In order to remain true to the democratic spirit of the Language Movement, Bangladesh must ensure the right to mother language of all ethnic minority communities, writes Sunayan Chakma
A DISCUSSION on preservation of language and people’s right to language must begin with the simple fact that Bangladesh is a multilingual, multiethnic state. In this country, there are more than 40 ethnic communities other than ethnic Bengalis. Similarly there are 45 unique languages other than Bangla. In global history, if there is any nation that sacrificed life, took bullet for their right to speak in mother tongue, that is the Bengali nation. We have earned a special place in the history through the Language Movement of 1952. However, on the occasion of Ekushey February, forty nine years after the independence of Bangladesh, with much sadness and despair, we see how neglected languages other than Bangla are in this country.
Bangla Academy has been there for long. We know, on this month of February, it publishes research and translation in Bangla, organises seminar symposium and of course the historic Ekushey book fair. Generally, in college and universities, the language of instruction is Bangla, but for research and advanced education, it is rather difficult to find documents and books in Bangla. The standard of translation work done by Bangla Academy is also noticeably weak. It is sad but true that the role that Bangla Academy played in the advancement of Bangla is rather insignificant these days. Then, in 2001, the International Mother Language Institute was established to conduct research and conserve different languages of the world in Dhaka. They have not been effective in protecting the minority languages in Bangladesh, let alone conserving languages of the world.
It is shocking that we don’t know exactly how many languages are there in Bangladesh. From the population census of 2011, we know that there are total 27 ethnic minority communities in Bangladesh, but it does not settle the confusion around the languages other than Bangla. Many say, there may be more than 45 languages in Bangladesh. In 2012, a report of the daily Jay Jay Din said, of the 52 languages that have been practiced here, 42 are still in use. It also said, in the last 100 years, about 10 languages have gone extinct. The report however does not mention the names of these lost languages. From the ethno-linguistic survey of International Mother Language Institute, we have come to know of the 40 languages of 54 ethnic communities living in Bangladesh. Of the recorded languages, Kharia, Sauria, Koda, Mundari, Malto, Kando, Khumi, Pangkhua, Rengmatia, Chak, Khiang, Laleng/Patra, and Lusai are considered endangered.
A report of UNESCO says, ‘Of the 6,000 languages spoken in the world, 43 per cent are endangered. Unless, immediate initiatives are taken, by the end of this century half of these languages will be lost.’ UNESCO named five languages of Bangladesh as endangered. It has termed Bishnupriya, Kok Korok and Kurux languages as ‘vulnerable (not spoken by children outside the home), Bawm language as ‘definitely endangered’ (children not speaking) and Chak language as ‘severely endangered’ (only spoken by the oldest generations).
In 2019, a report of the Daily Janakantha said, ‘The speech community for Rengmitia is the smallest and only spoken by 40 people and they all are above 50 years old. Their children do not speak the language. Meanwhile, the population size of Sauria community is about a thousand, but only four people can speak the language today. Some languages maintained the spoken tradition, but lost the written form. Since these languages have no use in the state level, they cannot evolve spontaneously. Therefore, Bangla and English words infiltrate these languages and only a jumbled-up version remains. In absence of any effort to use and conserve from the state, these languages are on the verge of extinction.
For children from ethnic minority communities, if s/he is compelled to enter into an education system in Bangla even before they have learnt their own tongue, education becomes a burden for them. In 2012, a news story of BBC reported that, school drop-out rate in the Chittagong Hill Tract is double the rate of drop out in the rest of Bangladesh.
It is promising that continuous movement of progressive organisations, both in the hills and plain land and support of civil society communities, in 2013, the government declared that it would start offering primary education in six languages other than Bangla. In 2017, pre-primary school teaching in Chakma, Marma, Trpura, Garo and Sadri languages has begun. For some unresolved issues around Santal alphabets however lessons are still not offered in this language. Many reports have been published documenting the lackluster attitude of the government in implementing this initiative. It will not be an understatement, if we say the initiative in superficial and lacks real political commitment. Textbooks made available in these languages carry wrong, even objectionable information about ethnic minority communities. When it was expected that the government would slowly expand the programme to include higher level students under the project purview, they are rather negligent.
In this situation, a few steps can be taken to preserve and advance the languages that are endangered but still in practice in Bangladesh: 1) Establishment of a minority language academy for the advancement and conservation of the languages of the ethnic minority communities; 2) International Mother Language Institute can take up projects for the development of minority languages and ensure adequate financial and human resources; 3) For the development of curriculum and textbooks in minority languages, the government must engage experienced people from the speech community itself and train teachers; 4) Reorganise the existing eight ethnic minority cultural institutes to establish accountability and allocate adequate budget for these institutes so they could perform the expected role of furthering cultural and language developments of minority communities; 5) For the development of the minority languages, the government can consider organising international seminar and appoint internationally recognised experts to work on the conservation of endangered languages; 6) In CHT, the government should ensure use of minority languages in road side signs and billboards; and, 7) The government should transform Bangladesh Radio Rangamati into a full centre and extent the period of broadcast to ensure that at least 8-10 hours a day programmes are broadcasted in minority languages. It could also consider setting up centres in Khagrachari and Rangamati.
In 1952, the Pakistani government had tried to impose Urdu on us. Sadly, in a similar way, minority languages are subjected to Bangla hegemony today. The people that had sacrificed life for the right to speak in their own language, that very same people should not consciously subjugate other languages. Rather they should play the pioneering role in the advancement and conservation of minority languages. In recent Bangladesh, labeling people as someone with ‘Pakistani mentality’ is commonplace, Yet, the same strategy that the Pakistani regime had used by imposing Urdu is being used against minority languages. Bangla is imposed on ethnic minority communities. In order to remain true to the democratic spirit of language movement, Bangladesh must ensure the right to mother language of all ethnic minority communities.
Sunayan Chakma studied in world history at Chittagong University; holds the general secretary position at Larger CHT Pahari Students Association
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