Today is International Mother Language Day that has its roots in the Bengali Language Movement in what was then East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. Just after partition in 1947, the newly created state of Pakistan tried to impose Urdu as the official language of that state. This was vehemently resented by the Bengali-speaking population in Pakistan’s eastern wing who were in majority. But Pakistan’s leaders in the western wing were adamant and insisted that only Urdu could embody the spirit of subcontinental Muslims with its Middle Eastern Islamic connection. Various silly proposals were put forward to assuage the agitating Bengalis such as writing Bengali in the Arabic script.
These suggestions clearly weren’t acceptable to the Bengalis of East Pakistan. An all-out protest was called for on February 21, 1952. Students were at the forefront of the agitation and were fired upon by the police when they sought to storm the East Bengal Legislative Assembly, resulting in several deaths. This led to agitations across the province that central Pakistani leaders could not ignore. Ultimately, the first Constitution of Pakistan in 1956 granted Bengali official language status along with Urdu. But the seeds of Bengali nationalism had been sown, and the repercussions of February 21, 1952 – commemorated as Ekushey – would be felt nearly two decades later when Bengalis would launch a nine-month-long liberation struggle against West Pakistani oppressors for an independent Bangladesh.
Bangladesh bears testimony to the fact that religion isn’t everything. That language and culture are equally important. In that sense, the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was the biggest blow to the two-nation theory of the likes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In 1999, UNESCO recognised Ekushey as the International Mother Language Day. Nothing could have been a better tribute to the Bengali people’s struggle to protect their mother tongue. Further, Bangladesh today is besting Pakistan on most development indicators. Bangladesh’s economy is estimated to have grown by 8.1% in 2019 compared to less than 4% for Pakistan. Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserve is four times that of Pakistan and its total value of exports too has overtaken Pakistan’s.
In fact, some of the economic numbers suggest that Bangladesh is the real South Asian tiger, outperforming even India on economic growth. All of this was made possible only because the Bengali people stood up and opposed the cultural and linguistic impositions of Pakistani leaders. The latter had grossly underestimated the cultural and linguistic strength of the Bengali people. They had treated Bengalis as inferior and undertaken a campaign of genocide and mass rapes. In 1971, Pakistani soldiers and their Razakar collaborators had violated 250,000 Bengali women with the aim of changing the ‘genetic make-up’ of the Bengali people. And when they realised they were losing, they tried to eliminate Bengali intellectuals so that impending Bangladesh was still-born.
But none of that worked. Bangladesh has shown the world the true power of language and culture. And in these religiously polarised times, that is a lesson to remember. India with its multitude of languages and cultures would do well to further strengthen this diversity. Each language has its own inherent cultural strength, the combination of which makes India great.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.