The world knows 21st February as the International Mother Language Day. It is a day for the world to celebrate bilingualism. But for the Bengali-speaking population, especially those living in Bangladesh, this day is more than a celebration of their mother tongue. It is the day of mourning for them. For Bangalis across the world, 21st February is Bangla Bhasha Dibosh, the day when Bangla-speaking youths protested and gave their lives – for their language, Bangla.
Bangla Bhasha Dibosh is an annual reminder for every Bengali that Bangla is a language worth dying for.
After the partition in 1947, Bengal was separated into two parts; while West Bengal remained in India, East Bengal became a part of Dominion of Pakistan, despite the geographic detachment. From the faraway land on the northwest of India, the government of the then Dominion of Pakistan instructed that the new national language would only be Urdu. But the Bangali inhabitants of Bangladesh protested. How could they give up on their matribhasha, their beautiful Bangla?
As protests started to grow, the government decided to apply a ban on all public gatherings. But, the young Bangalis decided that the time to stay silent was gone. The fight continued for years. Then, in 1952, the new governor-general Khawaja Nazimuddin defended the Urdu-only policy. This was January. Finally, on 21st February, the students of the University of Dhaka gathered in front of the university campus, with more and more students joining in as the hours rolled on. At first, the police sent out a warning with tear gas shells, and then arrested several students. When this outraged the youngsters further and some of them tried to enter the East Bengal Legislative Assembly to ask for legislators assistance, the police opened fire.
Several students were killed that day. Many more were injured. This was followed by a strike, and more protest the next morning. Thousands gathered in front of Dhaka’s Curzon Hall, while many burned down the offices of two news agencies that were in favour of the government. And once again, the police opened fire, killing four protesters, and several people from a group of mourners, including a nine-year-old boy.
This is one of the rarest events in history, in which people sacrificed their lives for their language.
The struggle continued, until finally, in 1956, the government recognised Bangla as the other state language. IN 1959, the military regime officially confirmed the policy of two state languages. Bangalis finally won the battle of the language. Bangla won.
This Bhasha Andolan was also the foundation for the recognition of many differences in the cultures and beliefs between the two Pakistans on either side of India. By this time, East Bengal had already been named East Pakistan. Eventually, the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 separated East Pakistan from West Pakistan to become an independent country. It assumed the name Bangladesh – the land of Bangla.
Bangla runs red and hot through the veins of the people on either side of the border that separates Bangladesh from West Bengal.
On 21st February, people from India and Bangladesh come together to celebrate Bangla, in a place close to the border, between Petrapole on the Indian side and Benapole in Bangladesh’s Jessore. The two separate countries, India and Bangladesh, both have their national anthems written in Bangla. It was not until 2008 that the UN recognised 21st February as the International Mother Language Day – in honour of Bangla Bhasha Dibosh. On this day, Bangalis, especially Bangladeshis, mourn the death of the language martyrs.
But, the beauty and authenticity of Bangla are not safe.
Now, as more and more Bangalis leave West Bengal in search of a better life, they often trade their loyalty for Bangla bhasha for acceptance by their non-Bangali peers. They sign a treaty with broken Hindi, whether or not they live in Bengal. The polite host within the Bangalis has always wanted to make those from the outside feel welcome and comfortable in Bengal – by speaking with them in their languages. Today, in the middle of the new political scenario, Bangla is gradually losing support; especially since Hindi is one of the official languages of India, there’s a constant imposition of the language on the Bangali-speaking people at the moment.
Meanwhile, capitalist globalisation has had its fingers wrapped around the throat of Bangla. The “Bongs” don’t just stop at sending their children to English-medium (read convent) schools to secure their place as an English-speaking professional in the future society. They also prefer to hand the next generation Enid Blyton books instead of Leela Majumdar or Sukumar Ray. They even take pride in declaring, “amar chheler Bangla ta thik ashe na,” when their children score better in English than in Bengali.
Earlier, Bangla used to evolve and become richer with the absorption of the best of Urdu, English, etc. But now, Bangla is losing its identity. The language in which a Bangali learns to ask for food from his mother, the language in which a Bangali woman expresses love and sings lullabies, is losing importance. From the accent in which people talk now to the way they frame sentences – everything proves that.
On 21st February, the future of Bangla bhasha is worth a thought – for the sake of the International Mother Language Day, for Bangla Bhasha Dibosh and the language soldiers.
Afterall, “Amar Bhaiyer Rôkte Rangano Ekushe February/Ami Ki Bhulite Pari?” (How can I forget that the 21st of February is soaked in the blood of my brothers?)