SIXTY-FIVES years since Salam, Barkat, Rafik, Jabbar and many others embraced martyrdom for Bangla. On February 21, 1952, they defied curfew and took bullet fired at them by the police force of the then Pakistani regime. They fiercely demanded that the government recognise Bangla as a state language alongside Urdu. The subsequent days were turbulent with protest erupting across East Pakistan. The Pakistani rulers planned to introduce Urdu as the single state language on the plea that it would bring two geographically disjointed and culturally, linguistically diverse provinces together, something that was crucial for the consolidation of the newly born state. They refused to accept Bangla as a state language, arguing that it would encourage provincialism and lead to the disintegration of the state. Despite increased state repression, people of East Pakistan continue to agitate, their political determination was unbreakable. What is more important to say that it was the Muslims in East Bengal who essentially made it possible for Pakistan to come into being by overwhelmingly voting for the Muslim League that fought for Pakistan in the last provincial polls in1946 under the British colonial rule in India.
Still, East Bengal, with its overwhelming Muslim population, refused to accept Urdu as the single state language of Pakistan as they thought it would be a suicidal step for them. The introduction of Urdu, the mother tongue of less than 4 per cent of the entire population against Bangla being the mother tongue of more than 56 per cent Pakistanis during the period deemed as an imposition and tyrannical. The introduction of Urdu as the state language was rightly thought to foil further discrimination between the East and West Pakistan. The feeling of discrimination was so deeply rooted that it essentially led Jukta Front (a combined platform of almost all the opposition parties under the collective leadership of Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq, Moulana Bhasani and HS Suhrawardy) to marginalise the ruling Muslim League in the general elections of 1954. The same feeling was at work in the overwhelming victory of the Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the general elections of 1970, and the eventual culmination of independence war in 1971.
In a speech delivered at a programme of Bangla Academy on February 15, 1971, Sheikh Mujib said, ‘Paying respect to language movement martyrs, I am declaring here that, from the first day of my party’s assumption of power, it will introduce Bangla in all public offices and courts and at all levels of national life. We will not wait for creating technical terms as the introduction Bangla will never be possible in such a situation. There may be some mistakes, but it will not hamper our tasks. We should advance in such a way.’ The unambiguity in the promise made by a leader under whose leadership the nation would win freedom making immense sacrifices in a nine-month war to begin just within a few days after the speech only pointed to how deeply rooted the demand for recognition of Bangla as state language.
All this is mentioned to assert that the demand for the introduction of Bangla took the centre stage in politics on this land during the pre-independence period. Regrettably, however, the demand largely lost steam once the country became independent as the promise repeatedly made by Bangali leaders during the pre-independence period in particular over the implementation of the demand remained unmet. It is true that the constitution adopted in 1972 unequivocally declared that Bangla would be the language of the republic. But no laws and rules necessary for implementing such constitutional provision were enacted during the period. Of course, according to former cabinet secretary Dr Akbar Ali Khan, when he went to Sheikh Mujib for his signature on an official document written in English on his first day as the prime minister in independent Bangladesh, he was asked to issue an official order to write all such letters in Bangla. However, the process to introduce Bangla in government offices stopped there.
In 1987, military dictator H M Ershad issued an official order terming that non use of Bangla in all official activities as ‘misconduct’ and included the level of eagerness to use Bangla and efficiency in Bangla as performance indicator when preparing the annual confidential report of any public official. It also said that no documents, henceforth, forwarded to secretaries and ministers would be acceptable if not written in Bangla. Indeed, a separate column was introduced in ACRs for the purpose after the order. However, the column existed only until 1996 when the column disappeared without any notice. Although use of Bangla in government offices still continues, seriousness and sincerity in complying with the order is largely ignored.
Intriguingly, successive elected governments that followed the military regime did not feel the necessity to frame a complete law in this regard. Even the incumbents, who usually claim to have played key role in introducing February 21 as the International Mother Language Day and have been making efforts to have the United Nations to introduce Bangla as its official language in recent times, have not done much to ensure use of Bangla in the national context.
Meanwhile, the higher judiciary is yet to use Bangla in its activities, including delivery of verdicts. Here and there some justices have written their judgements in Bangla in recent years. The legal system largely relies on the colonial language despite the fact that the majority of its citizen does not have equal familiarity with English. To ensure justice to judiciary system must embrace Bangla in all its stages from translating laws and constitution into Bangla to conducting day to day court proceedings in Bangla.
It is true that all this can easily be blamed on the ruling class and their increasing distance from the ordinary masses and its growing bias for foreign language and cultures on the other. However, the routine and rhetorical manner in which Amar Ekushey is observed today is reason enough for giving rise to the unfortunate state of Bangla in contemporary Bangladesh. The historic demand for introducing Bangla at all levels of national life has already lost steam.
There was a time when people demanded an end to the English medium education system in Bangladesh on the ground that it is creating social divide and its curriculum lacks connections with local culture and language among children. At the time, it was only educated elite who were able to afford English medium school for their children. Current situation is much different, a heavily commcercialised English medium school and divisive education system with English version of national curriculum mad the English medium very popular with even middle-income groups. The mushrooming of English medium schools not only in the capital but also in other cities is a testament to this social transformation. Apparently in keeping with this, use of English in naming shops, shopping malls, private organisations etc has become rampant, while even advertisements of different products are increasingly being broadcasted by different electronic media in English.
All this, however, does not suggest that there is no need for making foreign language learning available and easier in the country. In a globalised world, in fact, it is more important to increasingly remain connected to different nations with various languages and cultures as all this enables a nation to make progress successfully competing with others in every aspects of life. It cannot, however, be denied that the way we are unreflectively allowing western language and culture to dominate in Bangladesh which has anything to do with that purpose.
To reclaim the spirit of the language movement, which aimed basically at ensuring access of all citizens regardless of their class, gender and ethnicity to state affairs and thereby strengthening democracy in this land, is to have soul searching in the first place. It is all the important for rebuilding a vibrant social and cultural movement to mount pressure on the ruling class to live up to its pledge made earlier on introducing Bangla at all levels of national life in particular.
Saifur Rahman Tapan is an assistant editor at New Age.