Vol. 4 Num 262 Sat. February 21, 2004  

Post breakfast
The ethos of Ekushey February

At 3.10 pm on 21 February, 1952, the streets near the Medical College Barracks in Dhaka were drenched with the blood of students protesting arbitrary imposition of what was unjust and wrong. As most of us know, the police opened fire without warning on peaceful, unarmed groups of students on the orders of District Magistrate Qureishi. They were defying the imposition of Section 144. Two students of Dhaka University, Abdul Jabbar and Rafiquddin died on the spot. Two others passed away late in the evening the same night -- Abul Barkat, another student and Abdus Salam an employee of a printing company located in Badamtoli. Both died in the operation theatre. Ninety-six others received bullet injuries. The next day, further protests led to the death of an employee of the Dhaka High Court and Shafiur Rahman, a student of the Law Faculty of Dhaka University. They died when police opened fire in Nawabpur in Dhaka.

Since then, Ekushey February has continued to evoke powerful emotions in the hearts of all Bangla speaking people throughout the world. The core values that this day represents transcends geographical boundaries. It has since become a symbol of the strength that can be generated through people's unity. It is today a source of inspiration that helps us to identify what is right and what is wrong. It reminds us of justice and our conscience.

Amar Ekushey was the first serious step taken by us our quest for equality and freedom. It heralded the beginning of a bigger, broader movement that was to shape in later years our identity as a nation. It was not just a linguistic and cultural revolution. It was an affirmation of the people's desire to honour their mother language. It subsequently became the intellectual platform from which we expressed our determination to move forward towards the path of independence.

The spirit of Ekushey, most fortunately, never left us. Even during the darkest days of disarray, we have sought and received understanding and unity in its ethos.

It is a special day whose character has now received international recognition. On 17 November, 1999, the UNESCO General Conference unanimously adopted a resolution tabled by Bangladesh proclaiming Shaheed Dibosh as the International Mother Language Day.

Such an international acceptance can only be interpreted as a suitable tribute not only to those who decided to protest against injustice on that day, more than five decades ago, but also for the entire Bangla speaking population, wherever they might live in the world. This was an important victory not only for Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government but also for those who believed in the preservation of linguistic pluralism and multilingual education.

Language, as most of us know creates its own denotations and connotations -- some of it literary and cultural and others political. There were consequently several sensitivities associated with Bangladesh's efforts (in Paris and various cities in Canada and the USA), based on the principle that there was need 'to create greater awareness for the protection and preservation of fast-disappearing mother languages of the world.' It was a difficult journey that succeeded because of understanding and goodwill.

Koichiro Matsuura, the Director General of UNESCO, in a message issued last year on this day, explained that all countries should celebrate the International Mother Language Day by promoting development and teaching of respective Mother Languages. This was a significant suggestion.

Languages are tools of communication. They are the ultimate expressions of human creativity. They also provide a link between the past, present and the future. Their evolution most often reflects the enrichment that has taken place through cross-mixture with other languages and cultures.

It is heartening to note that observance of this Day is slowly gaining momentum. Several countries in Europe, Africa and Mexico have taken steps to highlight the indigenous content of their culture on this Day. They have underlined through these measures that languages are an integral part of humanity's intangible heritage.

In Bangladesh, we cannot just sit back and bask in the glory of international acclaim. We now have many additional responsibilities and we should approach these with great seriousness. We have to actively participate in the preservation of endangered languages through the International Mother Languages Institute that is being created in Dhaka.

The Institute should help preserve, develop and carry out research on all important languages of the world, including Bangla. It should collect and preserve alphabets, publications, cassettes and videos in different languages. It should try to open separate websites for as many languages as possible, with details of their history and evolution. There should also be a Department in this Institute responsible for exhibiting not only specimen but also information on those dead languages that played a special role in the progress of world civilization. It should be able to carry out research about the influence of other languages on Bangla. The Institute, in cooperation with other international cultural institutes should be able to organise cultural programme in different languages. The Institute should also take the lead to recognise the contribution made by eminent litterateurs in different languages.

Achieving these objectives will take time and also financial resources. I am confident however that with careful planning, these aims can be accomplished.

I shall now turn to Bangla and its usage within Bangladesh. The first question that faces all of us is whether we are doing enough to impart appreciation of this language within the socio-political fibre of our country. That is the litmus test. Yes, every Ekushey we go through the rituals. We place flowers on different monuments and Minars. We walk bare feet to the Central Shaheed Minar. We sing particular songs associated with this day. Then what? The flowers wither and with that in most cases the enthusiasm to practice Bangla in different walks on our lives.

Partially, the reason for this is in the globalisation of culture and commerce. Article 3 of our Constitution recognises Bangla as the state language of the Republic. Act II of 1987 with its inadequacies also lends some support to the use of Bangla in the official domain. Such stipulations have however gradually given way to the growing supremacy of English as a common international language.

A recent survey has indicated that nearly 55 per cent of all international communication (by e-mail or post) is carried out in English and over 74 per cent of all research papers are in English. In addition, the vast majority of foreign donors, funding agencies, bankers and consultants recommend use of English for all varieties of legal conveyances and documents. It has now become the main medium of expression. It is also the mother language of at least 450 million people (including the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the many islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific). It is also claimed by various surveys that nearly the same figure speak English in different countries all over the world.

This preponderance is obviously creating its own dynamics particularly in the urban areas in Bangladesh. Worrisome aspects are emerging out of this equation. English medium of instruction in most cases is becoming the preferred choice if family resources so permit. In this system, students are ending up with only rudimentary Bangla. A different class is being created within the social structure. They are only superficially aware of their rich indigenous literary and cultural heritage.

Something needs to be done about this. The Government in its wisdom should continue to encourage the learning of English in every stage of the educational process. At the same time, they should also try to evolve ways and means by which Bengali cultural elements -- folk-lore and literature -- can be easily understood both by Bengali speaking children and those desiring to learn Bangla. In this context it might also be useful to simplify Bangla spelling and grammar. This will facilitate the spread of this language and its acceptance in other areas of the world.

The Bangla Academy should also undertake a serious review and prepare a plan of action on how to keep Bangla alive among the children of expatriate Bangladeshis living in non-English speaking countries of Europe and the Middle East and also in English language speaking areas like the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK. If these children lose Bangla as part of their lives, we have lost many future Ambassadors of our unique Bengali ethos. We will be that much poorer. The universality of the language and the advantages of it being a symbol of the International Mother Language Day would be that much less.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador.