|Volume 7 | Issue 02 | February 2013 ||
Social Justice and Ekushey February
In the wake of Ekushey, TAWHEED RAHIM ponders the injustices that still plague our society.
The fertile lands of this river delta have borne many women and men, and each with their own wants and needs. Cramped as we are within this space, we cannot help but step on each other's toes to reach our goals. We keep in mind all the injustices we suffered from others as they hurt us and shoved us out the way to get to where they're going, while doing the same to others. Though once in a while we put on hold the demand for others to recognise the injustices we suffer personally and rise together to achieve a greater social justice. This happens when a common injustice fires an outrage in our hearts, as was the case during Ekushey February. Yet not all the injustices were knocked down during that movement or the liberation struggle, and perhaps it is high time we think of those social injustices which still linger.
For example, one of the things Plato decides upon is to ban certain pieces of Greek literature on the grounds that they would entice disorder. Yet could we ban the rebellious poetry of Nazrul as Plato so willing bans Homer? Surely the right to read Nazrul is part of what we fought for on Ekushey February. Perhaps then we ought not to take the road trodden on by Plato where we attempt to redesign our society from the comfort of a philosopher's armchair. If we did, we may well end up overthrowing the currently unjust society for an imagined society with countless unintended injustices of its own. Is this not the lesson of such grand social experiments as the Soviet Union?
A less ambitious proposal is put forward by John Rawls, who invites us to imagine what we would like our society to be, if we were totally unaware what position we'd hold within society. Given this 'veil of ignorance', where we could be the most or least well off within society, Rawls believes that we'd agree upon a society that accords all its inhabitants the basic level of rights and freedoms that would allow each individual to seek her/his own good. Yet agreeing in theory upon a society where everyone is guaranteed the basic level of rights and opportunities to lead a fulfilling life, is far removed from implementing that theory into practice. Aside from questions on how to agree on what the basic rights are and how to ensure them for all, there is what we might call a need for outrage.
Benjamin Franklin once declared: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” It's all well and good that we should agree that everyone should have access to quality education regardless of their social status, yet unless we are all outraged enough to do something about it, we do little. This is what sets Ekushey February apart. The loss of Bangla was not an injustice only, but a matter that sparked outrage in our hearts. This is why Ekushey February may well be the best place to start our search for social justice.
Realising Ekushey February
Moving beyond Bangla as means of expression, Bangla is also seen as an integral part of the Bengali culture and identity. To speak Urdu would be to sever us from Tagore, Lalon, Nazrul and the others of that company, and therefore to lose our culture and identity. There has been much written about the conflicting identities of the Bangladeshi and in particular the tension between the Bengali cultural identity and the Bengali Islamic identity. It is a tension that the West Pakistani rulers were aware of even then. Further confusions are now arising with the infiltration of Indian culture through pop songs, Bollywood and cartoons like Doraemon. Indeed, it seems that Doraemon is singlehandedly responsible for the phenomenon where an entire generation of Bangladeshi middle class children are learning to speak Hindi. The challenge to the culture and identity from the West is possibly even more worrying as many of the new citizens we're churning out of our English medium schools find it easier to converse in English (not to mention to write and read in English) than Bangla. Moreover, globalisation for us now means that not being able to speak English is a very real and actual barrier to promotion in many careers within Bangladesh.
With all this, should we be outraged that the Bangla that we shed blood for on Ekushey February is being lost? That might be one reaction, though to see things in that way is to miss the principle that was fought for on Ekushey February. While the struggle was certainly in defence of Bangla, it represents more than the right to the Bengali language, culture or identity; it represents a principle that no one has the right to deny others of their language, culture and identity.
The people of this river delta were never of a single language, culture or identity. Take the obvious examples of Sylhet and Chittagong to begin with. In Chittagong, and particularly for the Chittagonian working class, it is Chatgaia that they feel most at home speaking, while Bangla is seen as the language of the elite. To remember the Bengalis across the border in West Bengal is to realise the great variation this land has borne. Even Tagore, the personification of Bangla to some, has a body of work that is 40% English and won his Nobel Prize for Literature for Gitanjali in English. What was fought for on that day was not the single Bengali culture, identity and language, but a principal in defence of all the cultures, identities and languages of this fertile delta.
What would then be a matter of outrage is that we could have any policy towards the minority peoples, like the Chakma, other than one that respects their culture, identity and language. To state that they should become Bengali, to attempt to settle their lands with Bengalis or to try to ignore their rights to autonomy after we fought so hard for it, is to ignore the principle that was defended. Perhaps here then is a space for us to seek social justice as we mark the 61st anniversary of Ekushey February.
Tawheed Rahim is a Staff Researcher at the Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University.
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