Within class and beyond
Beyond symbols and sentiments
Adages and bachans in Bangla
Globalization, language and Ekushey
Ekushey - towards secular democracy
Making Ekushey meaningful to the young
Intimations of Ekushey
Our pride, our sorrow, our joy
The elitist Ekushey
Rediscovering Ekushey February
Bangabandhu and Language Movement
Incipient nationalism and freedom
My first Ekushey
Bangla and Muslim era in India
Dhirendranath Datta: Glimpses of a life
A generation united and untied
The unforgettable
A privilege and a responsibility
Remembering Ekushey
It's a different February
Reflections on 21st February
When memory sweeps across history


The elitist Ekushey

Syed Fattahul Alim

Civilisation began with language. Each step of its advancement was also marked by the further progress of its basic mode of communication, language. Different races, ethnic groups, nationalities and nations all over the world are known more by the language they speak than by what they eat, wear or the god they worship. Language being a source of common bond between different groups of people in a society, it played a very vital role in the evolution of nation states first in Europe and then elsewhere in the world. The movements for national liberation in the colonies also centred on a new awareness of the struggling peoples over their languages.

The people of Bangladesh waged a unique struggle in the course of their search for a national identity and finally for their independent nationhood. The struggle for national self-emancipation here merged with the struggle for protecting the honour of the mother tongue.

The language movement of 1952 was such a unique moment in the history of the Bangalee people's protracted struggle for nationhood.

The story of some deathless young souls who staged their protest march on the streets of Dhaka defying a government ban on assembly has gone down in history as the movement of the language martyrs. On the 21st day of each February, the nation remembers those heroes and shows their highest respect with flowers at the foot of the memorial, the Shaheed Minar, erected in their hallowed memory.

This February the nation will be observing the Language Martyrs' Day for the 55th time. The memory of those who witnessed the succession of events leading to that fateful moment unfolding before their own eyes has by now turned misty beneath the dusts of time. But what is still resplendent in their memories is the cause for which the martyrs sacrificed their precious lives. The youths,Rafiq, Jabbar, Salam, Barkat and otherswho came out on the streets braving the blind guns of the law were definitely charged with the love of their dearest mother tongue. But was it purely a matter of emotion and love for the mother tongue that had driven the youths and students to make ultimate sacrifices? More importantly, was the entire struggle only about meeting the students' demand for declaring Bangla a state language? Was it only a students' movement? How did the rest of the population participate in that struggle?

The number of people standing in queue with flowers in their hands leading to the Shaheed Minar is getting longer and longer on the 21st of February every year. The Bangla Academy compound cannot any more hold the growing number of visitors coming to the book fair each February. But if one looks at the composition of the Ekushey February processions and the visitors who throng the book fair more closely, one will find that the whole gathering has an elitist bias. The toiling and the working people have little or no representation in those gatherings, whether it is at the Shaheed Minar or at the book fair. Why this glaring discrepancy?

The media sometimes cover some interviews of the rickshaw drivers, workers and suchlike commoners about their perception of the 21st February. Most of the time, they draw a blank. The toiling millions look at the citizens observing the day with songs, slogans and showering flowers at the graves and memorials with curious eyes. The valiant sons of the soil who made ultimate sacrifices for their beloved mother tongue were not all children of the middle class section of society alone. And the language to protect whose honour they paid the ultimate price is also not spoken only by the members of the elitist middle class, a very insignificant part of the population. But to all appearances, the Language Martyrs' Day has become a day of the urban middle class only.

Did the urban Ekushey February aficionados who perform on the stages or sit among the elitist audience at the cultural occasions, lecture or listen to the lectures on the significance of the great occasion ever ask themselves how they have meanwhile hijacked the day from the rest of the population? But it is also not for any fault of the masses that they lost touch with the day. If anything, it is the failure of the country's enlightened middle class minority to involve the whole population in the event.

The question raised above does in no way aim to make light of the demonstration of emotion and love displayed by a section of the population at the urban centres across the nation. The crux of the matter is making the day more people-oriented than elitist. That is necessary because the mother tongue to which the day is dedicated is tongue of the masses of the people. And unlike the urban middle class elites, who mostly make the crowds on Ekushey February, the vast masses have no other means to express their passion, love, anger or carry out their day-to-day business of life but use their mother tongue.

But in stark contrast to this, the members of the urban middle class and their children, who observe the Shaheed Day (Ekushey February) with so much devotion and fervour, have more than one language to convey their emotion and ideas. Except in the third week of February, most of the time in the year, their love for Bangla vanishes into thin air. It is not only in the case of the tongue, the urban middle class of Bangladesh has also more than one culture to represent. They are at once Bangalees and Anglophiles.

Sad to say, the vast majority of the population who live beyond the precincts of the urban centres cannot simply afford to have dual or multiple cultural identities. They are destined to remain happy with the language and culture they inherited from their ancestors. The land they live off, the vocations they live by, the gods they worship, the seasons that condition their lives and the harvests that give them joy, all go together to make the culture we are so proud of and ready to die for. The Bangalees' culture is about the songs the boatmen have been singing since eternity sailing down no end of rivers crisscrossing the land. Their culture is about the songs the peasants sing when tilling their fields, sowing seeds and harvesting the crops. It is about the stories the mothers tell their children while sewing their quilts, the dances the village girls perform while pressing the husking pedals (dhenkis) with their feet and the song jubilant boys and girls sing as they play hadoodoo and golla chhoot. What the peasant, the wood cutter, the weaver, the potter, the building worker and the woman suckling her baby and cooking in the kitchen say and do have crafted the identity of the Bangalee.

The urban and elitist middle class Bangalee is a very recent phenomenon, especially after the erstwhile Calcutta, now Kolkata, in West Bengal was created by the British colonialists. The Kolkata-centred English educated Bangalees of that time constituted the new urban middle class. Though they came from a mostly feudal background in the countryside, they proved to be very fast at learning western, to be more precise, British ways of life. Imbued with western ideas on literature, science and politics, the new generation of men and women evolved a microcosm of their own within the larger macrocosm of feudal Bengal. They are the first generation of the Bangalee urban middle class created in this part of the world under British India.

After the Indian partition, Dhaka became the new centre of the urban Bangalee middle class of the eastern part of Bengal. The Kolkata-educated-and-trained Bangalee Muslims now became the catalysts in the development of the Dhaka-centred new urban middle class. Like the Kolkattaiya (of Kolkata origin), the Dhakaite (dwelling in Dhaka) middle class was behind the creation of the elitist Bangalee culture in Bangladesh. This new Dhaka-centred new urban middle class constituted a new microcosm of Bangalee culture. This new class turned out to be the purveyor of whatever was understood by Bangla language and culture.

There is no gainsaying the fact that in spite of their narrow, elitist outlook, the Dhaka-based urban middle class played the vanguardist role in the great awakening that the language martyrs of 21st February had set off. But the appeal of the new awakening of language-based nationalism could not spread among the vast majority of the people living in the countryside. If the new awareness about Bangla and the culture it cradles could relate itself to the real people, who have created the language through their struggles for life and livelihood, if the cultural movement initiated by the language martyrs could merge with the people's larger struggle for socio-economic emancipation, then we would have witnessed a new kind of 21st February. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

So, we are back to square one. The great sacrifices of the language martyrs remain confined within the emotional boundaries of the urban elites. Their lectures, songs, dances, poems and art works cannot tell the stories of the bigger struggles the Bangla speaking people have been waging relentlessly.

Compared to the observance of all other Ekusheys in the past, there is no reason the 55th Ekhushey will not be all of a piece. But it is also time we came out of the narrow realm of urban elitism and set the Ekushey within its yet larger context where it rightfully belongs. The Ekushey must cross the threshold.

Syed Fattahul Alim is a senior journalist.

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