The Bangla question in Bangladesh

by Salimullah Khan

The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter — that is, he will come closer to being a real human being — in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language. I am not unaware that this is one of man’s attitudes face to face with Being.
—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

IN Black Skin, White Masks Frantz Fanon took the language question as a point of departure in his study of the colonial experience in the Caribbean islands. He had hardly had any time for undertaking a study of post-colonial societies. I, however, find his work quite relevant in exploring the language question in our own independent societies also known as post-colonial. I will cite only the question of Bangladesh here by way of an instance.
The Bangla language, as everyone admits, has served the cause of the nation state well that is Bangladesh today. When a Bengali statesman, AK Fazlul Huq, moved the famous Lahore Resolution of 1940, it became clear that the All India Muslim League was advancing the explicit demand for, not one, but two ‘Pakistans’ (the name was not yet there in the resolution though) one of which would be in Bengal. The resolution read, in part, as follows: ‘The areas in which the Muslims are numerically in majority, as in the north-western and eastern zones of India, should be grouped to constitute ‘Independent States’ in which the constituent states shall be autonomous and sovereign.’ The last years of British rule, if not throughout the entirety of its hold, which was marked by a good measure of alienation of the Bengali Muslims, impelled them towards the point of no return before absorption into one Pakistan.
Post-colonial experience in Pakistan, however, took a very quick turn towards consolidation of a new national orientation. As early as 1948, as is well known, grumblings of discontent were heard in the constituent assembly of Pakistan: ‘A feeling is growing among the Eastern Pakistanis that Eastern Pakistan is being neglected and treated merely as a “Colony” of Western Pakistan.’ Corresponding to growing the alienation of Bengali folks was growing the demand for Bengali as a national (that is, state) language. The police firings on a demonstration on February 21, 1952 proved the beginning of the end of Pakistan in the long run. The day used to be commemorated as Shahid Dibas, day of martyrs, until recently.
If there was one glaring colonial legacy in Pakistan, as in India, it was perhaps the continued role of English, the colonialist’s language, as lingua franca. But partly due to the struggle against Urdu, there was no time to even think about it. Neither Pakistan nor Islam proved sturdy enough to give Urdu, ethnic language of a minority, an immigrant minority for that matter, a pass. Imposition of Urdu was rightly interpreted as another attempt at colonising the ethnic Bengalis by the West Pakistani minority. The conflict bore a good deal of similarity with the choice of Hindi as ‘the official language’ of India. Articles 343-344, constitution of India, by the way, made English an ‘auxiliary official language’ and Hindi ‘the official language’.
Incidentally, as one recalls, the final draft of the constitution that Indian statesmen actually unveiled in 1949 was not in Hindi, but in English. So was the case in Pakistan. Bangladesh, despite the struggle and the war of liberation, only had to invent a fiction for the language of its constitutional drafts. The Bengali question in Bangladesh today looks more or less like the question of national language in certain African states. Some African states, for instance, Rwanda, Burundi, Botswana, Somalia, Lesotho, Tanzania and Central African Republic which are ethnically homogeneous, or almost so, have attempted to introduce African languages as their lingua franca. ‘Yet,’ as L Adele Jinadu put it a few years ago, ‘in all of them French or English is the principal medium of higher education or contact with the outside world.’
Why has not language been a critical issue in second post-colonial Bangladesh, somewhat not unlike in above mentioned African countries, whereas the issue was a life and death struggle in our first post-colonial period? In our first post-colonial days within Pakistan old leaders of the Bengali middle class became active early enough to take up the language question as part of the colonial malaise. AK Fazlul Haque’s newly founded Krishak Sramik Party, for one, in its 12-point programme of July 29, 1953 demanded for Bangla the state language status as much it demanded full regional autonomy for the state of East Bengal on the basis of the Lahore Resolution, 1940. And it is true the leadership of the national orientation passed on to new hands by the 1960s and the new leaders, the old Maulana Bhashani and the young Sheikh Mujib among them, found the broadest response from, in the words two Russian researchers, ‘radical Muslim intellectual, members of the national bourgeoisie, workers, and owners of small and middle size land-holdings.’
Whatever happened to the Bengali nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s? The Bengali upper crust and their retainers are now beholden to English without a murmur and in a purple face. They have agreed to rename it, the Shahid Dibas as ‘International Mother Language Day,’ didn’t they? Language is no more a critical issue to the Bangladeshi bourgeoisie, or is it? I am not sure if this phenomenon proves that Fanon’s thesis on language in colonialism has become irrelevant to the political situation in Bangladesh. It will be premature perhaps to conclude here, however. Let me say why.
Since Babington Macaulay’s famous Minute on Education, Vintage 1835, which asserted that ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’ and especially since 1837, almost overnight, the official language of the East India Company’s administration changed from Persian to English. The ‘polytechnic Orientalism’ so called was indeed thrown out the window and entered the Brown Sahib. They were in fact already there, only waiting in the wings. Had he been around, would not Fanon have argued that a crucial criterion used by the colonial powers in deciding which group of Africans to hand over power to was fluency in English or French? That Fanon looked upon the process of decolonisation in much of tropical Africa as ‘a conspiracy between a national bourgeoisie and a colonizing bourgeoisie to perpetuate colonial rule’ is a fact of course. Throwing a quiet look on the Bangladesh scene I am convinced Fanon was talking ‘no non-sense’.
The bourgeois will, I know, say that the English had no choice but to hand over power to them to whom they did. Fanon is exactly saying this: he claims that the co-option of the local bourgeoisie in a world-wide imperialist network is the goal of the new colonial combine. Its primary aim is nothing less than complete subjugation, not ‘civil and political’ only but ‘social, economic and cultural’. This was the sole purpose, according to Fanon, of the peaceful colonial education.
But there is more. Involved in the police firings on demonstrators on February 21, 1952 was the question of Bengali as a national language. Today it is too easy to reformulate the whole thing, singing the lullaby of the mother language(s)! To close the communications gap, if any, they are now taking the All English Kindergartens to all peripheries. Our country folks will no longer be suspicious of the townsman; they will themselves be the townsmen! ‘The latter,’ Fanon wrote, ‘dresses like a European; he speaks the European’s language, works with him, sometimes even lives in the same district…’
If the third point is, unfortunately, valid; that is to say if we in Bangladesh as in our fellow African nations are still caught in the subtle clutches of a ‘recharged and redeployed’ form of colonisation it is also true that the English language is a subtle form of cultural imperialism. One implication of this argument à la Fanon is that, not unlike a good many nations of post-colonial Africa, Bangladesh is not really a free nation.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967).
L. Adele Jinadu, ‘Language and Politics: On the Cultural Basis of Colonialism (Langue et politique: sur les bases culturelles du colonialisme)’, Cahiers d’Édtudes Aficaines, Vol 16, Cahiers 63/64, pp 603–614.
Ramkrishna Mukherjee, ‘Social Background of Bangladesh,’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 7, No 5/7, Annual Number (February 1972), pp 265–274.
Indrajit Hazra, ‘Hiding Behind One-way Mirror,’ India International Centre Quarterly, Vol 33, No ¾, India 60 (Winter 2006-Spring 2007), pp 308–313.

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