Since 2000, February 21 is observed globally as the International Mother Language Day. This follows the decision made at the 30th General Conference of the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) held from October 26 to November 17, 1999 in Paris. UNESCO considered the threat to linguistic diversity posed by the globalisation of communication and the tendency to use a single language, and thus recognised the importance of instituting International Mother Language Day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multiculturalism.
The day has been selected on the ground that on this day in 1952, people of Bangladesh sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue.
Language is the prime carrier of a culture. It is also the most powerful instrument of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. During the course of world history, many cultures and civilisations have been shattered, devastated and crushed because of the demolition of their languages. Nations in the past have not only lost their freedom to the powerful, influential and predominant ones, their languages and identity have withered and been lost as well.
It is estimated that around 6000 to 7000 languages are spoken in the world today. This initiative of celebrating a day, specifically as Language Day, will enable development of a fuller awareness of such linguistic and cultural traditions and will inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue. The day reaffirms the commitment of UNESCO towards preserving language diversity and reflects the importance of increasing efforts to conserve languages as a shared heritage of humanity.
Eventually, a communal state, Pakistan came into being with two separate wings, East Pakistan (the South-Eastern part of India) and West Pakistan (the North-West Muslim-majority India), separated geographically by India. Today's Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan between 1947 and 1971. Muhammad Ali Jinnah became the First Governor-General of Pakistan. Shortly after coming into power, Jinnah, in a meeting in Dhaka, on March 21, 1948, declared that Urdu and only Urdu shall be the official State Language of Pakistan. Bengali people strongly resisted this declaration. Students and intellectuals of East Pakistan protested and demanded that not Urdu alone but Bangla should also be one of the state languages. Jinnah referred to those who fought for Bangla to be one of the state's languages as the enemy of Pakistan.
Bangladeshi people started their language movement at the beginning of 1948. Students went on strike on February 26, 1948. The All-Party Action Committee was formed on March 02, 1948, and a strike was called across the country on March 11, 1948. The Language Movement reached its climax on 21 February, 1952 through such small protests at different times.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Khawja Nazimuddin visited East Pakistan on January 27, 1952 and like Jinnah, declared that Urdu would be the only national language of Pakistan. The people became furious and the movement became violent from then on. The All-Party Action Committee called a nationwide strike on February 21, 1952 as a protest against Nazimuddin's announcement. The Government imposed Section144 from February 20 and banned all sorts of meetings and processions for 30 days. The All-Party Action Committee decided not to violate Section 144. But, the students of Dhaka University decided otherwise and came out on the streets in processions. Many students and general public were killed in police firing. It is still impossible to know the exact number of people killed because the police took away dead bodies. However, Pakistan Government published a press release on February 24, 1952 and admitted killing of six persons. They were: Abul Barkat, Rafiquddin, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, Wahedullah and Abdul Awal. Two names were already known to be missing from that Government List - Abdus Salam and Salauddin.
This movement ultimately ended in the adoption of Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan in 1956. However, the movement was not limited only to the issue of language; it sowed the seeds of the independence movement of the Bangladeshi people which resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971.
Language is not only the principal representative of culture of a nation but it also creates a sense of patriotism and nationalism in people's mind. The Language Movement of the people of this country proved this. The Pakistani government first wanted to deny the existence of a language like Bangla in the name of Islam. When they were not able to do that, they conspired in other ways against the Bangla-speaking people. But they did not realise the power of language. It was that power which eventually led to the birth of Bangladesh through the 1971 War of Independence. Thus it is logical that when world leaders wanted to select a day as a Mother Language Day, their choice would be February 21. This is because no other nation has ever sacrificed their lives in such a way as Bengali people did to defend their Mother language.
The Mother Tongue, for any nation in the world or minority groups within nations, is the most important part of their culture. It is also related to the existence of a nation. The liberty of Mother Language is the liberty of a nation. Bengali people have proved that and following the path of February 21 they liberated their country from the clutches of Pakistan.
Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed is a former Deputy Director General, Bangladesh Ansar, VDP