The Vantage Point of Ekushey
The tenacious Phalgun wind, after a bone-chilling winter, brings to mind the herald of spring, full of new blossoms and hopes. But it also evokes an unforgettable slice of history: the context of the language movement in the 1950s, especially the day thousands took to the streets and many laid down their lives for preserving the sanctity of Bengali, our beloved mother tongue. It was a time when everyone seemed to have realised that the relationship between language and culture is symbiotic, and without the former the latter cannot be asserted. With the soothing wind starting to blow every now and then, the month of Phalgun is just about to set in, calling forth the memories of Ekushey February.
Even though we are a nation with the richiest heritage of resisting the aggravating political hegemony of the Urdu-speaking people, this is the only time of the year when we find some time, however momentary, to ponder over the spirit and objective of the language movement, and that too, with the urge of keeping up appearances on the formal occasions of commemorating the language martyrs. But let us not be derailed and let us stick to the Phalgun wind which reminds us of a particular historical event. So what was the objective of the language movement?
In the initial stage of the movement, when a student action committee was formed on the eve of Pakistan's governor general Mohammad Ali Jinnah's first and only visit to the erstwhile East Pakistan, the then chief minister of the province Khwaja Nazimuddin reached an eight-point agreement with the student, the most overriding point being the replacement of English by Bengali in courts and offices. Later, when the All Party State Language Action Council was formed in January 1952, the objective of the movement was extended from official recognition to ensuring use of Bengali in every single sphere of life that saw an unprecedented rise in literary and cultural activities focusing on the essential correlation between language and cultural identity. In recent times, the Ekushey Chetona Parishad, formed by leaders and activists of the language movement as well as the leading intellectuals of the country have also reiterated on several occasions the essentiality of ensuring the use of Bengali in all spheres of life.
Shops, businesses, restaurants, hospitals and organisations- all are obsessed with English alphabets and foreign names. Photos: Zahedul I Khan
Having said that, let us begin with a ride in and around the city. Take, for instance, the route from Mirpur to Jatrabari or Sadarghat, or from Uttara Abdullahpur to New Market or from Mahakhali to Gulistan. Now pause. What do you see? Of course, you see the rundown condition of all the narrow or broad roads, and then you see people take a nap in their vehicles while they are stuck in the persisting traffic jam. But what else do you see? Simulacra: representation of all kinds in the form of advertisement on billboards (which these days seem to block whatever soothing sights this city has to offer), and numerous nameplates of small shops, businesses, organisations and offices. All these representations are replete with proper nouns since a name is what gives an identity to your organisation, office, shop or business. But as I've already told you that since Phalgun is about to set in, we'll look at everything from the vantage point of the objective upheld by the language movement. So, we must ask, why are all the names in the nameplates given in English? Why does everybody want to identify their business or organisation with an English name? May be the target consumers hail from England or America. But that sounds impossible. All businesses, small or big, target Bangladeshi customers, yet they outrageously show a tendency to use English names. You cannot even spare the very small businesses that unmistakably will use word or phrases like 'trading corporation', 'store', 'brothers', 'centre' and many more at the end of their name. This is also an import for which you do not have to pay. All you need to do is just erase the glorious 'history part' from your memory and replace it with the mighty (or almighty?) 'American dream' which orients you toward consumerism, and once you entangle yourself in this labyrinth; all you mean is business and money.
However, that's just a beginning which reflects a gross emptiness about awareness of one's own culture, and which constitutes part of our mental space that no one can necessarily control by enacting or enforcing laws. You can at best tell the Dhaka City Corporation not to issue any trading license unless people go for a Bengali name, but what law can dictate the chemistry of your mind?
So let us throw some light on the field where you can expect some change by enforcing new laws or regulations. According to a new survey conducted by the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), about 20 lakh youths enter the job market every year. A stunning number indeed! Are the job advertisements in media compatible with such a huge number of job seekers? That is a different issue altogether. But what are the qualifications that the employers mostly look for? Since it is the age of information and technology, it is little wonder that computer skills will be given utmost priority. But what comes next? The job seekers know it all, and that's why they are wasting no time on Bengali and are getting admitted into a spoken English course while cursing their parents for not emphasising the importance of English earlier in their life. I think the time has come for the incumbent education minister to abolish Bengali altogether and force all students to learn only English as the first language and then Hindi as the second language. I am not being sarcastic. When it comes to the job market, the necessity of Bengali is found only in theory. In practice, however, the dwindling value of our mother tongue is now a reality.
Since the last national election, the incumbent government has been reiterating the necessity of building up a digital Bangladesh, the implementing process of which, it claims, is underway. There are several aspects of digitising a country that would include all the public and private sectors. Getting easy access to all sorts of information, especially those that are of national importance, is an integral part of that digitisation process. But except for the Bengali newspapers and a limited number of websites, most other websites that the Bangladeshi people access to are in English. Suppose you need some information about a district. If you search for it in English, you will find just some passing reference in the local English newspapers and some other websites. If you search for it in Bengali, the worst happens. But think of the huge body of texts that have been written about it in Bengali. If only a little of those texts are digitised, only then you can have access to a treasure-trove of information about that subject. But alas! No buzz regarding this has yet been heard.
This may seem like some English-bashing propaganda. Not at all. If you want to keep pace with the modern world, you have to accept a second language as a gateway to that world. In the case of Bangladesh, with the colonial legacy of nearly two hundred years, we are left with but one option, that is English. So refusing English will be tantamount to the obstruction of progress and development. But embracing English must not be done at the expense of the importance of Bengali. We must not forget that this language is what united us regardless of our class, creed and religion, in times of all our political crises, and has guided us till the present day. This language is what has upheld our image as a nation to the whole world. So we must realise that without ensuring its spontaneous progress national development cannot be ensured.
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