Vol. 5 Num 626 Fri. March 03, 2006  

Bangladesh leading the way

February 21 is a very special day, specifically because fifty-four years ago a number of young people of what was then the eastern part of Pakistan, led by the valiant students of the University of Dhaka, wrote a new chapter in the history of mankind. With their valour and blood they asserted that it is an inalienable right of a people to speak in their mother tongue.

From that initial protest against myopic attempts to subjugate a people linguistically, culturally, politically and economically, flowed the unrelenting struggle that ultimately triumphed with the birth of Bangladesh, a struggle which in the final stages had to be an armed fight by an essentially peaceful nation.

In spite of the passage of so many years even now from February 21, 1952, hundreds of thousands of people all across Bangladesh begin expressing their unremitting respects to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice so that a people could be counted as a nation, and a free one at that.

Languages are instrument of heritage, identity and nation building. That is why language is an emotive issue, as it is central to the existence of a people and to their definition of who they are, who they want to be, how they wish to be identified.

Language can also be used to subjugate and divide a country as was done in then Pakistan and in South Africa, through the imposition of Urdu and Afrikaans that led to the students' and people's revolt in then East Pakistan in 1952 and youth uprising in South Africa in 1976. The fires stoked then ultimately resulted in the independence of Bangladesh and demolition of apartheid in South Africa.

In order to preserve the cultural heritage of humanity and in recognition of the sacrifice of the students for their mother language Bangla in 1952, the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1999 declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day. In a world of Globalisation, where a few languages take priority, the UN and UNESCO sought to protect and promote linguistic diversity and multilingual education.

Fifty-four years later as a direct consequence of what happened on that crisp February day in Dhaka City, International Mother Language Day is now a universally observed occasion for peoples around the world. It is a day which reaffirms that every culture has the right to nurture, promote and preserve itself in all its manifestations.

It is the immense diversity of the human race that makes the world such a wonderfully colourful planet. Because of this diversity mankind has been able to enrich civilizations with unique blends of songs and poetry, dance and music, paintings and sculptures throughout the millennia -- a veritable tapestry of the aspirations and history of all the ages.

Certainly, human history is one of constant change. As has been said long ago, the only constant is change. This is, of course, both a boon and a bane. Consequently, over the years many languages have been lost and some are petering out of existence. At one time, there were between seven and eight thousand distinct languages. Now, it's estimated, very few speak most of the six thousand known languages around the globe.

Therefore, wouldn't it be a shame and a tragedy if nearly 3,000 of these mother languages become extinct as Prof. Stephen Wurn who spoke some 50 languages himself, has described in his compilation "Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Extinction." It falls upon us, as heirs to the collective wisdom of our ancestors to preserve this heritage. And such initiatives can bring results as one such example has shown. Cornish, the mother language of England which is said to have become extinct in 1777 has been revived through recent efforts and now over 1,000 persons speak the language.

Linguists therefore have a frenetic task on their hands as they try to document the remaining languages especially because half of today's languages have fewer than ten thousand speakers and, more alarmingly, a quarter have less than one thousand only. The loss, to put it simply and factually, would be irreparable.

While I am here, I cannot resist the temptation of submitting to you a few realities about my country. It is of course a fact that Bangladesh is not the most successful land on earth and has, perhaps, more than its fair share of natural calamities. If you live outside Bangladesh you're very likely to be left with the notion that that's all it is good for. The reality is rather different.

Bangladesh is one of the few countries that has already attained three of the Millennium Development Goals, which are to be met by 2015. It has by this year reached the goals of primary school enrollment, gender parity in education, and access to safe drinking water.

Then there is the recent report by the United Nations Development Program. It said, inter alia, that Bangladesh demonstrated it is possible not only to sustain strong human development across a broad front even at relatively modest levels of income growth but also to graduate into the medium developed countries category in the Human Development Index. The UNDP representative went on to declare:

"Over the past decade Bangladesh has been a leading light in improving human development and should seek to lead the way for other countries as the world looks to achieving the Millennium Development Goals." No mean achievement for a land that is host to over 140 million people in an area of merely 144,000 square kilometers.

Since 1975, the report said, Bangladesh has steadily improved life expectancy, education and the standard of living. And for the first time, it continued, Bangladesh has overtaken India on reducing infant mortality, one of the key indicators of the Human Development Report. Evidently, victories over adversities, defying the odds and proving the prophets of doom wrong are very Bangladeshi characteristics. So it has been for eons and so it will be for ages to come.

Seeking your indulgence for a brief while more -- and to drive the point home while I have the floor -- let's take a quick look at another report. The World Economic Forum, last year for the first time, made an attempt to assess the current size of the gender gap by measuring the extent to which women in fifty-eight countries have attained equality with the other gender in five critical areas, namely, economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being.

And the finding? Bangladesh emerged ahead of such countries as Italy, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, and on top of all Muslim-majority nations surveyed. On a scale of seven, where Sweden scored the highest with 5.53, Bangladesh scored 3.75, trailing mighty Japan by only 0.01 point while other countries in South Asia, including Pakistan and India were distant followers. Definitely something to shout about even at the risk of sounding immodest!

But let me return to the topic of the day, i.e. language. Given the extent of confrontational attitudes in today's world the importance of respecting various cultural identities assumes more urgency than, maybe, ever before. And what's equally important to remember, as all right-thinking people certainly do, the right to expression in any language comes with obvious responsibilities.

To ignore this reality, which includes the reality of being sensitive to the rights of others, is not only another surefire method of evading responsibility but in truth is another definite way of engendering despair, anguish and disruption in civilized coexistence, a coexistence that has permitted the flowering of so many varied ways of living in so many different cultures which in turn has allowed the growth of so much great literature and art.

Consequently, it is obvious and essential as well that all attempts to preserve and promote mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity, but it will also create a fuller understanding of linguistic and cultural traditions. This will result, without a doubt, in generating better solidarity among different peoples based on understanding, tolerance and continuous dialogue -- an imperative in present-day world if ever there was one.

Sabihuddin Ahmed is Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK. This piece is an edited version of a speech given by him at the University of Ulster.