Honouring our martyrs and heritage21 February 2020
On 21st February, 1952, Pakistani soldiers fired at a peaceful procession around Dhaka University, called to protest Mohammed Ali Jinnah's decree, reiterated by the new governor-general, Khawaja Nazimuddin, that Urdu - and only Urdu - would be the national language of Pakistan, East and West. Five protesters, most of them students, were shot dead and at another rally the next day to mourn the murdered martyrs, others died, including a nine-year-old boy, called Ohiullah. Unrest continued for many days after that but, from these tragic killings, the spark of resistance to West Pakistani rule over its partner in the East was ignited. As every reader knows all too well, it was the Bengalis' love for their language which fanned this spark into an inferno that would lead to the War of Liberation and the creation of our Bangladesh, albeit at the cost of so many millions of lives.
But why did Jinnah insist that just one language - and that spoken by a small minority of people even in West Pakistan - should be the official lingua franca of a country with so many others? After all, in Pakistan even today there are: Pashto, Balochi, Punjabi, Kashmiri and Sindhi, among many others. In 2020, there are only 66 million first language Urdu speakers, with another hundred million people using it as a second language. Urdu is only the 21st most widely spoken in the world, while Bangla is the fifth, with as many as 230 million native speakers. Jinnah's answer might be that a common language unifies a people and cements the bonds that tie them together.
To Bengalis though, the decree that Urdu should be the only official language of Pakistan reeked of racial superiority, suggesting that Bangla was of inferior status (although spoken by more people in the newly founded nation in 1947). Of course, if Urdu were to remain the only State Language of government, East Pakistanis would be disadvantaged, as they would not be able to serve in the Army, work in the Civil Service or even, perhaps, act as representatives of their own people in the Parliament. The arrogance of the West Pakistani rulers in dictating which language could be taught in schools and universities, would appear on postage stamps, would be needed to file complaints at a police station or apply for government assistance was a sure sign of the contempt with which the dreams and aspirations of East Pakistanis would be treated in future.
Since 1955, Bangladesh has celebrated Language Movement Day and, in 2000, the United Nations declared that 21st February would be designated International Mother Language Day all over the world. Yet, despite these worthy tributes to the young men and poor Ohiullah killed in 1952, we should surely ask whether we are doing enough in this country to show our children the importance of the ultimate sacrifice made by the Language Martyrs.It is part of the historical record that, in 1956, the Pakistani Government finally caved in and recognized Bangla as an official language alongside Urdu. Yet, do our youngsters now take it for granted or, even worse, treat 21st February as just another day off school when the TV shows nothing but documentaries on the martyrs,… the same old ones as last year and the one before that, of course.
Every year, schools bring out processions to mark the day. There is always the inevitable painting competition, when the younger students are asked to portray the monument set up in memory of the martyrs, Shaheed Minar, most likely against a blood red sun. Our kids lay flowers on makeshift representations of the monument in school playgrounds all over the nation. But what do they really know about Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Sofiur Rahman Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar? What do they know of their sacrifice? Do they understand why these brave young men thought it so important to defy a government and armed soldiers just so that Bangla would be a State Language? If they cannot empathise with the grief of the fallen men's parents, their brothers and sisters, their friends and relatives - how can they feel the lads' sacrifice? How can 21st February belong to them?
If the events of 1952 seem dim and distant history to our children today, the fault, of course, lies with us. We do not honour the dead by thinking creatively about how we can make their sacrifice come to life for our youngsters. Year after year, we go through the motions. We do not even vary the day's events for those who have submitted exactly the same entries to the previous year's painting competition. We do not research the lives of the murdered students and so they remain names on a page, rather than real people who cried and laughed, moaned and exulted. It is similar to our reaction to an item on the news on TV: another car bomb in Kabul, a suicide vest set off in Baghdad - all so far away from us here in Bangladesh, all so repetitive, we think as we watch the film footage of corpses littering a now deserted market and take another bite of the sandwich we are eating. Is 21st February becoming the same phenomenon, an event that means so little to our young generation apart from a chance to dress up in black and white? Unless our kids know the martyrs, learn about their hobbies, their aims, their families and everyday lives, then Abdus Salam, Sofiur, Rafiq and Abdul Jabbar will be lost to us forever, as our Freedom Fighters join the departed and cannot pass their message on. It is the time for our academic institutions to look into this.
However, to understand why Bangla was so important for the lads that died in 1952 - indeed, also for the hundreds of people injured in that deadly month of February - we should look into the role that language plays in our learning and in our attempts to understand each other at home and abroad. Human beings start learning just as soon as they are born and continue until death. Language is the one of the main ways in which we do this, of course, and is what differentiates us from animals. Its importance is attested by the fact that doting parents are overjoyed by a child's first utterance: 'What was her first word?'; 'Did she say 'Ma'?'; and so on.
There are, in fact, some 6,000 to 7,000 languages spoken in the world today (although not all of these, by any means, are written). Estimates suggest that 90% of them will be extinct by 2050. Half of them have fewer than 10,000 speakers today and, each year, we can read articles about the last remaining speaker of such and such a language dying. But what happens when the last speaker of a language passes away? Surely, we lose something from the world. Language and culture are not just linked: they are two sides of the same coin. Think about words in Bangla that simply cannot be translated into English because some of their meaning gets lost. How often do we hear people say that translations of Tagore cannot really communicate the great man's meaning as well as Bangla does? If the words are no longer there when a language dies, can the experience, the feeling, the phenomenon survive? Do we lose a way of thinking, an idea, a part of who we are?
Academics have argued that, for a language to survive it must be used in schools; there has to be some financial or professional motivation; and it needs to be available as an electronic language. Sadly, there are fewer than a hundred languages that are currently available in the digital form. And, of course, a language must be written. But this will never be the case when the last surviving speakers of a language are old and there is no financial motivation for youngsters to learn their dying tongue.
Many of our academic institutions are of course, doing a fine job of keeping our children and grandchildren closely connected to their mother language and their cultural roots. International awarding bodies added 'Bangladesh Studies' subject to their academic menu nearly twenty years ago in a bid to encourage children and schools to appreciate the diversity and wealth of their unique history and heritage.
Yet, there are some that do not attach the necessary importance to Bangla, the history of the region and the sacrifice that so many people made-not just generals and politicians-but common people, farm labourers, school students, university professors and shopkeepers, to make Bangladesh a reality. Like school event organizers across the country that treat 21st February as just another day in the academic calendar, these schools have a limited vision of what real education is. They see it only in terms of grades, percentages and memorized answers to examination questions, forgetting that what we learn at school can shape our interests in our adult lives outside our careers. It will also, of course, determine how we educate our own children.
It is a sad but undeniable fact that many of the Bangladeshi Diaspora in Europe, Australia and North America lament that their children, often uprooted from Bangladesh in their early childhood or, maybe, born overseas, cannot read their parents' language, communicate fluently with their grandparents or appreciate the folk music of Abbasuddin Ahmed, Lalon Shah, Abdul Alim, so on and so forth. However, isn't that also the case for many children living and studying in this country today? How often do we hear them sigh over the complexities of Bangla, rather than glorying in them? When do they read Moinul Ahsan Saber, Harishankar Jaladas or Hasan Azizul Haque, among so many others, and so get in touch with their roots and learn to value the experience of those living very different lives here? Can they read these authors? And, if not, how are we to pass on a sense of the dignity and worth of this country's cultural heritage?
Globally, only 60% of the world's young have access to a formal education system in a language they speak at home. This means they will have to depend on some other tongue to pursue their education, which limits understanding and, of course, their sense of belongingness. In Bangladesh, Bangla is taught everywhere, but many parents and students seem sometimes not to give enough attention to it. It has given way to Maths, Chemistry and Physics or Business Studies and Accounting as essential learning.
But this is a huge mistake! And not only in terms of cultural heritage, but in relation to professional careers too. It is well-known that a strong foundation in their mother tongue equips children with the skills they need to learn additional languages, allowing them to transfer their understanding of syntactical structure in the mother tongue to the study of new ones. The intuitive understanding of grammar that develops when children learn their first language can easily be passed on to others.With multilingualism becoming an increasingly sought-after attribute within the workplace, this advantage cannot be overstated; globalisation and increased co-operation between nations mean that, in many organisations, it has become a requirement to be able to communicate comfortably in several languages,particularly in English language, in addition to being a specialist within a particular field.
The mother tongue also plays a huge role in the development of personal, social and cultural identity. Children with a rock solid basis in their first language often display a deeper understanding of themselves and their place within society, along with an increased sense of well-being and confidence. Naturally, this flows down into every aspect of their lives, including academic and professional achievement.
So, on this day of sadness and mourning, let us celebrate the lives and deaths of our Language Martyrs by making an effort to get to know them again. Let us encourage our children and grandchildren, our students, to read our own authors and learn about what makes us Bangladeshis. By doing so, we will also learn about what binds us to others, regardless of their mother tongues. That is how we should honour our glorious dead!
(The writer is Country Manager, Cambridge Assessment International and Managing Director, EduCan International. [email protected])