikh, Sraboner / Srabon masher dui tarikh' and so on and so forth would not be time-consuming if the authorities thought in that line.
Growing up in Dhaka in the 1950s and the early 1960s I was exposed to at least four languages. Bangla I naturally heard all day long, almost everywhere, but English was never far away from me wherever I was. Urdu, on the other hand, seemed to invade my consciousness every now and then. Occasionally, Hindi, too, intruded into it through the airwaves for my eldest sister was fond of the Binaca Geetmala on Radio Ceylon. It is obvious to me now that such a mixture of languages is healthy for the growth of the mind, but the politics of identity then would make our reception to Urdu and Hindi quite problematic for a long time.
At home, of course, we always spoke Bangla. My mother spoke to us in the “shuddho” form, and always insisted that we did so too. My father mixed up English and Bangla when he spoke to us unselfconsciously. But with my friends I enjoyed spicing the correct form of Bangla with pungent Dhakaia idioms, or moved seamlessly between English and Dhaka's social dialect, relishing the mixture immensely. In school we would sprinkle the occasional Urdu word in our conversation, for we had some West Pakistanis as our classmates. Our house was full of visitors from my parents' desh and so we heard a lot of the Noakhali dialect too, amused at the unique inflections and the occasional unintelligible word that our relatives used when speaking to Amma and Baba.
The radio--the chief form of home entertainment--was mostly tuned to Radio Pakistan, Dhaka, and Akashvani, Calcutta. We always heard the news on Radio Pakistan being presented in Bangla, but while waiting for it to be aired, would have to occasionally listen to the news in Urdu reluctantly. Was the Urdu newscaster speaking perennially in a gruff voice or were we impatient for him to end and therefore too irritated to like the sound of Urdu? Now I think it must be the latter, because the Urdu I hear from time to time while channel-hopping nowadays or on occasional visits to the parts of India where the language is spoken appears to me to be quite pleasing in its sounds. But then we would look forward eagerly not only to the end of the Urdu news but-- depending on the time of the day to the Bengali songs--mostly folk and modern or the ones composed by Nazrul Islam. In the somnolent afternoons, we would relax after coming home from school or on holidays by listening to modern Bengali songs on Akashvani. In addition, whenever my father was around, we would listen to Rabindra Sangeet on Calcutta radio or to classical music being broadcast from Delhi, introduced in Hindustani by its announcers, which seemed like a softer version of the Urdu we heard on Radio Pakistan.
Our neighborhood hummed with cultural activities centered on Bangla. My sisters, learning to sing at home or the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts, were performing Bangla patriotic songs in neighborhoods shows. Songs like “Amar Sonar Bangla”, “O Amar Desher Mati” , “Badh Bhenge Dao”, “Dhonne Dhanne Pushpe Bhora' and “Runner” were being sung everywhere. I was an “O' level student of St. Joseph's School, and Bangla was taught only in the most rudimentary way in our institution, but I had become an avid reader of popular Bengali novels by the time I was in my teens. One of my sisters had set up a “home” library and through it I now began to devour Bangla--fictions thrillers, romances, and comic stories. Although my Bangali friends and I were now speaking English fluently and resorting to it more and more in school, we never saw our love for English books and music in any way undermining our love for Bangla and our culture. Indeed, the Bangla programs on the increasingly popular television station were absorbing us evening after evening. We would still keep strewing Urdu words in our conversation with our West Pakistani class friends for a few more years, but by the mid-sixties, we were becoming determined to stick to Bangla and English in our exchanges with them. No doubt after 1965, when the Indo-Pakistan war made every Bangali in Dhaka feel vulnerable and marginalized in the Pakistani scheme of things, we had become suspicious of the blather about brotherhood being aired by Pakistani s.
But the song that possessed us completely in the later years of the nineteen sixties was “Amar Bhaiyer Rokte Rangano Ekushey February.” Elegiac, haunting and immensely moving, it was played endlessly throughout the day on the twenty-first of the month. But the paradox was that the more we heard it the more beautiful it sounded. For sure, it took over our consciousness like no other song did. I was now studying in Dhaka University and allowed by my parents to spend Ekushey evening and night outside the house. I would join the midnight procession with a few friends and listen to the musical events organized all over the city for the next twenty-four hours or so, or for as long as I could avoid sleep! Ekushey day and Chayanot's Pohela Boishakh functions were also occasions for Bangla's incomparable stock of songs to take over our sensibility and awe us with the beauties of the language we had been born into.
The other thing that took over our consciousness as the decade came to a close was Sheikh Saheb's speeches. One unforgettable day in December, when he was on the campaign trail for the national elections, I heard him speak in three successive meetings in and around Manikganj. I was enthralled by his oratory, but also spellbound by the inspirational tone with which he delivered his speech and the fluent and passionate way in which he spoke in Bangla. In his folksy and insistent manner he poured scorn on the Pakistanis and made us dream about taking over our country for the first time in recent history.
Our love for Sheikh Saheb and the golden Bengal he made us envisage peaked after his 7 March, 1971 speech. It made us feel then and subsequently as nothing else did the eloquence and the power of the language and the rootedness of our hopes in our bhasha. His speech seemed to have made Bangla into a wing that could soar us to an immense height from where we could see the infinite possibilities of breathing the pure air of freedom. By now he had become Bangobandhu and had made us all realize that we had to have a space of our own where we could make the language ring with freedom and make it the vehicle of our aspirations.
But soon Bangobandhu was in prison and we had to listen to his speech being played endlessly on Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro confined to our homes for most of that cataclysmic year. Amazingly though, the more we heard the speech, the more inspirational it seemed to be, and the more potent an antidote to the veiled threats and insidious messages being broadcast over Radio Pakistan. Indeed, the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro appeared to be the perfect alternative to the claptrap being served on the official Radio. The saucy, striking voice of M. R. Akhter Mukul and his effortless use of Bangla dialects as he read his “Chorom Potro”, the rousing patriotic songs by Nazrul and contemporary composers as well as the sweet and soothing music of Tagore being aired on this station proved to be the right mix to sustain our hopes in besieged Dhaka in 1971.
For me though 1971 was also memorable as the year when I discovered Jibanananda Das, “Bonolata Sen” and Ruposhi Bangla, Tagore's poems and the wonders of modern Bangla verse. Forced to stay home by the intimidating and repressive tactics being used by the Pakistani army, I now savored the wonders of modern Bangla poetry as never before. I had come relatively late to its treasures, and would lose sight of them for years as I first pursued English Studies obsessively abroad and then tried to establish myself professionally. But the Bangla language and the splendors of its literature and music, of “Amar Baier Rokto Rangano” and Bangabondhu's speech had seeped into my consciousness over the years and would never be lost. They would reside in my sensibility and would come back to me whenever I was ready to cultivate them. Bangla after all was my primal language, my most significant inheritance, and my deepest link with my mothermy mother tongue.
What does Bangla mean to me now? I attempt an answer and also a bid to salute it as well as Bangladesh with my translation of Amar Shonar Bangla, Tagore's immortal paean to our motherland:
My Bengal of Gold
I love you, my Bengal of gold,
Your skies and winds make my soul as musical as a flute.
O mother, in spring your mango blossoms' heady scent drives me wild
How fulfilling it is too o mother dear
To see your fields smile delightfully in late autumn!
Such beauty and such shades, such warmth and such tenderness,
Such a lush carpet spread under bata tree canopies and riverbanks;
O mother, your sounds ring in my ear and comfort me
How fulfilling such sights and sounds are o mother dear!
But when you look sad how my tears can flow!
In your nursery I've spent my childhood
I consider life blessed when I daub my body with your dust and clay,
And when day ends and evening descends how lovely is your light,
How pleasing it is then o mother dear
To abandon play knowing you will take me up in your lap adoringly!
In fields where cattle graze and in riverside ghats where boats dock;
All day long in shaded village paths reverberating with bird songs;
And in your crop-filled fields where we spend our lives;
How fulfilling you make our lives o mother dear!
Your herd boys and farmhands all become my own then!
O mother, when I lay myself down at your feet;
Bless me with the dust that they tread, for they will bejewel me.
O mother dear, what little I have I will lay at your feet,
How fulfilling to stop adorning myself with foreign purchases,
To know that even the rope you provide for a noose can be my decoration piece!
Seed of independence
Words are symbols of thought. They enable us not only to express ourselves but also to identify our areas of interest, our dreams, our beliefs and our aspirations. Collectively, words turn into a language that in its own way is the expression of the glory of the human spirit.
Philosophically, one is tempted to state that the ethos of a people is best reflected in their language and its variety of usage. These factors in turn create a people's heritage and anoint them with their unique vision.
South Asia, with its diversity, has been the cradle for the evolution of many languages. Of these indigenous modes of expression, Sanskrit and Pali are best known. Inter-action of external factors in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries led to the intrusion of Arabic and then Persian into the Indian scene. Urdu emerged in the seventeenth century but the scenario changed once again with the advent of the Portuguese, the French and eventually the English. The victory at Palassey and the expanding presence of the East India Company in the latter part of the eighteenth century changed the ball game. English as a language slowly assumed the focal point not only within the administrative structure but also in education. It also cast a comprehensive shadow in both the social and cultural horizons.
The interesting aspect of this osmosis was that though English spread its influence in the western part of Bengal, its impact was relatively marginal in the rural eastern Bengal. English became an important part of life in the urban areas, particularly Calcutta, but remained less in use in other parts of this big province. The vast majority spoke and studied Bengali. It remained the preferred means of communication in the villages. Daily life revolved around Bengali. It was the vehicle of choice for literature, theatrical arts and songs.
The Pakistani overlords sitting in Karachi, the capital of Pakistan failed to appreciate the importance of the issue. The military- bureaucratic- right of the center religious clique with their Urdu background were shortsighted. Their deviate interpretation of what was consistent with Pakistani values led them to disrespect the rights of the majority and their language. For them, Bengali became a challenge that had both cultural as well as political connotations. They were joined in this unfortunate approach by a group of extreme right political leaders from the then East Pakistan.
Such a course of action, quite understandably resulted in confrontation. This in turn raised the stakes of engagement. It unleashed forces that gradually acquired nationalistic overtones. As a result what happened on 21 February, 1952 became the first step that not only facilitated the consciousness that we might be part of Pakistan but also that we were a separate entity, a people who were suffering the pangs of discrimination.
The seed of a new independent country was sown.
The divergence within the country was further sharpened by the federal administrators through their emphasis on Urdu and English and their unwillingness to teach Bengali- the language of the majority in the western wing of the country. Gradually, a perception emerged within the Bangalee community that there was a structured effort in Karachi and Islamabad to snuff out Bangalee aspirations not only in the field of culture and education but also in matters related to economic development. Disparity became the buzz word.
Events within the political scene between 1958 and 1965 further exacerbated the situation. The Bangalee matrix its leadership, the intellectuals and educationists were targeted by the West Pakistani clique. More often than not, any one speaking out about the importance of Bengali was seen as anti-Pakistani and had to suffer persecution and discrimination.
Matters deteriorated sharply after 1965. By then Bengali had ceased to be just another language or the mother tongue. It acquired a special identity. It became the vehicle for protest and also the banner that represented justice, equity and equal opportunities. This metamorphosis was a direct result of the psychological trauma that had permeated every corner of the Bangalee presence.
Language, subsequently between 1967 and 1970, became the catalyst that inspired our quest for our own homeland, independent and sovereign, where Bangalees could live in freedom and also have the dignity of speaking their own mother tongue. This was the principal factor that swayed voters to support the Awami League party in the parliamentary polls that were scheduled at the end of 1970.
It took another year for our dream to be translated into reality. The turmoil of the War of Liberation took its massive toll and shattered millions of lives. Nevertheless, our love for our language endowed us with the necessary courage and patience to emerge victorious. We were able to traverse the final mile to freedom, overcome all our difficulties and take our rightful place among the comity of nations.
Reflections on language
February 21 returns to us each year with the solemn refrain Amaar Bhaiyer Rokte Rangano… to remind us of our blood-soaked history, the audacity of those who wanted to wipe out Bangla from the heart and soul of the Bengalis, and the struggles and sacrifices of those brave stalwarts who stood their ground resolutely to resist a contemptuous leadership's bellicose intent to impose a foreign language upon us that ultimately led to the disintegration of one nation and the birth of another. In one sense we owe a debt of gratitude to the language movement that ultimately transformed itself into a liberation movement to give us a unique place and identity.
With such a glorious history and with liberation achieved, where the Bangla language played a powerful political role, it is important to look to the future. Since language has deep implications for the progress of a nation, the pertinent question today is how to harness language as a powerful tool for economic liberty the ability to pursue one's dreams.
The economic issue is important because Bangladesh has a large and growing population. Estimates are that there are now about 150 million people and these numbers are expected to grow to 250 million before stabilizing. These people will need jobs in and of the future; the alternative is social turmoil that needs little elaboration. But where will the jobs come from?
If we tie the above situation to global demographic changes, it may be noted that many developed countries are aging quickly and declining in population size. According to one source, Europe's population could decline by millions in another decade. It is possible that a variety of opportunities could be availed by a skilled workforce from Bangladesh in these countries where they can make a decent living, attain their dreams, and revitalize the Bangladesh economy through remittances that could easily be multiples of the $10 billion or so today. The question is in what language are the needed skills to be developed quickly?
Then there is the matter of global integration. The world has become closely linked with economic exchanges and advancements in communication technology, both facilitated by language. Education, trade and commerce, international relations, negotiations with donors, etc., all require the intermediation of language. The legal field is emerging with new concepts and ideas (e.g., intellectual property), representing a special language of its own. And in the technological fields such as genetic engineering, progress is being made in leaps and bounds. The language of the computer--an integral part of productive endeavorsis also evolving at a dizzying pace. We must learn all of these to stay current. The question again is in which language?
For Bangladesh, there is a need to scale up quickly through knowledge transmission. Some of it can probably be accomplished in Bangla because of the facilitative role of one's mother tongue and because standardization would provide economies of scale. However, scaling up in its true sense can only be possible if the language contains the content and knowledge needed for a rapidly changing world. The question, therefore, is whether the Bangla language can be equipped, embellished and invigorated? If so, how can this be done and how soon?
The alternative is to devote resources to learning other languages that have already built into them the content and knowledge that is needed today for economic emancipation. Evidence suggests that the returns from multilingualism are very high as reflected in various education systems in the developed world. In Canada, for example, multiple languages are used all through one's school years. European schools, similarly, use multiple languages. And learning a foreign language is compulsory in many colleges in the US. These countries are also advanced, economically, and one might surmise that they would not entertain the use of multiple languages unless the gains were substantial.
From an ideal perspective, however, Bangladesh does not have the resources or capacity to transform itself into a multilingual country by adopting, as the Europeans do, a number of key languages. On the other hand, Bangla, the mother tongue in which it is easiest to learn, is not equipped with the content and knowledge needs of the 21st economic environment.
Three things must happen, and quickly, to extricate ourselves from this predicament. A vigorous effort must be launched to refurbish Bangla to incorporate new content that would provide basic-skill needs for the rapidly changing environment and so that appropriate competence for the future can be developed even for local needs. At the same time, cultivation of a second language must be seriously envisaged, simultaneously, to align with global employment needs. A special category of people must also be developed through language institutes to equip them with additional language skills as a window to other parts of the world (China, Brazil, Mexico, etc.) to be able to communicate, maintain exchange relationships, and ensure access to global resources and opportunities.
The importance of a second language is evident from various countries that use it in matters of law, economic activities, science and technology, and in the workings of the government. In this regard, English is considered the world's most widely used language.
The English language is also prevalent in various aspects of our national life: in the private companies, in legal matters, communicating with the outside world, etc. And for many people in Bangladesh, their exposure to the language is reasonable given the colonial history. Scaling up in this language promises the quickest returns, although other languages may be learned too by allowing the forces of demand and supply to operate.
Scaling up in English must be done in such a way that its rigor and intensity accelerates as higher levels of education are reached. At the secondary and intermediate levels, the products of the education system must be able to read, write and converse at a level that is consistent with the needs of nurses, mechanics, computer operators, repairmen, hotel and retail employees, and the like. At higher levels of education the standards must enable the graduates to compete with the best and brightest as writers, teachers, doctors, engineers, managers, economists, lawyers, etc. They must be able to absorb and use the knowledge produced elsewhere in the world to function at the highest levels. It is unlikely that such levels can be reached by being monolingual.
A critical component here will be the quality of teaching. It would be vital to develop mechanisms for recruiting, training, motivating, compensating and rewarding those who will devote their lives to teaching and at levels far elevated than what we have today. On their shoulders lies the fate of how quickly this nation can scale up to global standards.
If we decide to introduce the second language comprehensively, however, we must keep a vigilant eye to insure that it does not end up dominating or replacing the mother tongue that is the soul of our culture and heritage. For this we need to promote much more vigorously the work of our cultural ambassadors -- the poets, the painters, the scholars, the historians, the singers, the musicians, the bards, the cinematographers, the playwrights, the actors, the media men and women, the teachers, and related others -- who must seriously engage in the arduous work of making Bangla flourish. It is particularly important to imbibe in our youth the spirit of the mother tongue. This requires their being able to learn and do more creative and self-fulfilling things in Bangla. But establishing the importance of Bangla along with a second language is the surest and quickest way to economic, social and cultural emancipation.
Shouldn't I stand dumb in silence at the Ekushey Minar?
Twenty-first February this year
I have got no promise to make.
I have got no vow to take
For all these years
The promises that I made every year
The vows that I took every year
Remain unattended and unfulfilled.
All my efforts came to naught
All were cries in the wilderness
Exercises in futility
Like the dreams of a dumb person.
We thought that these vows
Would inspire us.
Didn't they inspire?
Perhaps they did
I cannot meet these questions anymore
Face to face.
If I go to power I will fulfill my promises.
After forming the government
I said these were very hard promises
And could not be fulfilled in one term
When you go to power
You get forgetful
And often suffer from dementia
Great intentions become small and smaller
And then forgotten
And turn annoyingly
Meaningless and purposeless
Broken promises do pile up
On twenty-six March
We took vows to build
An exploitation-free society.
On the sixteenth December
We take vows to build
A secular society
Our vows steal the headlines
Of the following day's newspapers
Flashed in bold letters
And sometimes in red ones
Twenty-first February this year
I have got no promise to make.
I have got no vow to take.
For all my vows that are dead long ago
I shall stand dumb in silence
With my head hanging down
For honoring all my unfulfilled promises
For all my past vows that are dead long ago.
Shouldn't I stand dumb in silence at the Ekushey Minar?
Spirit of freedom
Emotion-charged Ekushey February marks the nation's annual celebration of a tragic day that set in train, not at once predictably, the great national struggle to be free and independent. At the core, though, of the historic day is the supreme sacrifice made for the mother tongue, Bangla. And close to it were the students who took to the streets in what became an earnest movement in favour of the mother tongue.
What started more as a local and instantaneous protest against the excesses of the Pakistani rulers in 1952 soon magnified into a greater national movement which came to a peak in the late sixties and was crowned with success in 1971 with Bangladesh emerging as a sovereign independent state.
The language movement started about the time of the partition, consolidated around 1948 and gained momentum in 1952. The war of independence of 1971 is the culmination of the national consciousness built through the language movement. The struggle for democracy of the late eighties is also the outcome of the political consciousness of the people. All these give us enough cause for euphoria. But we need to keep the record straight so that the doubts may never assail the events the nation cherishes so much.
Ekushey February is wholly an expression of a national inspiration for cultural self-determination. And it started as such and not at all on the narrow considerations of capitalizing on linguistic injustice. But it was wholesale injustice and discrimination and even racial hatred that were garbed in the rather innocuous call for one lingua franca for all of Pakistan.
Ekushey rose to meet the challenge for what it was. And it became the mother to the Bengalee people's decades-long struggle for rights culminating inevitably in the war of liberation and resulting in a massive victory and thereby the national independence. Yes, the political fruits of the Ekushey were reaped far more than these were ever expected to. What happened to what Ekushey set out to do in the first place and indeed its only issue? Literary and overall cultural development, the blooming of a thousand flowers bearing the stamp of the Bengali genius, that is- which was all of the goal for the movement for cultural self-determination, was literally smothered by its political proliferations and their progressive successes.
As years passed on more and more economic exploitation and political control of the then Pakistan government inspired and united the entire nation to achieve not only the right to speak in mother-tongue but also to establish equal rights in all spheres and aspects of national life. The 21-point of the Jukta Front and the 6-point demand of the Awami League were the organized processes of those demands. The suppression of those legitimate demands through bullets resulted in the public movements of the sixties. The demand for provincial autonomy was most forcefully expressed through six-point of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the 11-point programme of the students and the whole country became united under the banner of the Awami League. The overwhelming victory of the Awami League in the election of 1970 was the direct effect of the inspiration of nationalism created on the Ekushey February.
The next phase of the effect of the Ekushey February was the spirit of the independence created by the denial of the then military ruler to form the central government on the basis of the result of the 1970 election. The climax of war was reached when the brutal genocide begun on the night of march 25,1971 by the Pakistan occupation forces. The spirit of nationalism and the determination to achieve independence inspired the whole nation to the supreme sacrifice. Thus the achievement of victory in that war was also an outcome of the spirit of Ekushey February.
We all know that freedom is the price of eternal vigilance. Freedom has blessed us with sovereignty and democracy to safeguard which we should always remain alert and prepared for every sacrifice. The Ekushey February has taught us the lesson to always uphold the truth and follow the rightful path. To fight against injustice and remain ever ready to make any sacrifice for establishing one's rightful claim is also the lesson of the Ekushey February. The shaheeds of the Ekushey never bowed down to the rulers of Pakistan and did not bother to sacrifice even their lives for realizing the demands of the people for establishing a rightful place for their mother-tongue.
Since 1975, democracy has been thwarted several times by the imposition of autocratic military rule and thereby disturbing the fundamental principle of democracy of the right to elect a government of people's choice in a congenial atmosphere. The normal political processes and the practice of real democratic systems and the way of life suffered a real setback. The real spirit of our independence did not hold for long on the right track and has constantly been corroded from within for quite a long time. This was mainly due to the miserable performances of the autocratic military rulers on the linguistic, literary and overall cultural front. Independence is a state of the mind that diminishes with the degeneration of the overall cultural content and situation of a nation. We were, for quite a few years, caught up in this type of infernal situation and as a nation we have to pay quite heavily for that anti-Ekushey and anti-liberation spirit of the autocratic rulers.
In the economic sphere, there are some notable achievements. We have recently achieved near self sufficiency in cereals, the per capita income has also risen reasonably. Nevertheless, we are among the poor nations of the world and with low income level and endemic poverty. Unfortunately our battle in this front has also been occasionally threatened by some of our politicians and their unjustified programmes and negative approaches to some of our important national economic issues.
The soul of a country
Tirgan teanga, tirgan anam. This Irish proverb means a country without a language is a country without a soul. We do not know how far the Irish people could understand the spirit of this Gaelic saying but we know for sure the people of Bangladesh could very well get the meaning and did their best about it. They could realize the importance of language in the building up of a nation and were able to found their nation on the basis of their language. Yes, Bangladesh is that State which was founded on the basis of Bengali nationalism whose soul is the Bengali language. It is the quintessence of what we call a Nation-State and the core of this nationality is the language. The birth of Bangladesh became inevitable when Bengali language aspired to a State of its own. So, the history of the emergence of Bangladesh is the history of the pretty long and rugged way from autonomy to independence. And the seeds of that autonomy were sown in the mind of the Bengali folks primarily on question of language. They for the first time felt the urgency of home rule when their mother tongue fell a victim of an unprovoked attack by the Pakistani rulers right after the division on India (1947). The so-called 'Two-nation theory' had already started taking its toll. The people of East Bengal could realize that they would need to make amends for the historical blunder of the Indian subcontinent committed by opportunist Jinnah, egoistic Nehru, helpless Gandhi and crafty British rulers. This crude awakening led them first to the road to autonomy and then to independence.
Really it was one of the costliest mistakes in human history to divide a country merely on the grounds of religious affiliation where people regardless of caste, creed and religion had been united under an anti-British umbrella. Post-division India could have been one of the world's biggest lands for unity in diversity. But the vested quarters had separated one from the other by a preposterous religio-political surgery which has perpetuated ethnic clashes in the subcontinent. As a matter of fact, the 'Two-nation theory' proved abortive almost immediately. The true character of the self-styled guardians of Islam was unmasked. The West Pakistani rulers assumed a Big Brotherly and a holier-than-thou attitude towards the East Pakistanis. They unleashed the big stick upon them. Despite the sameness of religious identity, no other affinities could develop between the West and the East Pakistanis. In addition, the neo-champions of Islam thought a language like Bengali which was originated from and developed through non-Islamic sources and influences was not worthy of being the official language of a newly emerged holly place, Pakistan (Pak=holy and Sta=place) ).They also thought that on having been a part of the 'holy place', the then Indian province East Bengal would need to be renamed and considerably sanctified. They renamed it as East Pakistan and tried to make Urdu its official language.
Although Urdu is an Indian language and a standardized form of Hindi, it is written in Arabic script and used by the Indian and Pakistani Muslims. So they consider it holier than Bengali which was originated from a vulgar dialect of India and nurtured by the Buddhist and Hindu monks over the centuries. This was at the back of the mind of those Pakistani neo-custodians of Islam. So, they planned to make Urdu the official language of Pakistan and did not give a damn about Bengali, although Bengali was used by the majority of the people of entire Pakistan. But all their efforts came badly unstuck. Bengali language is the lifeblood of the Bengali people. They prefer death to dishonour of their mother-tongue. They are happy for evermore with their own sweet language. They have won the Nobel Prize for their literature in that language. This is their proud possession. They do not bother about whether or not their language is sacred. When Jinnah made the declaration at Dhaka University Curzon Hall that Urdu and only Urdu would be the official language of Pakistan, the agitated audience threw a straight no at him.
The people of East Bengal came to realize that their language and literature, society and culture, politics and economy all of their life and legacy are not in safe hands. They discovered that the Pakistani rulers under the guise of religious fraternity are in truth snakes in the grass. It was no go asking them for rights to language. So they put up the line of active resistance .The Government tried to subdue it with iron hands. This fanned the flame of fight. There came 21st February (1952). Innocent blood was spilt in the resistance. But there is no holding the Bengali. They had learnt to die for their mother-tongue. The public defiance gained momentum. Martial law was let loose to put a curb on the popular movement. But all repressive Government measures produced diminishing returns. People came up with historic Six-points (1966) which amounted to full autonomy for East Bengal. The autonomy movement became so intense that the ruling Government was compelled to hold a general election (1970).The Bengali won a landslide victory. But the rulers were not willing to give up so easily. They shot their last bolt. Operation Searchlight (March 25, 1971) was launched. The Bengali were at the point of no return. They already had their back to the wall. So they decided to fight it out. And they fought to a finish and seized their most prized possession, their Independence in exchange for a sea of blood.
If our national liberty (1971) compares with the fruit of a tree, the trunk of the tree is the 24-year struggle for autonomy and the root is the language movement (1952).The history of Bangladesh is the history of the whole tree, from the root to the fruit. If we want to enjoy the fruit of our liberty we have to take care of the whole tree and the ground it is planted in. As the Rig Veda puts it: "One should respect his motherland, his country, and his mother-tonguebecause these are givers of happiness". We can never be happy in the true sense of the term without loving this trinityBangladesh, Bengali culture and Bengali language.
'Aaye khuku aaye . . .'
Barkat, Salam, Jabbar, Shafiq and others --- 'tumi ki keboli chobi, shudhu potey likha'. The 'idhar ayo' was replaced by the sweetest call of a loveable father by 'aaye khuku aaye' and this was possible only because some Homo-Sapiens gave away their most prized possession for the cause of establishing the right to think and talk in their own language. The years following the sacrifice of their precious lives defines the fact that the efforts to establish Bangla as a rich language, at home and abroad, shine bright in their track record and the progress in our culture due to it is largely positive.
The hard-hitting journey began in 1952 and ended amid a laudable success. Unbounded cheers for the language martyrs who traded off their lives for the mass people of Bangladesh. The events that followed claimed a heavy toll of lives but none of it did went in vain. We loathe the invasion of any foreign language and any sign of its rearing its ugly head ever again. Sometimes it hurts to see that the menace has not been fully eliminated. People have this bent of reading foreign books more than Bangla. We have to take clear initiatives to establish our language and culture in all walks of life. We have to hold on to the fast disappearing sweet addresses like 'Bhabi, Bubu, Baba' which I believe no language can ever offer!
The saddest part is that western culture is marching in rapidly in its full arrogance, blending in with our culture with a bang of confusion! People do not like calling others 'Bhabi' or 'Apa' and feel elevated from the rest of society, forgetting that Bangla has given them the opportunity to specify the exact relationship, you see, shining apart from the rest! Friendship with all and malice towards none. When it comes to bartering our hard earned right to exercise Bangla in all spheres of life there should not be any compromising attitude, starting from the individual to the government level. We should attach the highest priority to this attempt to take sincere steps and make major plans in carrying it out. A massive media campaign is instrumental in expanding the demand for Bangla dramas, music, costumes, cuisine, etc. There is now a wide platform for talented and young video makers who upload their self-produced video stories.
The struggle to interact in one's own language became a struggle of the world conscience and Ekushey February was recognized as International Mother Language Day. This became the background of the human price, a nation paid for its freedom and to write 'Bangladesh' in bold letters. These two episodes cannot be separated from each other. If today we listen to Sabina Yasmin's 'Shob kota janala'or Ferdausi Rahman, Runa Laila, Shehnaz Rehmatullah or upcoming artists like Parveen Sultana, if today we listen to Sachin Dev and Mira Dev Burmans' 'Bangladesher dhol', enjoy Salil Chowdury or Hemant Mukhopadhay and hear the songs of Mahmudunnabi with deep emotion, it is because of those language martyrs who laid down their lives. Now the world knows that besides the Spanish “Que”, the French “Quoi” and Italian “Cosa”, there is the Bangla “Ki”, the most fundamental question in human life. Whenever the Bangalis speak, people say their words come out in rhyme and melody which is undeniably true. Had not Bangla been established as the national language, Murshidi, Marfati, Jari, Shari, Bhatiyali, Hason, Lalon and such songs would never have flourished. Bangladesh and Bangla cannot be conceived devoid of the music in the language which runs through the veins of the people the same way as waterways run through a country. The historic pictures evoke the memories of events and unfold them. We believe these images will stand out as one of the hallmarks in the history of the nation.
There are other forms and genres which have originated in specific districts and are very much alive within their locale. Today we enjoy Haider Hossain's 'Ami faisha gesi mainkar chipay' or Rosina's 'ai aannere kotobar koisi ai ainner kase zaitanno'. Henceforth they were shy to speak in their own dialect publicly but now not only music but their dramas have become very popular and are enjoyed by all.
The Ekushey Boi Mela has now become a national event. People from neighbouring countries are coming to join the festival. You feel young mingling with budding novelists which Ekushey has given birth to. This year the area has been extended beyond the Bangla academy with 470 stalls grouped under various headings.
'Dil cheez kya hai, aap meri jaan lijiye, bas ek bar mera kaha maan lijiye' was Greek to many before Ekushey gave them 'Shuno shuno kothati shuno, kachhe esho priyo tomo bole'. We pray that the spirit of Ekushey be reignited each year with extra vigour and revitalize the hearts of the young once again as it did in 1952.
Language, liberation Connecting some dots
On February 20, 1971, sitting on the dais at the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts' (BAFA) midnight open-air concert to commemorate Ekushey February, my brother and I, huddled together with a bunch of other young as well as more seasoned artists, were excited as we waited for the clock to strike midnight. At 12:01 AM, as was our tradition, Atiq Bhai fired up the harmonium, and we all started to hum the prelude in unison, and then with our full reserve of emotion and heart, sang, “Amar Bhai-er Roktey Rangano Ekushey February”.
I still remember, after all these years, that there was a sense of anticipation as we observed Ekushey that year. The Awami League had secured an absolute majority in the national election two months ago, but the ruling military junta and the politicians from the then West Pakistan, were dragging their feet at the negotiations that were taking place to form a central government and to transfer power to the elected people's representatives. I was only a freshman at Dhaka University, and while not very active in student politics, knew enough through my network of friends and regular “addas” in Madhur Canteen and Sharif Mia's tea stall that we were heading towards a showdown with the forces of status quo: the military, dominated by the Punjabis, and the feudal clique that had taken shelter under the umbrella of the Pakistan People's Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. However, as we sang in chorus in those early hours of 21st February, 1971 under the open sky in BAFA's court yard on Road 7 of Dhanmandi Residential Area, most of us probably did not know with certainty that the War of Independence would start within 5 weeks, and victory achieved in less than 10 months!
From a broader historical perspective, the transition from the Language Movement in 1952 to our War of Independence in 1971 was very swift. From the existential and aspirational perspectives of the Bangalee nation, this transition was also inevitable. To understand why, let us first look at the course of government and politics during the short span of five years after Pakistan's Independence. A discerning analyst, or even a casual observer for that matter, of the cross currents in the national scene during the period of 1947-52 could see that the politicians from the West had charted out a path that cared very little for the aspirations and needs of the East, and the die was cast for the next phase in our quest for our rightful place under the sun.
How did the Language Movement shape the course of Pakistan's political history in a fashion that made the War of Independence so inevitable? The answer is on the one hand obvious, but also on closer scrutiny, somewhat deeper and organic. As soon as the battle for Bangla's rightful place as a medium of instruction and official communication was lost by them, the political power structure dominated by the Punjabis started to undermine the East at every step of our attempts at national development and socio-economic growth. The signs of growing disparities in civil service, budgetary allocations, and job opportunities, which we could ignore during the honeymoon period of 1947-52, became symptomatic of systemic efforts by the dominant political leaders of West to use the East as a hinterland and keep the Bangalees as a group of second class citizens. We could no longer look the other way when we saw how the military regime that ruled from the late 1950s and the entire decade of the 1960s, tried to pass off egregious misdeeds such as the suppression of basic human rights, limited economic development and the relentless extraction of resources of the East, to name a few, as a Decade of Development, which Muslim League and Ayub Khan tried to foist on us in 1968 after 10 years of strong arm military rule which had resulted in industrial stagnation and financial exploitation of the East, and continuous plunder of our foreign exchange for its military-industrial complex concentrated in the West.
Even after Bangla gained recognition as a national language, and Bangla literature was grudgingly acknowledged as worthy of national spotlight, hitherto reserved for Urdu, there were constant efforts to undermine or belittle its status. Tagore, who was the only litterateur from the Indian subcontinent to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, was considered a pariah, and because of his religion, an Indian. The media, both print and broadcast which was heavily influenced by the government and its henchmen, paid little attention to Bengal's rich cultural and social history. It was as if, the West, after taking a beating during the Language Movement, now wanted to “reform” or “cleanse” the population of the East, and create a new Pakistani and Muslim Bengali. Our identity was to be transformed from a Bangalee to an East Pakistani resulting in genetic mutation, so to speak, where our rich heritage would be substituted by a hybrid one, with a dosage of the “patriotic” and Islamic identity. There was no attempt to hide the image that the “integrationists” thought would be “politically correct” for the new “Pakistani Man”: they would speak Urdu, sing ghazals, quote from the Urdu writers, and feel a closer affinity with their brethren from the West than any other ethnic group in the region.
It would not be a stretch to assert that the language Movement and the War of Independence are part and parcel of the same dialectical process. The policy and methods of the military rulers who kept their grip on power through undemocratic practices and extraction of surplus resources from the East, and perpetuated a feudal creed reinforced by religious bigotry emerged to be completely in conflict with the more progressive forces that believed in universal suffrage, human rights regardless of race, religion or color, and equal opportunities. The showdown had to come sooner or later.
What is the catalytic role of the Language Movement in bringing about this rapid transformation from a cultural clash to a struggle for survival? The first is the growing level of expectations brought about by the Language Movement. Once the right to express in our own language was secured, the next step had to be the right to jobs, to earn a decent living, and to choose and empower our own leaders. Our political leaders, including Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the people could see through the various ploys and attempts to maintain the status quo and exploit the East till eternity. The second aspect is the integration and collaborative role of student power in national politics. The energy provided by the students in the Language Movement provided legitimacy to student power in the larger political arena. Students were catapulted into the front and center of all subsequent political movements, and the dynamism provided by DUCSU and Student Action Committee.were but the latest manifestations of this symbiotic relationship between student politics and national politics. And finally, the Ekushey Movement in post-1952 era provided a key forum for the expression of our frustrations and hopes. On each occasion at 12:01 AM that we burst into “Amar Bhai-er”, we were really saying that we renew our vow to offer our blood for our rights. We had learned two important lessons from the sacrifices of Salam, Barkat and Jabbar: the willingness of the young to stand up and fight, even at the cost of their lives, is a powerful force to push back the elements of reaction; and while peaceful means and negotiations may sometimes bring about our desired goals, one needs to also consider the ultimate option, to quote Shakespeare, “to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them”.
Our history, our culture
February 21 comes calling out to our hearts to pay respect and homage to the language martyrs of our motherland. Every year when I hear the heart rendering song “ Amar bhaiyer rokte rangano Ekushe Feberuary ….” I feel myself lost to a day in Belgrade, then the capital of Yusgoslavia in 1970. I was at that time living there with my family. I was then reading in Inernational School of Belgrade. In my school there was a student called Anisa who came from the erst-while West Pakistan. She was in Grade VIII while I was in Grade V. However we attended the same English tutoring class. One day our teacher asked, “What is your national language?”
“ Its called Urdu” replied Anisa.
I felt hurt and a pain seemed to suffocate me. I raised my hand and said, “We have two languages, the other one is Bangla.”
“Nonsense” said Anisa. And then to the teacher she said, “She is too young and doesn't know the correct answer.”
I was the younger one and therefore I gave in. But even on this day, after so many years, I still recall the pain and anguish I had suffered on that day when I witnessed the disgrace of my mother tongue in that foreign land. I wish that on that day I had the courage and the boldness of the language martyrs to protest, to have put my mother tongue in its rightful place even though it was an incident in a classroom. At that age I might not have been aware that it was the tip of an iceberg. In a much bigger picture the Eastern Wing of the then Pakistan was oppressed and we were not given our right place regarding our mother tongue. It was a picture of economical, social and cultural deprivations for which millions of people have sacrificed their lives.
The memories of my school life's incident comes to me at a time when I see that out there are a section of our young generation getting lost in the present changing society. Their life style is that of an alien culture, mostly western. Various juvenile delinquencies starting from alcohol to drugs pave ways into their lives. And today as I sit to pay my respect to the language martyrs I feel sad to mention that this young generation has very vague ideas about their own history and culture. They speak in English or Hindi and often feel proud that they avoid speaking in their mother tongue Bangla. They consider themselves the smart ones who are linked to the western culture. Our youths are the torch-bearers of our society. If they are confused and lost, who will guide the nation towards a better future?
Every year February 21 is the day to visit the memorial built to commemorate the language martyrs. We go barefoot and lay the floral wreaths to honour them. But does our responsibility end here? Is it not our sacred duty to raise awareness among children on the importance of their mother tongue? Our society is passing through a crossroad. The children are very much influenced by foreign cultures and in the process pick up foreign languages too. It is a common sight to see a large section of students reading in English medium schools speaking in English at home and outside. There are some who speak in Hindi too. We certainly encourage children to learn a second language, especially one as important as English. However the scenario becomes a sad one when we see that these children are often neglecting Bangla, their mother tongue. For some speaking Bangla with an English accent is a style of its own. They are not at all well acquainted with the culture and the language of Bangladesh. They have very hazy ideas about the history of their motherland and a far lesser idea of the history of their mother tongue. I wonder how can a tree grow and bear its fruits well if the roots are not on solid ground? Indeed how can our children grow into vigilant citizens without a thorough knowledge of their own history and culture? School curriculum can introduce more extensive lessons on the history and culture of our motherland. And at home too parents have a role to play in holding out more knowledge to the younger generation on their own identity. We should encourage our children to follow their other peers who are alert about their nationality and language. These are the wise youths who are equally proficient in English and Bangla, and follow their own culture.
The importance of educating our children on the history and culture of Bangladesh should never be overlooked. The children are the future of our nation. They need to be made aware that following a proposal made by Bangladesh, UNESCO created International Mother Language Day in 1999. Furthermore, the date chosen was February 21 in commemoration of the movement in which valiant people laid down their live on this date in 1952 defending the recognition of Bangla as a state language of the former Pakistan. When the Language Martyrs Day is recognized by the wide world how can our youths sleep on it? The youths need to be taught that their own culture can flourish where people enjoy the right to use their mother language fully and freely in all the various situations of their lives. Democracy cannot thrive without freedom of expression. That freedom of expression is needed to reach the people right from the down trodden to the educated masses. How can we reach out to people at grass-root level without Bangla as the medium of communicating with them? How can we reach out to the illiterate and extend to them the light of knowledge if they are not reached out in their own language. Indeed how many of our people know Hindi or English? The youths hold the torch to show the way to the future. We need our youths to educate themselves in their own mother tongue so that Bangla as a language becomes richer and the depth of its richness can spread across the world. It is the solemn need of the moment to educate our children with equal emphasis on Bangla and foreign languages like English.
Coming to our aesthetic senses it is often said that poets and writers find some of their best pieces of work in their own language. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in his native language Russian. Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserable in his mother tongue French. The first Chinese to win Nobel Prize in Literature Gao Xingiian wrote his award winning Soul Mountain in Chinese. Rabindranath Tagore covered each and every aspect of life with his literary work and it was Bangla that brought him all the glory. Kazi Nazrul Islam , the rebel poet conquered the hearts and minds of people writing in Bangla. Literature is woven round the lives of people like a spider's web. Literature therefore is at its epic when it speaks the language of the people. Michael Madhushodhon Dutta tried to reach the glory of his literary work in English language but at a certain stage of his life he realized that his failure to reach the ultimate glory may have been his adoption of English as the medium and not his mother tongue. His inner-self was not content and thus he wrote in his poem “Kopothakko Nod”
“Bahu deshe dekhiyachi
kintu e sneher trishna
mite kar jole?…”
Where else Rabindranath Tagore, his literature flourishing in Bangla wrote his patriotic song,
“ Bangalir pon, Bangalir asha,Bangalir kaj, Bangalir bhasa
shattya houk, shattya houk, shattya houk he bhogoban …”
Motherland, mother tongue and the mother herself are essential to epitomize a person's life. The importance of these in the over all development of an individual is immense. Without the proper identity of these in life a person is like a wingless bird. The mother tongue is like the wind under the wings. It is the medium through which self- expression takes place in its highest form. There are people who can express themselves well in foreign languages too. However history seems to show that it is the mother tongue that bears the beacon.
The memory of that day at my school and how I failed to defend my mother tongue still casts its shadow over my life. There is a saying that everything has a reason. I recall that incident and ever since have always been alert that children learned to value their mother tongue at the early stage of their life. Although I became a teacher teaching English Language but my first thought for the small children was “ Are they learning their mother tongue Bangla properly?” At home after my first child was born my maternal uncle, late Waheedul Haque visited me. He advised me to keep books all around the house so that my children will take up reading easily. Then he added that I should make sure that there were plenty of Bangla books so that the children learned their mother tongue well. I took his advice and thanks to him all my three children read a lot and they are very well versed in Bangla. The three of them are now students of University of Arkansas in USA. I proudly listen to their stories that they organize programs to celebrate national events. My younger son who came to Dhaka recently collected materials to organize a program for the February 21 this year. My son dreams of the day when he will complete his studies and come back to contribute something to the development of his motherland. Together, he and I sat and sang together,
“ a mori Bangla bhasha
moder gorob, moder asha…”
We felt proud to be singing this song in our motherland. I know this song will be carried seven seas away to be spread among people who will learn about our language martyrs who have laid down lives to defend their mother tongue. And at home I hope that as vigilant citizens we make sure that our children grow into patriotic citizens with a thorough knowledge of their own history, culture and language.
1952: The decades before and after
Though the language movement of 1952 generated a sense of our national identity and unity that eventually led to our nationhood, tumultuous events of the earlier decades were no less significant. Today, as we look back down the memory lane, it seems amazing how a largely uneducated, under-privileged, conservative community shook off its age-old belief in the status quo and the pre-destined fate, to reinvent itself, and struggled to curve out its place in the world community as an independent, secular, sovereign republic.
Here are a few glimpses of an emotional journey through those troubled decades by one who though born in the riot-torn city of Dhaka way back in 1929 grew up in a typical village where Muslims, Hindus and a sizable number of Christian Adibashi converts lived together in peace and harmony. This is a real life account by one who had the unique opportunity of watching how this miracle happened.
The village was not far from Dhaka, in Upazila Kaliganj, in former Dhaka (North) subdivision, now called Gazipur district. Ours was a middle class family by the standard of those days, the head of the family doing a government job in the city having some landed properties as well as remnant of some ancestral Taluks in Bhawal area. Socially, we, and our blood relations were considered a little different from the common folk because of the spread of education in our larger family bounds.
In the village, I went in 1937 direct to the High School. The school was in a magnificent red brick building with a huge green ground on the south, beyond which flowed the placid waters of the river Sitalakhya. It was called Raja Rajendra Narayan High English School, Kaliganj. Two years later, in 1939, the World War II began in Europe but we were not affected. When I was a student of Class VII in 1941, we started feeling the pangs of the war and the famine after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had brought European war to Asia. A camp was set up behind our school by a battalion of the Indian Army (25 Baluch Regiment). Dhaka city, which I visited occasionally,was transformed into a frontline city with military jeeps and trucks moving to and fro in haste. A huge airfield was built at Kurmitola hardly five or six miles west of our village. Hundreds of fighter planes started flying daily from Kutmitola to the east, towards Chittagong and from the east towards the Kurmitola airfield. A large number of temporary barracks were built around the airfield to accommodate the troops where many people from our area got some job of bearers, cooks and in other menial posts.
The fear of Japanese bogeymen in the midst of a severe famine was looming large. There were great uncertainty and anxiety all around. In the same year, 1941, shortly after our half-yearly examination, we heard the news of Tagore's death in Calcutta. Classes were immediately suspended, and on the following day, we had a memorial meeting where my class fellow and friend, Pranesh Dhar, rendered a beautiful Tagore song, playing the harmonium himself: Maranere Tuhu momo Shayama Shaman. I never knew about this quality of my friend. From that day, I held him in great respect, and often asked him to sing for us.
One of my cousins was settled in Assam working in a tea garden at Naharkatya, near Dibrughar. Like many people he and his family got scared, and returned to his native home leaving his things behind, but he brought along with him a battery-operated radio in a huge wooden box. This was a GEC radio set, perhaps of 1940 model with GEC inscribed on top in italics bold. I used to take great interest in war news through newspapers coming to school, and through radio in the evening that used to be placed in the veranda of our outer house overlooking the tank.
At the news hours in the evenings, all village people gathered there to hear the war news and the radio play thereafter. The Japanese had occupied Burma from where Admiral Mountbatten had to retreat with his vast force. Netaji Shubhash Bose with his Azad Hind Fauj was trying to cross the border at Manipur and enter India. One evening we also heard Netaji addressing the Indians from Germany. In those days, I was also worried for my father's illness, a fatal disease, diagnosed as liver sirosis, from which he died a year later.
Women students march by Dhaka Medical Collage, 21 February 1952
Momen Khan explained the Lahore resolution of the Muslim League for separate homelands for the Muslims of Bengal and Assam on the east and the Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the Frontiers Provinces on the west side of India. He also explained why it was necessary and how would it benefit the Muslims, discriminated against in the Hindu-dominated Indian society. Every now and then, Momen's speech was greeted by slogans for Pakistan. That was the prelude to my involvement in student politics.
In 1945, after the German surrender in Europe, my results of the Matriculation examination were out, and having passed out, I left for Dhaka to get admitted in the Dhaka Intermediate College in the Arts faculty. The college was located at that time in a cluster of private houses in Siddique Bazar area on the south of the old Fulbaria Railway station.
The old college building was turned into an Allied forces hospital looking after the injured personnel of the Assam and Burma front brought in droves by red colored Red-Cross trains passing through our area. While in college, during our off-periods, we used to meet at the Sorabji Refreshment Room of the Railway, and in the evening at the Shaheed Nazir Library at Siddique Bazar Lane. In both places we used to spend long hours discussing and debating the burning social and political issues of the day. In course of these interactions, some of my class fellows took a liking for me, and when the college union election came, they pushed me to seek a position in the students union.
I was elected secretary in charge of the Common Room and the Library. Both the Common Room and the Library were located in a separate large abandoned zamindar house nearby, called Chandra Kutir. I used to go there daily to ensure that the staff and the bearers had done their work properly. It was during this time that I also became a member of the Muslim Students League.
It was Oli Ahad who inducted me as a member of the Students League. From then, I started to visit frequently the Muslim League office at 150 Old Mogultooli Road along with Oli Ahad, A.M.G. Mohiuddin, Bahauddin Choudhury, Shamsul Huq (later minister), Abul Hasnat, Abdul Wadud , Khan Ataur Rahman and others.
I discovered a new thing there. Some wholetime workers stayed in the few rooms on the second floor of the office building to study, research and develop plans to popularize the League and do the field work as well. Notable among them were. Toaha of Noakhali,Tasadduk Ahmad of Sylhet, Tajuddin Ahmed of Kapasia, Dhaka, Shaukat Ali of Kaltabazar of Dhaka city, Shamsuddin Ahmad of Munshiganj and Shamsul Huq of Tangail. The inmates of the house used to fondly call this the Party House which was in fact a branch office of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League from the time Abul Hashim became its General Sectary.
Kamruddin Ahmed, who was the Worker in Charge of the Party House, did not stay there. He lived in a rented house close by, but he was there most of the time to talk to students and give them guidance. It was at his request that I, along with some 25 students of the Dhaka Intermediate College, undertook a visit to Gafargaon, on the eve of the visit there by Laquat Ali Khan to drum up support for the Muslim League, challenged there, by Maulana Shamsul Huda's Emarat Party. There, one day Tajuddin, Toaha and Oli Ahad got a beating from the Maulana's henchmen. This Maulana was not merely a Maulana but a polical maverick like Titu Mir having in his organization, an army of workers with swords, spears and otherlethal weapons, and a press of his own. We were given some bicycles there to go round the area for party work. It is there that I learnt how to ride a bi-cycle.
While at Gafargaon, we stayed in the Gafargaon High School premises on the bank of River Brahmaputra. We used to sleep on the floor, with a sheet spread over a lair of dry hay. There at sleepness nights, often, I remembered my school which, in contrast with this one and others, was the finest, being financed largely by the Bhawal Raj estate and the government, and not depending upon the students' tuition fees like other village schools. The teachers were all outstanding. The head master was an erudite graduate of the Presidency College in Calcutta. The Headmaster used a wooden revolving chair was donated by Bhawal Raja to one of his predecessors. There were very few Muslim teachers though Muslims of good families in our area were relatively advanced in education. I remember two of them distinctly. One was a distant relation, Syed Mohebbur Rahman who taught us Persian. (We had to take one of the three second languages, Arabic, Sanskrit or Persian) He had authored an Education Directorate approved textbook titled, A Handbook of Anglo-Persian Grammar and Translation. His grandson Syed Badrul Ahsan, is now a renowned journalist of the country. The other was M. Badruzzaman, the father of Dr. Rashiduzzaman and Dr. Waheeduzzaman, both now teaching in the universities in America.
Muslims in Bengal always fought for social, cultural and economic freedom and were proud of their tradition and heritage as Muslims in Bengal where they lived in peace and harmony for centuries, with the non-Muslims retaining their own cultural traits. together. A new pattern of life developed here after the Turkish Sultans proclaimed themselves as the independent rulers of East Bengal with Sonargaon as their capital. In 1352 A.D, Iliyas Shah made himself the master of Bengal and took the title of Shamduddin Iliyas Shah--'Shah-e-Bangalia'. This was the first time that the vast deltaic area was called Bangala.
Eminent researcher, writer and broadcaster Ghulam Murshid, in his monumental work, “Bangalee Culture of a Thousand Years”, has said that Banga or Vanga do not appear in the old scriptures. In Oitero Brahman (BC) and in Notes on Panini by Patanjali (200BC), Banga is mentioned but along with Aunga, Pundra, Magadha, Kalinga and Shumma. In all other epics, from time to time, Gaud, Rarh, Varendra, Pundra, Harikel and Samatata have been alternately used, but not Bangala or Banga. The nomenclature of Bengal owes its origin during the Muslim rulers.The Turks treated the non-Muslims with respect and gave them high position. The Palas and the Senas who ruled Bengal from ninth to twelfth century did not use the name Banga or Bangala either.
In retrospect, today, it seems that while the Lahore resolution gave the Muslims of Bengal a sense of identity of their own from the rest of Indians, the Dhaka University students' impetuous and emphatic 'NO' to Jinnah's claim of Urdu alone to be the state language reinforced this further. Younger generation wanted Pakistan, but certainly not at the cost of their language and culture. In fact, the Pakistan movement never took the shape of a religious movement. Religious organizations like the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind or the Majlis-e- Ahrar opposed Pakistan.
After the partition of India, with a truncated Pakistan lying astride in two wings, with no corridor, the people's faith was shaken and their belief in Pakistan of being a viable, vibrant country blew to smithereens. Feuding leaders dithered over constitution -framing for nine years, and when they had reached a consensus in1956, influenced by the Ulemas, it became an Islamic republic; the opposite of what Jinnah wanted which was a secular Pakistan.of citizens irrespective of their religious faith. Bengali, however, was given the status of one of the two state languages of the Islamic republic of Pakistan.. That constitution was in force for two years only and scrapped by Ayub's Martial Law in 1958 that ruled as a dictatorship for over a decade when the final movement for autonomy in the shape of the Six-Point charter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was launched.
Even before Pakistan came into being, leftist elements in the Muslim League feared a mingling of religion and politics might lead to corruption, injustice, exploitation and tyranny, and therefore, formed a new organization called, the Peoples Freedom League of which the Convener was Kamruddin Ahmad, a veteran worker in Dhaka. It came up with a secular and economic program that was drafted with his leftist colleagues of the Dhaka Party Office as early as July 1947. Its manifesto that was issued by Kamruddin Ahmad from his residence at old Dhaka. This manifesto pointed out the freedom of the state was quite different from the freedom of the people. It said its object was to work for the latter.
I was quite close to Kamruddin Ahmad when he was the Worker-Charge at150 Old Mughaltooli Road and had great regards for his analytical mind, leftist views and sincerity of purpose. Fate ordained for me to work again with him at Calcutta in 1957-59 when he was the Pakistan Deputy High Commissioner and I was the Press Attaché selected by the Central Public Service Commission. At Calcutta, he drew me closer to him and used to have long discussions almost everyday at his 3 Suhrawardy Avenue bungalow along with Late Enayet Karim and Late SAMS Kibria, two Third Secretaries (both jailed in1948) and others of his confidence, to which Mrs. Asma Kibria now is the lone surviving witness. We did a lot of things for Bengali language in Calcutta that was acclaimed by the West Bengal press and drew wrath of the Government, but it could do nothing, except transferring Kamruddin on promotion to Burma as an Ambassador.
Towards the end of February 1948, after Dhiren Dutta's amendment in the Constituent Assembly on February 25, 1948 for declaring Bengali as one of the state languageswas rudely discarded by Liaquat Ali on the ground that Pakistan was a Muslim State gained momentum. A Committee of Action was formed that called a province-wide students strike and demonstration on March 11, 1948. A charter of Demands was prepared. The Committee comprised two representatives each from People's Freedom League, Tamaddun Majlis, Salimullah Muslim Hall and the Students League. At that time late Dr. Badrul Alam and I took a whole week the entire poster writing in Samir Bose's room at Dhaka Hall. The response to the strike call was spontaneous. Hundreds of students courted arrest. Ultimately, Nazimuddin panicked and accepted all their demands. He also moved a resolution in the provincial assembly to make Bengali the official language and the medium of instruction. Arrested students were all released. The ban on some periodicals was removed.
Emboldened by the success of the language movement of 1948, the leftist students' resentment against the authorities took another form the next year. They tried to build up alliance with the trade union organizations. By the time I entered the University in August,1947, barely a month after partition, a sense of deprivation and frustration engulfed the Bengalees. At that time I also got involved with the leftist students organizations. First of these alliances was with the University Lower Grade Employees Union which went on strike from March3 to 9, 1949 forcing the University to close down for a while. Then came the police rebellion that was quelled by force. The University authorities apparently accepted the demands, but only to go back later from their pledge, saying it was under duress. They took harsh disciplinary action later against 27 students siding with the employees. The list of the punished students appears in Badruddin Umer's book, titled, Language Movement of East Bengal and Contemporary Politics (Mowla Brothers, Dhaka, First Edition, 1970 (Page 202). Six of them, Toaha, Oli Ahad, Dabirul Islam, Abdul Hamid, Abdul Mannan, Samir Basu and Umapati Mitra were expelled from the university for four years, 15 were ousted from the Halls, and five were fined Rs 15 each. Onefemale student was fined Rs 10. This writer of this article was in the the group of 15 ousted from their Halls.
Meanwhile Pakistan's politics that traditionally revolved round personalities, rather than principles, got messy after Jinnah's death, Liaquat's murder, Ghulam Muhammad's intrigues, and Iskender Mirza's conspiracies before being overpowered by Ayub's Martial Law. Ironically, while all this intrigues and deceit had a free playin the country, the hold of religion on politics, here, was getting weaker. The People's Freedom League with a secular program was followed, next year, by the setting up of the Youth League and the Ganatantri Dal. The Awami Muslim League, founded in 1949, became the Awami League in 1955. The old Muslim League was completely routed in East Pakistan's general elections in 1954. It was in the sixties that the Awami League Leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman raised the legitimate demands of the people in the Six-Point charter that united the Bengalees in one platform and led them to the liberation war five years later to taste the fruits of freedom and liberty for the first time.
O amar Bangla bhasha
"Fear not, comes the message from
the direction of the rising sun,
Those that will give life to the last throb
will diminish not, never."
- Rabindranath Tagore
On a recent sunny, windless, frozen afternoon I was walking along the trails in a suburban American town. Above me the sunlight was pouring through the naked branches of the trees without leaves. I was thinking about one particular passage that I read that morning in The Shelter OfThe World, a fiction piece by Salman Rushdie published in the New Yorker magazine on February 25, 2008. In the story, a great Jesuit linguist comes to Mughal Emperor Akbar's court and challenges Akbar the Great to discover his native tongue. He was speaking in Portugese. While the monarch of the world was trying to solve the puzzle, his first minister Birbal, one of his navaratna, goes behind the priest, and kicks him hard on his backside. The priest cries out in Italian. "You observe Jahanpanah," said Birbal, "that when it comes to unleashing a few insults, a man will always choose his mother tongue."
Our mother tongue Bangla came under vehement attacks after the partition of India in 1947. Pakistan's leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah visited East Bengal only once in 1948 and pronounced, during a lecture in Dacca University's Curzon Hall, that "Urdu and Urdu alone will be the state language of Pakistan." Students sitting at the back of the room cried out “No, No, No.” In Pakistan's east wing (then known as East Bengal), Bangla was the only spoken language, whereas Urdu was spoken by 12-15% of the entire population. People in the East had no understanding of this alien tongue and would not tolerate such an impossible proposition. From 1950-52, the educated middle class of East Bengal underwent what is referred to as the language movement. The Bangla language survived through the bloodshed of our own Dhaka University and Medical College students in 1952, when the Muslim League establishment's Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin (a supposed Bangalee himself) declared what Mr. Jinnah had originally proposed, that Urdu only would be the state language of Pakistan.
It was the Bangla month of Falgun. The students leaders of Dhaka University, on behalf of their teachers, took the lead in opposing the ridiculous notion by demanding that Bangla should be our official language. They, united, stood against the tyranny of the Muslim League government. Chaired by Maulana Bhashani, an All-Party Central Language Action Committee was formed. An overwhelming number of students converged upon the university campus. In a meeting at amtala, the student leaders called the central Pakistan's decision to establish Urdu as the only official state language an overt assault upon Bengali culture and heritage.
On February 21, 1952, the student leaders decided to organize a peaceful rally. The valiant students broke the curfew imposed by the government, violating Section 144. Then the government ordered its security forces to open fire on the unarmed students as they were trying to march to the Assembly building to make their demands heard, all the while chanting Rashtrobhasha Bangla Chai. Dhaka city's earth was made crimson by the blood of twelve students, and amongst them were Salam, Jabbar, Barkat, Riafique, Motiur, and an unidentified rickshaw puller. They gave their lives to preserve Bangla language in its rightful place.
The students lost lives for the future generation to sing with delight:
Moder gorob, moder aasha
A'mori Bangala bhasha.
One's language is one's identity. Revoking the right to talk in one's language in an official capacity can be seen as a challenge to one's very existence, similar to instructing a person that she cannot breathe through her nose. What choice is left, at that point, but to fight back? Ever since independence from the British Raj in 1947, East Pakistan had historically bent to the whims of West Pakistan; their division had been designed to encourage this. We Bengalis did not take the assault on our language lying down. We fought tooth and nail until 1971. With the birth of our nation, a separate Bangladesh, our new found freedom ensured us Bangalees that we were full citizens, and that we were free of any official threat of the government, whether arbitrary demands over official language, or over the rights of persons.
Recently I stumbled upon an old two taka note that caught my attention. Shaheed Minar is imprinted on that note. The deaths of our students were commemorated by the stark Shaheed Minar, or Monument of Martyrs; each pillar represents the life of a shaheed student. Ekushey February is observed every year with thousands of barefoot people marching, carrying wreaths and garlands of marigolds and krishnachura. They lay the wreaths on the marble stone minars built 14 feet high above the ground, and climb up the wide stairs singing "Amar bhaiiyer rakte rangano Ekushey February. Ami ki bhulite pari."
On this Ekushey, I am pondering why, after so much struggle and bloodshed, the Bangla language is becoming a secondary language in the big cities of Bangladesh. In a lot of the secondary and higher secondary schools, English is the only medium of instruction. Our young generation often speaks in English. Television and other cultural programs have become a peculiar hybrid of English and Bangla. There are so many English words that are slipped in, that one will infer that our young generation is ashamed to speak in its mother tongue.
Very recently I was talking to a friend on the phone who had moved back to Bangladesh after staying in the West for decades. Suddenly I realized that both of us were mostly speaking in English and when I pointed that out to my friend, she informed me that even after living in Dhaka for seven years, she finds it is easier to speak in English than in Bangla. This was a friend who read Robi Thakur's Shesher Kobita, whose life was greatly influenced by the Last Poem. Like Jibananda Das scholar Clinton B. Seely, she could parse the post-modern characteristics of complicated and controversial Das poems. Now all that is gone. I can picture my friend sitting in rowdy Mango Café in Dhanmondi, discussing Dhaka's traffic jams in English.
I take equal responsibility here for not truly keeping up with the Bangla language. After living in the West for over three decades, English, for me, has become a way of daily life. In the mailbox, when two books arrive on the same day, one being Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness and the other Buddhadev Guha's Charumoti, I tend go for Alice Munro first. This is a sad reality.
I acknowledge, however, that I am in my full element when I write in Bangla and read Bangla, though the only time I write in Bangla is when I write to my ninety-six year old mother in Dhaka. Recently I read a short story titled Allen Shahiber Chokh by Syed Manzoorul Islam in an old Eid issue of Jugantaar which took me back to my roots, riding an old bicycle on an open country road. Acclaimed poet Fazal Shahabuddin speaks to me like no poet has, particularly his poem Graveyard. In solitary moments a tape of Abbasuddin Ahmed plays in the background; Allah megh dey pani dey chaya dey re tui…The words wrap around me like a familiar chenille blanket on a blustery winter night.