Arguably one of the most crucial times in the history of this nation, 21 February is often termed as the most pivotal moment, a source of inspiration for every post-1952 political movement in the then East Pakistan. Ekushey February's timeless significance has touched the shores of every ocean and transcended borders to reach the soil of every nation as International Mother Language Day.
The true offering of 21 February however is deeply rooted in the fact that it has given us freedom, freedom to express our joy in the form we know best, state the pathos of our hearts eloquently. Yet it also gave us the strength, the strength for rebellion; the courage to defy every injustice we face.
The blood that had been shed on the streets of Dhaka on that fateful February evening will forever shape our dreams, mould our thoughts and guide our actions.
Ekushey, if not anything else, has given us expressions.
February is a eulogy in itself. Today, we observe the 60th anniversary of that red letter day, a day of mourning at the loss of our brothers, not only limited to that February afternoon but throughout our long history of struggle.
By the end of 1952, some of the greatest works in literature and arts dedicated to 21 February had been written. One of the first of its kind, “Amar bhaiyer rokte…” -- the immortal lines by Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury -- had shaken the entire soul of the nation. From the very day it was penned, it transformed the psyche of the people. It was a creation of the moment, for the moment. The words were succinct, but their implications volatile.
As the scenario of the language movement evolved through the decades, this poem in particular has evolved from a rebellious poem to a defiant song which was then re-tuned to a haunting melancholic rendition. This song has truly upheld the Bengali emotion associated with Ekushey.
In a battlefield, the slain act as inspiration for valour, they provide encouragement. Only when the struggle meets its end do we stand in silence to mourn and show respect for the lives that have been lost.
“Amar bhaiyer roktey…” has undergone a similar transformation. In the post-1952 scenario it called for revenge, a demand to take the perpetrators to the gallows. As the rights to speak and call Bangla our own were achieved, the mood turned sombre and we observed a requiem for the brave lives lost.
The story of the Tower of Babel defines language as a source of dispute, one that hindered man from reaching the heavens. It was said that the diversity of language hinders the mingling of races and the sharing of thought. This was the exact sentiments of the West, one that wrongfully upheld that only through one lingua franca, Urdu, could Pakistan stand united.
The variation that exists between nations, be it in terms of language or social behaviour creates a unique chance for humanity to experience very innate feelings in different forms. Human expressions of love, hate, glory, pride and so on have varied meanings in different corners of the globe. The same emotion that is love has been interpreted in expressions that are unique to each culture. As people learned to blend in, thoughts find new meaning in new geographical regions with new languages. Language, in all its variations and dialects, in reality binds people.
Through the celebration of International Mother Language Day Ekush has found its rightful place in the world. Yet, we still observe cultural discriminations across the globe and quite ironically, within the geographical boundaries of Bangladesh itself.
In 1952, there was no confusion that we want Bangla as the State Language. The Language Movement that had begun in 1948 crystallised and reached its pinnacle only after six years. The whole nation stood behind the student community who were at the forefront of this movement. We were united for a cause; the entire Eastern wing of Pakistan beat in unison during the time. It was not the vibe of the moment that caused it, but rather the cause of the movement -- a righteous struggle.
To be able to stand under a common flag is possibly the most important aspect of attaining a goal. The activists of the movement did face internal feuds and conspiracies but at the end of the day, there was unity.
As batches of 4 students left the Medical College gate, one after another, defying the order of Article 144, many were arrested. Tear shells were thrown, shots were fired. Amidst the uncertainties of life and death the band of protestors marched on.
For the first time as an Independent nation, the people of East Pakistan were fighting not against a foreign power but an institution they were taught to call their very own. But under one umbrella, for the first time, we stood in union.
Since 1952, Ekush has been the pivotal point of reference for every political or socio-cultural movement that took shape with the boundary of this region. Whenever and wherever there was oppression, people basked in the spirit of Ekush, feeling no hesitation to protest.
By 1956 Bengali was given the rightful status as the State Language of Pakistan, along with Urdu. Yet, time and again battle lines were drawn between the oppressor and the oppressed. The series of events that led to Ekushey, also led to the eventual independence of Bangladesh. It would be wrong to say that the quest for freedom began in Ekush, for it did not. But it will probably not be wrong to say that the thirst began in '52.
Ekush gave us strength to fight oppression as it does till this day. However, the biggest lesson we must learn from Ekush is that once the roles between the oppressor and oppressed are changed, the cycle of injustice must be broken.
It takes courage to fight injustice but only the righteous can ensure justice from a position where there is a lure of becoming the oppressor.
As the bullets left muzzles on that fateful evening, the martyrs were slain not because they felt pride in their expression but rather an honour to be able to speak, sing and recite in a language they called their own.
They felt honour in wearing the pyjama; the women felt honour clad in a sari. They showed no disrespect to those who opted to garb in something quite different altogether. They were killed because it was better for them to die thousand deaths than to wound their honour.
Life without honour is like a dead leaf, barely adhering to its stalk waiting to fall and rustle down on the ground. Pride, however, is a monster waiting only to devour.
Salam, Rafiq, Jabbar were killed on that February afternoon, as they were killed in the defiance against Ayub Khan, as they were murdered while demanding the 6-point movement and during the Liberation War. They are being killed even today. Only the faces change, the names differ but their spirit lives on even after they breathe their last.
For as long as the sun will rise in the east, for as long as there will be flowing water in the seas, the martyrs of Ekushey will remain vigilant against oppression and they shall die a thousand deaths.
By Mannan Mashur Zarif
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Model: Reetu Sattar
Makeup: Farzana Shakil