February 23, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The twenty-first of February or Ekushay February brings to the heart of anyone who speaks Bangla as a mother tongue, nostalgia and pride. The poet’s query “Amar Bhaiyer roktay rangano Ekushay February, ami ki vulitay pari?” has been immortalized in a manner that as long as Bangla is spoken , even a thousand years from now, this spirit of this poem/song will remain alive and its appeal to Bangla speaking people will be as strong as it is today.
The sacrifice of the language martyrs of February 21st, 1952 is a unique event in the history of mother languages of the world. For the first time in history, people of then East Pakistan rose against the government of Pakistan that had decided to marginalize the Bangla language by preferring Urdu over it as the national language of Pakistan although Bangla was the language spoken by the majority of the people of Pakistan. The Bangla speaking people of East Pakistan were also those whose support had led to partition of India and establishment of the independent state of Pakistan. The attempt of the rulers of Pakistan to establish Urdu over Bangla as the national language of Pakistan was not merely a matter of preferring one provincial language over another. The decision to prefer a minority language over a majority one as national language of Pakistan was much more than that; it was a conspiracy whose evil design was to push the Bangla speaking citizens of Pakistan into perpetual subordination whose ultimate objective was to turn East Pakistan into a colony of West Pakistan.
One’s mother tongue is not just a matter of speaking the language of one’s parents. It is what ties one to one’s soul. It is like a mother’s ties to her children and vice versa; its depth can be understood only when there is a danger of a people losing their right of speaking their mother tongue freely or where there are attempts to undermine that language or to destroy it altogether. The Pakistanis learnt it the hard way. Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s stupendous mistake on which alone his otherwise extraordinary political career could be destroyed if evaluated objectively was his statement to Dhaka University students in 1948 that “Urdu and Urdu alone would be the national language of Pakistan.” That statement totally belied his claims to being a great leader of people.
That statement was also the beginning of the end of Pakistan for Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s fatal mistake was not to understand the force of one’s mother tongue when threatened like it was as a result of Pakistan Government’s decision. The people of then East Pakistan led by the students of Dhaka University started the “Language Movement” as a consequence of which on February 21st, 1952, they overcame the fear of death , sacrificed their lives and embraced martyrdom for their mother tongue thus becoming the first victims in history for the cause of protecting one’s mother tongue. Those sacrifices brought a nation together and eventually gave it the inspiration to stand up against genocide in 1971 and free the motherland.
Language, as the Pakistanis totally misunderstood, is the sum total of all the human aspirations of a people grouped together as a nation and the expression of all those aspirations. It is the medium through a people comes together in their social, political, economic, cultural and aesthetic aspirations. It is in fact the sum total of their entire being. It is the strength of a people’s language that takes it up the ladder in the competitive and globalized world we are living today. By fighting and winning freedom one the issue of threat to the language we established something that no other nation has been able to establish; underscored how much we value our mother tongue. Unfortunately, after we won that independence on the basis of our mother tongue, we have not done enough for the language that gave us freedom and respect in the world. The spirit of “Ekushay February” is there still; it still makes us proud but the value it could have been to us as a nation to achieve the vision for which millions sacrificed their lives in 1971, remains largely unfulfilled because we have made our passion for our language just a ritual and little more. We have even named the month of February, the month of the language, but the language that gave us so much has not been established as the essence of our national aspirations; not yet by a long stretch of imagination.
That we have not treated our mother tongue fairly is blatantly manifest when we look at our education system, particularly higher education where the importance of the mother tongue is of the essence. In fact, the generally held perception in the country is that while independence has done little for our mother tongue except lip service; it has also contributed to the weakening of English whose value as the link language of the world has enhanced over the last 4 decades that we have been independent. The true value of language for the overall development of a nation is visible as clear as day light when we look at the successful nations of the world. They have developed because they have been able to do what we have been saying we will do over the last many decades; our determination to achieve “shorbo storay Bangla vashar procholon “which is now just a slogan.
Despite the failure to do more than provide lip service to the need of implementing Bangla in every sphere in the country, abroad Bangladesh took a very significant step for its mother tongue. Bangladeshis in Canada moved to the UN for recognition of the sacrifices of the martyrs of February 21st. It was UNESCO in Paris that later adopted the resolution to make February 21st “International Mother Languages Day”. Although the UNESCO resolution is not one specific to Bangla, it was nevertheless a great recognition for the sacrifices of the martyrs of February 21st, 1952. Unfortunately, UNESCO has done little other than adopt the resolution that has later been endorsed by the UN when it adopted the year 2008 as the Year of Language. UNESCO offices around the world do not make any efforts to observe the day thus depriving Bangladesh and Bangla the advantage of positive publicity for the country and its mother tongue. UNESO of course observes the day at its headquarters in Paris.
The Prime Minister made a number of very important observations at the Boi Mela on Bangla. She spoke of the determination of her government to spread the glory of the language that has been recognized by UNESCO and UN across the frontier of Bangladesh. In this context she spoke of her initiative to make Bangla a UN language. Nevertheless the task is a huge one where of the essence is to make the demand for Bangla’s recognition internationally a demand of all Bangladeshis. In this context, the Bangladesh Diaspora, now over seven million spread all over the globe, could be extremely helpful. The national consensus on spreading Bangla, with the Bangladesh Diaspora in the loop, should be reflected in the foreign policy of the country as a new initiative of cultural diplomacy where the Bangladesh Embassies and the Diaspora should work hand in glove. As Ambassador in Japan between 2002-2006, I witnessed what could be achieved by this hand in glove approach between the Embassy and the Diaspora. There was a sizeable number of Bangladeshis living and working in Tokyo, approximately 10,000, when I arrived there. They had been celebrating Baisaki Mela at Tokyo’s Ikebukuro Park every year that was welcomed by Tokyo’s residents very warmly because of the Mela’s rich cultural content.
The leaders of the Mela later approached the authorities of Toshima-ku Ward for a space in the Park for a permanent Shahid Minar. As Ambassador, I made the formal request to the Mayor on behalf of the Bangladeshis. This was an exceptional request as nowhere in Japan’s capital, nor for that is matter anywhere in Japan, is there a place like the one had we sought for Bangla. To strengthen the request, we sought the support of Japan’s Foreign Ministry and the Japan-Bangladesh Parliamentary League and both supported the request of the Bangladeshis for a permanent Shahid Minar enthusiastically. The Shahid Minar was built with funds contributed fully by the Bangladesh Government. Thus today, the Bangladeshis in Tokyo have a Shahid Minar together with their annual Baisaki Mela as structures through which to spread Bangla and the culture of Bangladesh in Japan. My experience in Japan, in fact my whole career as a professional diplomat, has convinced me that through the strength of our culture where our language will no doubt be a major focus, we could achieve recognition for Bangladesh in a way that traditional diplomacy has so far largely failed, portray a positive image of the country. It is time to bring cultural diplomacy into the mainstream of our foreign policy.
There are a few formidable obstacles though in bringing cultural diplomacy and the Diaspora into our foreign policy the way other countries, for instance India, have done and benefitted tremendously. First, we need to decide on the need for cultural diplomacy but not merely as lip service as is being done at present. Second, we would need to provide funds for conducting such diplomacy where there is not even a pittance being provided now. Third, we have to have a united Diaspora and not the one we have that is divided in the same way our domestic politics is; unlike any other country in the world. Political parties in the country must thus stop having their branches overseas to encourage the Diaspora to remain united and interact with the Embassies for Bangla, our culture and Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has failed to encourage UNESCO to do more for the International Mother Languages Day. It is time for the Bangladesh Government to revisit the UNESCO resolution to utilize fully its scope which imposes much more responsibility upon UNESCO than the latter has done so far. UNESCO’s powers and responsibilities extend to all its member states. Hence anything that UNESCO does under the scope of the resolution will expose Bangla, our culture and Bangladesh in positive light across the world. The need to study the UNESCO Resolution and to carry out discussions with UNESCO to encourage it to do more for International Mother Languages Day should therefore become a major focus of the government’s cultural diplomacy.
Once the government decides to give cultural diplomacy the importance it deserves and have a policy firmly laid out, the Embassies/High Commissions and the Diaspora can the work hand in glove for the cause of Bangla and Bangladesh. A key initiative in that context could be the effort to do what we did in Tokyo; get a permanent Shahid Minar at as many capitals as possible. Already a few capitals have done so. Others should try for a permanent Shahid Minar at their respective capitals and come around these living symbols of our culture and in fact our nationhood. It is time for the nation to benefit from the strength of our culture and our mother tongue cultural diplomacy in the driver’s seat of our foreign policy.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, CFAS