Ekushey February: Embodying a nation's zeal for its culture and heritage

The whole world now recognizes the spirit and zeal for our culture and heritage. Bangladesh's people's sacrifices will be truly appreciated and commemorated when every nation imbibes the sense to pay proper homage to their linguistic heritage.

M A Hossain Feb 20, 2024
Ekushey February in Bangladesh

'Joy Bangla' is the ever-increasing crescendo of a nationalist slogan. It is a symbol of commitment, national spirit, and patriotism of the birth of this nation. To be able to chant the most harmonious and zealous slogan in Bangla, the people of this country had to undergo years of struggle and protest. The language movement did not only ignite the freedom movement of Bangladesh but also paved the way for linguistic freedom in the Indian subcontinent. Ekushey February (21 February) is observed as International Mother Language Day, a day of pride and glory. Lest we forget that it has a history of struggle and profound sacrifices for protesting linguistic and cultural annihilation, which is remembered with reverence and veneration by the nation.

In 1786, William Jones first discovered the interrelation of language and culture between Greek-Latin and German Gothic-Persian, which created comparative linguistics. During the Pax Britannica (1815-1915) era, the research of comparative linguistics reached its zenith.  The research of comparative Indo-European linguistic families and non-Indo-European, and various Dravidian linguistic families, started in Kolkata and Madras respectively. In 1853, the Scottish “Home Rule” movement was started against British colonialism and the research of the Dravidian linguistic family became part of anti-British colonization. The Irish “Home Rule” movement(1870-1914) had an impact on British India. Irish Annie Besant and Indian Bal Gangadhar Tilak started the “Home Rule” movement in India and also formed a Home Rule League intending to establish democracy and language-based provinces within British India.

In 1911, Sayed Nawab Ali first outlined the importance of the recognition of the Bangla language in provincial education seminars in Rangpur. In 1917, Tilak demanded the re-demarcation of states based on language at the Kolkata Congress session. That time, Annie Besant was elected as the chairman of the Indian National Congress. Dr Muhammad Shahidullah demanded the recognition of Bangla as a provincial state language at Vishwa Bharati in 1918. In 1937, Maulana Akram Khan demanded Bangla as one of the state languages of British India in the Bengal Literary Council (Bongio Shahitya porisad).

During 1942-47, the demand for Bangla as a state language was gaining momentum amongst the Bangla-speaking people. On 29 July 1947, Dr Ziauddin Ahmed, Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University, proposed Urdu as the only state language in Pakistan, but Dr Muhammad Shahidullah starkly opposed that proposal and trumped over Dr Ahmed by presenting cogent logic in favor of establishing Bangla as one of the state languages. 

Demand for Bangla recognition grows

Post-partition in 1947, there was upheaval demanding Bangla as a provincial state language. Prof. Abdul Kashem organized a movement named 'Tamaddun Majlish', which afterward converged all the movements into an 'All party-state language action committee'. In 1948, Dhirendra Nath Dutto, MLA of East Bengal, raised a point of order in the Pakistan General Assembly for Bangla as one of the state languages, but it was turned down by the then premier Liaqat Ali Khan. This incident profoundly agitated the populace of then East Pakistan and protest demonstrations were held before Governor-General M A Jinnah and Khwaja Nazimuddin. 

Similarly, in 1948, Chakravarti Gopalachari,  the  Governor-General of India, formed two commissions to demarcate provinces. One was the Linguistic Provincial Commission and the other one was the Jawaharlal-Ballav Vai-Pattabhi Sitaramayya(JVP) Commission. These commissions were asked to submit a feasibility report of provincial border demarcation based on language. In 1950, the government of Pakistan suddenly attempted to exert pressure to mandate the use of Urdu in East Bengal. In India, the rejected the language-based provincial demarcation and created the constitution with four classes of rules. In 1951-52, there was an incipient agitation for state language in East Bengal. Similar agitation was also exhibited in India for languages-based provinces. In 1952, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Madras for the Lok Sabha election, where he faced a black flag demonstration supporting the demand for a language-based Andhra Pradesh. 

On 21 February 1952, police fired indiscriminately on a protest March for Bangla language in Dhaka, where many people were killed. The martyrs' identitied on that day are testimony to the fact that the entire nation was united behind the language movement. The list of martyrs on that day were Rafiq and Barkat, who were university students; while Salam and Shafiur were professionals. The martyrs included a common man like Jabbar, a rickshaw puller named Awal and even a minor boy Ohiduzzaman. This firing incident, far from intimidating the population, only made them more resolute in fighting for their mother language.

In 1953, the Joint Front came to power, and in 1956, the Joint Front led by Abu Hossain declared the 21st of February as Martyrs' Day and a national holiday, and also recognized Bangla as the second state language. In the same year, India brought the seventh amendment to the constitution and reformed the border demarcation of provinces based on languages, repealing the 1950s state formation. 

Pride in mother tongue 

In 1999, Ekushey February (21 February) was awarded the status of International Mother Language Day by the United Nations. A theatre group from Gafargaon (Mymensingh district) named Gafargaon Theater first demanded international recognition for 21 February in 1999. In 1999, Gafargaon Theatre brought out a publication named "Orgho"(oblation) on the occasion of 21st  February, where they echoed their demand for labeling 21st February as International Mother Language Day. Finally,  the initiative of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her team of ex-minister A. S. H. K Sadek, Dr Sadat Hossain, Ambassador Sayed Moazzem Ali, Tozammel Haq(Tony), and Bangladeshi Canadian resident Rafiqul Islam and Abdus Salam made the nation proud by bringing recognition for 21 February as the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO. 

Ekushey February is the day when our national pride is heightened. The whole world now recognizes the spirit and zeal for our culture and heritage. Bangladesh's people's sacrifices will be truly appreciated and commemorated when every nation imbibes the sense to pay proper homage to their linguistic heritage.

(The author is a political and defense analyst based in Bangladesh. Views are personal. He can be contacted at writetomahossain@gmail.com)

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