People and Events
21 February — Bangladesh’s Mother Language Day

by Nan
Amar Ekushey they call it: 21 February, celebrated and observed in Bangladesh as Martyrs’ Day and Mother Language Day to commemorate the day in 1952 when the torture of East Pakistan students began because they opposed the decree that Urdu be the official language of the whole of Pakistan, East and West. Five agitators were shot dead — Rafiq, Shafiq, Salam, Jabbar and medical student Abul Barkat that day, followed by many more shootings subsequently.

UNESCO, on 17 November 1999, decided to pay homage to the languages of nations and peoples by declaring 21 February International Mother Language Day. It aims at focusing attention on the threat of gradual extinction of languages of world minorities and the need to preserve them; the Sinhala language being identified as one of these endangered languages.

From Dhaka’s The Daily Star

A writer in this Bangladeshi newspaper in its 21 February issue says that: "The existence of mankind and the human condition depends on the total manifestation and prospect of language".

The editorial in the same paper tided Amar Ekushey: catch some of the spirit and move on states: "Ekushey February is a reference-point of central importance in our lives, because in it lies the umbilical cord of our nationhood. In that sense, it remains the fountainhead of all the best in terms of our inspiration to move ahead. We marked the fiftieth anniversary of the language movement last year, but..."

Pakistan was born as a result of a dividing of a nation. It arose out of political manoeuvring (Muslim vs Hindu prior to Indian independence), cupidity (on the part of Jinnah), expediency (desire of Lord Louis Mountbatten to see the event of independence take place on a date that came to his mind — 15 August). It resulted in much bloodshed and human agony, and the drawing of a sharp divide between Moslem and Hindu who had lived thus far together.

The assassination of Gandhiji too could be traced to the division of the country which he opposed vehemently, grieving over the rivers of blood that flowed along the lines of the divide and pleaded for mercy for the Muslims remaining in India, which drew the wrath of Hindu fundamentalists. Nations are also born of secession. Bangladesh is the only country that has been born due to language.

History of events

Soon after the birth of Pakistan, The Father of that nation declared that Urdu be the state language. Thus arose the protests in East Pakistan since only a meagre 10 percent spoke the language. 90 percent spoke Bengali, now known as Bangla. There was justified fear that East Pakistan would be subject to perpetual domination and ruled undemocratically by the powers in West Pakistan. The Language Movement was built up by intellectuals writing in newspapers and journals in Calcutta in 1947. Dr. Muhammed Shahidullah of Dhaka University was one of the pioneer valiant warriors for Bengali. Once the call for Bangla as the national language moved to the students and youth of the country, it assumed a militant slant and was a force to contend with. Hence the crescendoing curbing of students and eventual massacre, starting 1952.

Finally civil war ignited and, with the active assistance of India, East Pakistan broke away from its parent West Pakistan, and become Bangladesh in 1972.

The Martyrs’ Memorial

An important event of the commemoration is paying homage to those who laid down their lives for the language Bangla and the country Bangladesh, at the Shaheed Minar in Dhaka.

Throngs of people flow to the Minar from 20 February midnight onwards, to lay flowers in memory of those dead. The highpoint is the official ceremony on the 21st when the President and Prime Minister pay their respects and the Nation’s. As Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia said in tribute: "On the occasion of the immortal Ekushey February, I pay homage to the memory of the heroic sons of the country who shed blood to establish Bangla, our mother tongue, as the state language. I express my felicitations to those expatriates who, imbued with the spirit of patriotism and deep love for the mother tongue, worked hard to get immortal Ekushey declared as International Mother Language Day by UNESCO."

The Minar too has had a chequered life. On 13 February 1962, a committee, headed by the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University, Dr. Mahmud Husain, was constituted to design and construct a monument. In 1963 it was completed, but the original plan of artist Kanidur Rahman was somewhat changed. On 25 March 1971, the Minar was totally demolished due to the Yayha launched genocidal war against the Bengalis. It was rebuilt in 1973 and forms the focus of attention on Ekushey February Day.

Tagore, Poet Laureate (1913), (referred to in the newspaper I quoted as Rabindranath Thakur) wrote in Bengali. Our national anthem and that of Bangladesh have as their roots, or perhaps inspiration, Tagore’s music while the national anthem of India is Tagore’s, though he did not live to see Indian independence.

Milton and Rose Friedman in their 1980 Free to Choose give an interesting aside on language on economic lines. "How did language develop? In much the same way as an economic order develops through the market . .. out of the voluntary interaction of individuals, in this case seeking to trade ideas or information or gossip rather than goods and services with one another."

Sri Lanka

Don’t we trace our ethnic dissatisfaction and Northern terrorist conflagration to the language issue in the island? That at least was the start or excuse since even when the language of the majority was declared the state language, the use of Tamil was freely permitted. Now language is forgotten since no longer is it a barrier or weapon of disparity.

The fight continues because of greed for power, greed for land, greed for supremacy and pride in sticking to one’s guns — the last named being the LTTE’s solely.

The conflict, though in temporary abeyance, is again due to, or fanned by, the apparent servility of the government to give into all the LTTE demands, and soft pedal and apologise for their many blatant transgressions of the MoU.

A comment has to be made, several rather, on the interview of three TV persons with Ranil Wickremesinghe on Saturday 22 February when we "celebrated" one year of success of the MoU (success of sorts, of course). Jaffna did not celebrate the day, but hartaled, and the LTTE may have laughed at our celebration.

Firstly, the TV interview at Temple Trees, aesthetically flower arranged, must have been a programme watched and listened to by greater numbers than those who glue themselves to the TV for cricket relays.

Secondly what beautiful people are Sri Lankans. How handsome and dashing, particularly the PM with silver tinted hair and panache and statesmanship sitting easy on him. The articulate, clever young reporters were good to look at, and good to listen to. Sincerity was evident.

There were no lies, no mukulu, no put on airs. But though there were no lies whatsoever and though sincerity was evident, I was not satisfied with many of the answers. There was a skidding around ground that seemed dangerous. Commitments were not forthcoming. Finally no real eye openers.

I cannot understand why criticism of bending backwards, dhanagala dena eka, questions of what next, what will happen if... are invariably countered by the interviewed as :"Are you asking for war?" qualified by " will you go and fight? Will the politician or his son go and fight?"

We agree that it is the poor man’s son and daughter that gets killed, but others too were killed by the LTTE. Many more will be killed if the LTTE goes back on its word and restarts war on the excuse that the government went back on its word, while all the time the government has been bending backwards to please the LTTE, and give first place at the negotiating table to Mr. Balasingham etc., etc. We shiver in fear for the handsome men we saw on TV. No one ultimately is considered a friend of the LTTE. As I said in an earlier article, the LTTE has been encouraged to act like a spoilt brat with Mother Government afraid to say no to any demands in case they storm out of the home. The mother should have threatened storming out, when the brat was totally dependent on the good graces of the mother to save it from the neighbours who were growling over the brat’s misdemeanours.

What we simply cannot fathom, and now stomach, is the rhetoric of do you want war again. WE DO NOT WANT WAR. WE ARE HAPPY WITH PEACE. BUT WE ARE NOT HAPPY WITH THE WAY PEACE IS BEING NEGOTIATED. Why cannot the government say no to the LTTE on some issues at least? Why give them hope that the entire military will be withdrawn from the North and East? Is the government prevailing on the US to rescind its labelling the LTTE a terrorist organisation - to accept the legitimacy of the LTTE as a polite political party that has promised never again to use gun, bomb, cyanide capsule, landmine etc., etc., while they in reality are rebuilding their army, re-arming and collecting money.

Please, please listen to the Jaffna Army Commander; please, please, please do not move the arm of the international community to stroke the Tiger affectionately. Give the Tamils what they deserve, and they do deserve a decent life under democratic rule. They deserve to be rid of the travails of the war, but in this the LTTE has more to do and promise than the government. Give to the Tamil peoples, but curb the Tigers.
— Nan