The Urdu language issue in Bangladesh is perhaps the best example that shows, nothing can be forcibly imposed on anyone – whether it is a country or an individual, especially on free-spirited citizens. Despite being a minority, the Pakistani ruling elite since its birth in 1947 continued to impose the Urdu language on East Pakistan’s majority Bengali community in a futile attempt to suppress the Bengalis. Pakistan itself was eliminated from Bangladesh for good in 1971. The father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman warned and said, ‘You cannot suppress the Bengalis. Ultimately Pakistan failed. In 1948, after Pakistan got independence, Muhammad Ali Jinnah came to Dhaka and at a rally at the Dhaka University he announced, ‘Urdu, Urdu shall be the only state language of Pakistan’. That was the beginning of Pakistan losing its own existence. No dignified and self-conscious nation can tolerate such injury to its mother tongue. Bengalis could not. The movement started with the demand, ‘we want our mother tongue ‘Bangla’. ‘We want Bangla as the state language’. This slogan turned into the demand for self-control and later turned into an independence movement which culminated in the 1971 liberation war and ultimately Bangladesh emerged as a free and independent nation, after a terrible loss of human lives.
I don’t recall any other nation which has sacrificed so much as the Bengali nation with loss of lives for its mother tongue. I have not seen the language movement of 1952. I was not born at that time. But I read the stories of the language movement with immense interest and passion and watched documentary films and pictures. I was inspired. On every 21st February (the day of the Mother tongue and now International Mother Language Day) morning during Pakistan rule, I used to march with many others towards the Shaheed Minar with bare feet, wearing a black badge on my chest, banner held high and singing ‘Amar bhaiyer roktey rangao ekushey February, ami ki bulitey pari’(21st February, stained with my brothers’ blood, can I forget it’). At that time, Bengali was officially recognized as one of the official languages of Pakistan, but it did not get what is meant by ‘dignity’ in the real sense of the term.
I still remember, that 18 families used to live in the government service quarters Out of these, only five families were non-Bengali. Of them, two were Punjabi and three Bihari families. The remaining 13 families were Bengalis. We had to speak Urdu with the non-Bengali children who were of our age group, with whom we used to play cricket, badminton, cram and hang out. It was an unwritten rule.
The question never arose in our minds as to why we being the majority were speaking a foreign language. It was drilled into our heads that ‘you have to speak only Urdu’. It was also drilled into our heads that Urdu was the language of the Muslims and Bengali was imported from Sanskrit, the language of Hindus. Hence, ‘Bangla choro, Urdu Bolo’.
Immediately after the creation of Pakistan, we started to realise how unrealistic and unscientific the idea was, that a country could be formed based solely on religion. Immediately after the birth of Pakistan, there had been numerous conspiracies and attempts to impose the Urdu language on the Bengalis. The Pakistani regime exploited and persecuted the Bengalis in all possible ways. But all such evil designs and motives were repeatedly resisted by the Bengali students-teachers and masses. The attitude of Pakistani rulers towards the Bengali language was never tolerant and friendly. In this context, an incident of November 1947 can be mentioned here. The Secretary of the Central Public Commission of Pakistan issued a circular related to the Civil Service Examinations in the public universities of the country. It mentioned 31 courses, of which nine were on languages. These nine languages included Urdu, Hindi, English, German, even Latin and Sanskrit. But Bengali, despite being the language of the large population of Pakistan was excluded from the list. This proves the disrespect and hatred of the Pakistani ruling group towards the Bengali language and the people. A protest letter was published in ‘Ittehad’ newspaper. By December, Abul Mansoor Ahmad wrote an editorial. Later, the concerned ministry of Pakistan was forced to apologize for this mistake. Then came Jinnah’s arrogant and boastful announcement, ‘Urdu, only Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan’. But ultimately Urdu could not be the only state language of Pakistan in the face of intense protest movements and blood shed by the Bengalis. Pakistan lost its east wing in just 24 years after its creation.
Pakistan has gone. But it’s ghosts still hover around us. In various ways, in various forms. On April 14, 2001 in Ramna Botomul in Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, while welcoming the Bangla new year ‘Pohela Boishakh,’ ten people including one terrorist belonging to Harkatul Al-Jihadi Al-Islami lost their lives in bomb blasts while many others were injured. Pohela Boishakh (first day of the Bengali calendar year) is the festival of the Bengalis irrespective of faiths, cast and creed, it is a festival close to everybody’s heart. It has become part of our lives, just as 21 February has become the festival of life. Pakistani ghosts could not accept a free, secular Bangladesh and they are still active in Bangladesh to derail it from its path.
Our emotions and feelings were different those days, when I at my school and college age used to sing songs while marching towards the Shaheed Minar on 21 February early morning. A kind of emotion was working within us. Now, day-long, month-long festivals, various events, book fairs, music events, poetry-story recitations, book publications ceremonies, fairs etc take place on 21 February. I’ve been to these events a few times over the years. I saw a lot of people gathering, I saw the excitement of the youth, I saw them spending time laughing and chatting with friends. But I know that they don’t know much about the history of the sacrifice behind all these arrangements, around this special day. I can say it with certainty because I watched on various news and social media, where journalists asked these groups of young people what they knew about this day. Not surprisingly, most of them could not give the correct answer. What could be worse than this? It is really frustrating for a nation.
But the question is who is responsible for this? Is it those young people who do not know the significance or the history of the day? Or its roots are elsewhere? Who is to blame for not being able to raise awareness about this? The state or the family? Let’s start with family. Last month I went to Dhaka and stayed with a young family for a couple of days. I saw the well-off young mother of that family saying to her 11 years old, ‘Beta (Urdu tone in accent) eat this’, ‘Beta do that’ etc. Such words did not suit my ears. I could not appreciate it. I thought why should the son be called ‘Beta’? Is there no other beautiful, sweet word in Bengali? I saw the same practice a few years ago, in the official residence of a high-ranking bureaucrat friend. Does this add anything to their social status- I would very much like to know. Or is all this because of their thinking, mentality? Or from the point of religion? Our obsession with English is no different. Many of us have a tendency to say at least a few English sentences, or at least a few English words when talking to someone. A few days ago, a Bengali couple in London proudly said, ‘Our seven-year-old son speaks excellent English, with an English accent’. I didn’t feel very motivated. I replied, ‘Can he speak Bengali?’ ‘Not really’, the couple quickly replied, ‘but good English’. I said to them, “Your son is growing up in London, he will learn English even if you don’t want him to. That is normal. But if you don’t teach him, after a few days he will forget his mother tongue, ‘Bangla’.” My words did not seem to work. I did not see any response from this Bengali couple.
This is not just the mentality of this Bengali couple in London, it is the state of most, if not all, Bengali parents in the diaspora. For example, parents who come to Holland in their mid or late thirties or early forties, speak to their children in Dutch, often with incorrect pronunciation and incorrect grammar. By doing this these parents don’t help their kids to learn correct Dutch, and more importantly prevent them from learning their mother language.
I will not be surprised if our next generation, now growing up in Europe or America, will one day totally forget the language that their parents used to speak. When I visit a family in Holland for a social gathering, I see that on one side there are parents, on the other side, young children of different age groups. The parents like us speak Bengali, but unfortunately the young children speak either in Dutch or English. I don’t know how anyone else feels in such a situation, but I don’t like it, I feel pain. But again there is no reason to think that I am not in favour of learning languages other than the mother tongue. I want the children to learn other languages, too. In this regard, I can quote Mahatma Gandhi. He said, ‘’I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them.” I do want our children to learn other languages and cultures. I know Bengali well, I know English well, I know Dutch, I can speak Urdu, Hindi and I can speak a few sentences in German and French. The more a language is learned, the better. It widens your area of knowledge. But this cannot be at the cost of forgetting your own mother tongue. Not at all. There is no other language that touches the soul in calling a mother ‘Ma’. I will end the article with a quote from Nelson Mandela. He said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head, but if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”