In the year 2000, first time in world history a day was celebrated to honor Mother Languages. Although only last year 21st February had been declared as International Mother Language Day by UNESCO it had already been 48 years since its inaugural celebration. In a small country on the Tropic of Cancer thousands wake up at early dawn of each 21st day of the second month to walk bare foot to the Shaheed Minars around the nation to lay down wraiths at its foot.
9th January, 1998. A letter was sent to Kofi Anan, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations to declare 21st February as International Mother Language Day from Rafiqul Islam, an immigrant Bengali living in Vancouver. He reasoned that this will act as a step towards preserving the dying languages and he also provided the historical context of that day, the Language Movement of Bangladesh.
1947 saw the birth of India and Pakistan. Which actually had been a single land mass since mythical times now was divided on the flimsy basis of religious majority into three distinct geo political areas. Pakistan comprised of East Pakistan where most people’s mother tongue was Bengali and West Pakistan where 6% people spoke Urdu soon to be declared the national language of Pakistan.
23rd February, 1948. Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly began with English and Urdu. A Hindu member of the National Congress Dherendronath Datta gave a passionate speech calling for making Bengali one of the official languages of Pakistan. Despite being a participant of many of the era defining political activisms of the subcontinent up to his assassination by the Pakistani Army in ’71, this was to be his greatest political legacy. With each passing day the political climate of East Pakistan became agitated. Students and young Turks of the Pakistan politics were in the forefront of the movement. A general strike was called on 11th March.
Streets of Dhaka were full of processions that day. Dhaka central jail was filling up with party leaders and activists arrested from the street during peaceful rallies. During the
afternoon a rally went toward the chief minister Khawja Nazimuddin’s house. Police charged into it many were injured and arrested including one Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the future father of the nation. But the action of the police and the states willingness towards violence was signaling a forboding future for the subcontinent. After four days strike a general agreement was reached between student leaders and the state, but still Bengali wasn’t state language.
31st January, 1952. Bar Library Hall, University of Dhaka. Chaired by Moulana Bhasani a meeting to decide the future plans for the movement was going on. Khawja Nazimuddin was now the Governor General and he staunchly defended the states “Urdu only” policy. Moreover there was plan to implement Arabic script to write Bengali thus turning millions of Bengali state employees into illiterate overnight. The Red Moulana called for a general strike on 21st February. The state responded with imposing section 144 rendering any assembly unlawful.
The stage was set. Only thing lacking was sacrifice and that was provided with abundance. Blood was spilled on the streets of Dhaka when police fired without warning on a
procession. Rafik, Jabbar, Barkat and many more died on the spot.
In 1956 Bengali was made into a state language of Pakistan and in 1971 after nine months war and genocide Bangladesh was born.
Rafiq was originally from Comilla, Bangladesh. As a freedom fighter he and his younger brother fought in the Liberation War of Bangladesh. His younger brother was martyred in the battle. From the office of the Secretary General, the Chief Information Officer Mr Hasan Ferdous, a Bengali and a writer, reached out to Rafiq and advised him to propose the same from any member country of the UNO. Thus “Group Of Mother Languages Of The World” was established. It consisted of another Bengali Abdus Salam, 2 English, 1 Hindi, 1 German, 1 Cantonese and 1 Kachhi speaking people. The group started corresponding with Canadian government and kept their efforts going on unbeknownst to most Bangladeshis at home for a year which culminated into 17th November 1999 when the proposal was raised in the UNESCO meeting. 188 countries including Pakistan supported it. Not opposed by a single country it was passed as a decision.
There are nearly no documentation of the trials and tribulations Rafiq and his friends went through to establish the Mother Language Day. I took help of this blog.
These days languages are rapidly getting lost in the onslaught of a global vernacular and few efforts are made by the governments around the world to preserve them. Even in the birthplace of the original language movement there are endangered languages on the verge of extinction. Chakma, Marma, Bawm to name a few. The plight of these languages aren’t heard over cacophony of other more “important” matters. A list of endangered languages by UNESCO is provided here.
A video from UNESCO ( Where they hilariously forgot to add Bangla but then re-uploaded later with Bangla.)
Happy Mother Language Day people.