Ekushe February: Bangladesh’s fight for its mother-tongue

মাতৃভাষা (mātr̥bhāṣā ~ mother-tongue)

Language is the vessel through which we bring colour to the world, and one’s mother-tongue is a beauty that we often take for granted. The inside jokes that don’t quite translate anywhere else, the differing depths of words are what enrich us as individuals. 

Language is power. We see it in the immigrant children in America without lawyers because they don’t know how to ask, refugees refused at borders because they dare to escape horrors and speak another tongue in a foreign land. It’s divided humans for millennia and in Bangladesh, blood has been spilled for the right to speak their mother-tongue, an event which has irrevocably changed the country. Ekushe February.

বাংলা (bānlā ~ bangla)

The result of the partition of India, 1947: a state for Muslims and another for Hindus and Sikhs 

Bangla emerged as a distinct language by 900-1000 AD, part of the Indo-European language family alongside English, Greek and Persian. Currently, there are 230 million Bangla speakers in the world, putting Bangla in 7th place of most-spoken languages in the world. It is perhaps the only language upon which an independent state has been established. 

The threat to Bangla began in the aftermath of the partition of India in 1947. The united state of India became split into India and Pakistan, separating Muslims from Hindus and Sikhs. Pakistan consisted of West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the two states separated by 1.2 million square miles. Pakistan faced a unique challenge during the partition: creating a united state from two culturally distinct parts.

The natural progression of thought to solve this problem leads us to the establishment of a state language – one which is to be used in all official settings, the ‘natural’ mode of communication. Language of course is what unites us and differentiates us from others. However, the instated state language in a nation does not naturally negate the existence of other languages. Unfortunately, the Muslim League (leading party in Pakistan) had embraced the establishment of Urdu as the state language in a strict, all-encompassing manner. This rigidity would, in turn, cause the downfall of a united Pakistan.

কষ্ট (kaṣṭa ~ hardship)

Culture is at the heart of any society and removing this allows for easy cultural assimilation. This fact is seen in the actions of the Muslim League, who insisted upon Urdu as the state language in an attempt to smother Bangla rather than peaceful coexistence. The insistence of such a condition would alienate East Pakistan, where the inhabitants had been speaking Bangla for centuries. Language was thus weaponised and sought to disenfranchise millions of non-Urdu speakers as they were unable to engage in financial and political pursuits; a cruel result considering the immense turmoil of the partition of India which had only just tentatively begun to settle.

Educational erasure

The Tamaddun Majlish was a cultural organisation birthed by the professors of the University of Dhaka. In September 1947, this group demanded Bangla be one of the state languages of Pakistan. The organisation became the first to meet to discuss the issue of the national language. 

Retaliation came in the form of the expulsion of Bangla from the list of approved subjects, executed during the Pakistan Educational Conference in November 1947, heightening tensions between West and East Pakistan. Education, by association became more difficult, and the destruction brought on by a loss of language became more palpable. 

Constitutional snub

A power imbalance was struck in the first session of the Constitution Assembly of Pakistan on 10th August 1947. Here, members were only permitted to speak in Urdu or English, souring the potential discussions as members from East Pakistan were snubbed from the first moment. 

A member of the East Pakistan Congress Party Dhirendranath Datta proposed the motion for the inclusion of Bangla in Pakistan. Staunch opposition came from the members from West Pakistan as they refused to accept the language. Thus, the motion failed, raising tensions and inspiring several protests.

Hopes dashed at Ramna

Muhammad Ali Jinnah – founder of Pakistan and staunch supporter of the separation of India

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder and first Governor-General delivered a historic speech at the Ramna Race Course Maidan in Dhaka (re-named Surhrawardy Uddyan after independence). Here, before a crowd of five thousand, Jinnah declared that ‘…the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language.’ These inflammatory words ignited a passion within the Bengali youth. Bengali Muslims had originally supported the notion of a united nation based on religion, however, after witnessing the suppression of the Bengali identity, culture rose above religion and dissent grew among the ranks.

Observing the hopelessness of change via diplomatic routes, plans were drawn up for protests on 21st February 1952 by the All-Party Committee of Action (APCA). The APCA was concerned with the recognition of Bangla as one of the state languages and consisted of representatives from Awami League (a rising political party in Bangladesh), the Student League, the Dhaka University State Language Committee of Action, etc.

On 20th February 1952, an executive order was issued under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure – which banned the assembly of five or more people and carrying of firearms – meaning that any protests were now illegal. Regardless, Bangladeshi students united for their mother-tongue prepared to march on 21st of February 1952.

Moder Garob – ‘Our Pride’ – a tribute to the ‘Language Martyrs’ – 2007

একুশ (ēkuśa ~ twenty-one)

21 February 1952 went down in history as thousands of students amassed in Dhaka in a peaceful procession to act against the suppression of their mother-tongue. They were met with gunfire and teargas as the police descended upon them. Bricks were thrown in retaliation and many arrests were subsequently made. 

The bloodshed did not end on 21st February as thousands travelled to Dhaka to offer prayers and pay respect to the victims of the shootings. Following the prayers’ end, police opened fire again incurring further deaths. The bloodshed and arrests continued until 23rd February 1952.

This massacre inspired a great outrage in the Bangladeshi people and deep pride in their identity. The protestors may have passed on but the message of freedom flowed freely in those left behind.

শহীদ (śahīda ~ martyrs)

শহীদ মিনার – Shaheed Minar – ‘Monument of Martyrs’ in Dhaka symbolises the mother and her fallen sons 

69 years on, no-one yet knows exactly how many peaceful protestors died during the movement. Conflicting reports arose in the aftermath of the deaths, the Daily Azad (a widely-read Urdu newspaper) reported nine deaths from shooting on 21st and 22nd February 1952, while the exiled Pakistani writer Lal Khan reported 26 deaths and 400 injured in his book ‘Pakistan’s Other Story: The Revolution in 1968-69’. Reports of abducted bodies had also emerged, which further skews the limited information we have of the deaths. 

The Shahid Minar – ‘Monument of Martyrs’ – was built as a tribute to the fallen. The stark red sun is a symbol for Bangladesh shining onto a mother with her fallen sons represented by the distinct white pillars. This version is the third iteration of the Shahid Minar, the first built immediately after the events of Ekushe February and subsequently demolished on 26th February 1952 by the police and the Pakistani army. The second Shahid Minar was built in 1954, a few months before the recognition of Bangla as a state language. 

বিজয় (bijaẏa ~ victory)

Success arrived two years after the events of Ekushe February on 7th May 1954 as the Pakistani government recognised Bangla as a state language. A seven-year struggle for the right to speak Bangla freely ended only after innocent lives were ended. Ekushe February nurtured a boundless appreciation of the Bangladeshi identity and fuelled the self-determination and nationalism in the population, sparking the Bangladesh Liberation War nineteen years later in 1971.

স্বাধীনতা (sbādhīnatā ~ freedom)

The Bengali Language Movement sparked a cultural explosion which sparked the embers of political action. Bangladeshi nationalism was a burgeoning power and Ekushe February poured hot oil on the embers of Bangladeshi independence. Political leaders amassed in the then East Pakistan and matters came to a head 19 years later in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. The war raged on for nine months and from the wreckage and bloodshed, Bangladesh was born.

The founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman played a critical part in the organisation of the Ekushe February protests and was in jail on 21st February. He went on to lead the Awami League, becoming the first prime minister of Bangladesh. In recent years, Awami League returned to power in 2008, and has remained there to this day under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter: Sheikh Hasina.

Ekushe February remains an event of immense cultural importance, birthing songs, poems and architecture and is a prominent part of the Bangladeshi identity. The movement thrived from great cultural pride, not political gain – the majority of political leaders had been imprisoned during this period and so it fell on the youth and the academics to grasp change.  

UNESCO declared 21st February as International Mother Language Day in 1999 and it has been observed every year since 2000. The event is a testament to the power of a shared identity and the importance of the mother-tongue – it is the birthright of every individual and imbues colour into our existence. 

Further Reading

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