Democratic pluralism, multilingualism and multiculturalism

Nurul Kabir | Published at 05:25am on February 21, 2017

THIS is an undisputed fact of history of the Bangladesh movement that the language movement of East Bengal, spreading over 1948 to 1952, laid the foundation of the country’s political struggles for self-determination, eventually resulting in the its independence through the liberation war against the neo-colonialist Pakistan in 1971. While the apparent objective of the historic language movement was to establish Bangla, the mother tongue of the Bengali population of the then East Pakistan, to be a state language of Pakistan, a close look into the political essence of the movement would reveal that it was not a chauvinistic attempt on part of the Bengalis, led by the most progressive sections of the people of East Bengal those days, to establish the supremacy of their on language on those of other peoples of Pakistan. Instead, it was a great ‘people’s movement’ of absolutely democratic nature, which, side by side with ensuring the legitimate place of the Bangla language in managing the affairs of the state, was committed to accommodate the mother tongues of all the other nationalities within Pakistan.
As history shows, the Bangla language movement was never a movement against any language, not even Urdu, the mother tongue of less than 5 per cent of the total population of Pakistan those days, and that too the language of the small ruling coterie migrating from Uttar Pradesh of India to Karachi of West Pakistan. This Urdu-speaking small coterie of rulers wanted to impose its mother tongue as the sole state language of Pakistan, ignoring those of the vast majority of the populations speaking different languages of the country. The thinking sections of the East Bengal population, 56 per cent those days, found it not only undemocratic but also dangerous for the political and economic future of the Bengali population. They rightly realised that any acceptance of the design of the Urdu-speaking ruling coterie, which was the minority of the minorities, to suppress the Bangla language and culture, would eventually bring in political and economic subjugation of the Bengalis. They, therefore, revolted. The movement reached its climax when at least four youths, mostly poor, received bullets of the repressive government on February 21, 1952. Ekushey was born, which still remains a collective political memory of a great democratic resistance against an autocratic regime bent on suppressing the language and culture of ‘other’ nationalities.
However, while protesting against the exclusion of Bangla from the sphere of state activities, leaders of the Bangla language movement did not take a stand against any other languages including Urdu. Instead, they demanded that Bangla be ‘also’ made a state language of Pakistan. Evidently, the political spirit behind the demand for Bangla to be made ‘one of the state languages’ was unquestionably democratic in essence, which unambiguously respects the rights of the language and culture practiced even by a small section of a large population. In order to incite the Urdu-speaking ordinary people against Bangla, the West Pakistan-based Urdu-speaking ruling coterie and its local collaborators in East Pakistan had indulged themselves in falsely propagating that the Bangla language movement was against the flourishing of the Urdu language and literature in the whole of Pakistan. In response to such a false propaganda, the language movement leaders of East Bengal had distributed leaflets in Urdu and held rallies in the Urdu language in some relevant areas of the eastern province, sending out a clear message that the Bengalis had nothing against any ‘other’ languages and cultures. The inherently democratic spirit, by implications, equally backs the political and economic rights of all kinds of minority populations — be it ethnic or linguistic. The mass participation of the people of East Bengal in the language movement, from the centre to periphery, clearly suggests that the entire people of the region was for establishing a democratic political order in the country that upholds the spirit of multilingualism and multiculturalism. Besides, it was not any single political party or group that initiated and advanced the language movement in question; it was, rather, the collective efforts of the left, centrist and liberal democratic political bodies that made the historic struggle successful. The success was the result of democratic pluralism that respects, along with other values, the spirit of multilingualism and multiculturalism. This same democratic political spirit of the subsequent series of political struggles succeeded to attract the entire people of East Pakistan to collectively fight against the neocolonialist West, which had eventually boiled down to the East’s war of independence. Again, it was the same democratic political aspiration that drew almost all sections of the people of East Bengal — irrespective of their religious, ethnic and gender identity — to successfully fight the war of liberation.

II
WHILE a mass political movement such as the Bangla language movement laid the foundation of East Bengal’s struggle for self-determination, its spirit of democratic pluralism — multilingualism and multiculturalism, in particular — must be a guiding principle in managing the affairs of the state of the independent Bangladesh. But, in violation against the spirit of both the language movement and the war of liberation, successive governments of Bangladesh, either national chauvinist based on parochial Bengali nationalism or Muslim supremacist based on Bangladeshi [Muslim] nationalism, have consistently ignored the linguistic and cultural causes of the country’s non-Bengali ethnic minority communities such as the Chakma, Marma, Santal, Rakhaine, Garo, et cetera. Notably, there is even a sizeable community of the Urdu-speaking non-Bengali population in the country, the members of which have earned the legal right by court orders to enjoy the citizenship with all the privileges and obligations concerned. The minority ethnic communities in question are forced to use Bangla, the language of the majority, in different spheres of the state activities. The non-Bengali minority communities are constrained to learn Bangla are bound to lose in many ways.
However, successive governments have, in fact, so far run the affairs of the state even by violating the linguistic rights of the Bengalis at large as well, for Bangla, which is constitutionally recognised as the state language of the country, has not yet practically been established at all spheres of the state of Bangladesh. English, the state language of the Bangladesh-India-Pakistan sub-continent under the British colonial rule, still remains in practice in certain higher echelon of the state of Bangladesh, particularly including that of bureaucracy and the judiciary. While the citizens of Bangladesh need to know many a foreign language for practical purposes in the globalised world of the day, that in no way exempts the state, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh’, that is, from its core historical responsibility of running the affairs of the state in the language/s of the country’s people at large. For the small Bengali ruling elite of the day, English remains a language of power and segregation — segregation of the people at large that speak Bangla.
Meanwhile, the negligence of the languages of country’s non-Bengali ethnic communities for decades immediately needs to be recognised by the democratically-oriented sections of the Bengalis, the politically dominant nationality, as a serious deviation from the spirit of Ekushey — the historic language movement. The act of imposing Bangla on the country’s non-Bengali ethnic communities is not very qualitatively different from imposing Urdu on the Bengali-speaking population, for both the acts are born out of the lack of respect for multilingualism and multiculturalism — a couple of the core values of democratic pluralism.

Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.