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


International Mother Language Day
A privilege and a responsibility

Fauzia Shariff

On 17 November 1999 UNESCO adopted Bangladesh's language day, 21st February, as International Mother Language Day. The recognition by the international community of the importance of language and its special place in the history of Bangladesh and of the Bengali people, has created a privileged position for Bangladesh in championing language rights worldwide. With this goes a responsibility to promote and nurture diverse linguistic and cultural identity within Bangladesh.

We read a lot on Ekushey about the young and determined students of the Bangla language movement needlessly killed in 1952, and of the eventual triumph in the granting of official status to the Bengali language. No one will question the importance of keeping the memory of that history alive. But given that Ekushey has now become a symbol of the importance of promoting language diversity in a multiethnic global and national community, what is Bangladesh's role in championing the language movement in the 21st century?

The UNESCO resolution of November 1999 urges states, as one of its principal recommendations, to “promote, through multilingual education, democratic access to knowledge for all citizens, whatever their mother tongue, and build linguistic pluralism”. While the examples it gives for putting this into action focus on introducing a second non-mother tongue language into early education, the provision is equally relevant to the need to promote minority mother tongue languages in early education. I will use the example of the Santal minority in Bangladesh, who along with their own sophisticated socio-political systems have a thriving language heritage, Santali.

The resolution highlights the importance of multi-lingual education to children's ability to communicate effectively and to access knowledge on an equal footing with others. For a Santal child, learning through their first language, Santali, is an important means of ensuring their ability to communicate effectively and to access information even in the national language, Bengali. This is not only because children are more likely to develop in a second language if they are first supported and educated through their mother tongue. But also because teaching them in their first language promotes confidence and gives them the basic techniques they need to develop reading, writing and thinking skills. Girls from minority rural communities are especially vulnerable to missing the opportunity to gain these skills.

Supporting minority mother tongue languages like Santali is not only important for equality of education. For disadvantaged, poor, rural, communities, recognising and supporting minority languages like Santali is important, more generally, for equal participation of minority communities in civic and political life. Most rural Santali men, and even more so women, are much less likely to have adequate confidence in Bengali to participate in political fora or communicate grievances to officials than someone whose first language is Bengali.

It is not only the language that restricts their full participation: language barriers are just one aspect of the Santali people's cultural and religious identity which is marginalised in Bangladesh. Exclusion through language is part of the broader system of inequality that treats the Santal people as 'upo jati'. This prejudice permeates society and affects the Santal people's access to work, to government services such as schools, health care and justice. It affects the allocation of national resources from the government down to the Union Parishad. It is perpetuated not as part of an explicit policy of subordination but as a prejudice that is ingrained in the way people act and think both in their official capacities and in their private lives.

During the weeks I spent living with rural Santal families in Rajshahi in 2002 I heard many stories of ruthless land grabbing, violent attacks aimed at suppressing and terrorising communities and individuals, exploitative employers withholding wages and unscrupulous moneylenders abusing their position of power to take the few possessions a poor family owned. But apart from these crisis events there were stories of daily humiliation and subordination by ordinary Bengalis. Educated Bengalis referred to Santal as backward, unclean or jungle people. Santali students were routinely denied access to university tea stalls. Santali casual employees were given their daily meal on banana leaves while their Bengali compatriots ate on plates. Santals in general were refused service by eateries and restaurants or given food on disposable plates on the grounds that once they had eaten from it the plate could not be used to serve Bengalis. At meetings or gatherings Santal people were told to sit on the floor while Bengalis were given stools. Even those Santal who had achieved positions of influence as members of the local Union Parishad found their contributions were disregarded, they were allocated menial tasks, and treated as outsiders.

By some estimates Bangladesh is home to at least 39 languages spoken mostly by ethnic and tribal groups, including the Santal, Chakma, Ho and Garo. For those communities, lack of recognition for minority languages, and lack of resources to support their growth and integrate them into Bangladeshi society and its education system, is a reflection of the wider lack of political recognition for these groups. Most worryingly it demonstrates a failure on the part of a nation so acutely aware of the value of language as a cultural identity, to embrace the right of minority communities to the dignity and respect that Bengalis fought and died for in 1952. As we move into the 21st century and celebrate Bangladesh as a triumph of the importance of valuing language as a cultural and developmental tool, there is a responsibility on all Bangladeshis to nurture and promote the rich diversity of languages spoken within its territory.

Dr. Fauzia Shariff is Visiting Lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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