The Financial Express


Musings on identity, independence, Bangladesh

Musings on identity, independence, Bangladesh

John Reid's daring 1919 book, Ten Days That Shook the World, gave a first-hand account of one of 20th Century's most tumultuous moments: the collapse of Russia's Romanoff Dynasty and the establishment of the Soviet Union by Bolshevik revolutionaries. In another 70-odd years Vladmir Ilyich Lenin's Soviet Union would collapse, and Reid, who was hunted and haunted by US officials from the very launching of that revolution, might be pleased to know his book was ranked 7th in a 1999 New York Times list of the 20th Century's Top-100 works of journalists.

Nothing as dramatic awaits a possibly equal but far more subtle and protracted Bangladesh transformation. Here it is  not the structure of governance but identity. The 5-odd weeks between what was once called Language Day, February 21, and Bangladesh's Independence Day, March 26, may be driven into oblivion over the rest of this century without corrective actions. Even corrective actions may not withstand the forces of technology, time, and shifting passions.

At stake is the language, Bangla, the 6th most-spoken in the world, representing slightly under a quarter of a billion people. Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, and Hindi rank above it, in that order. Yet, as Joe Myers posits, the three most spoken languages in the world, with over two (2) billion native speakers and accounting for one-quarter of the world's population may be usurping the rest: it will not be easy for the remaining seven in the Top-10 languages spoken to coherently survive against such pressure (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/ 2018/02/chart-of-the-day-these-are-the-world-s-most-spoken-languages/). Chinese, with 1.2 billion native subscribers, Spanish with 437 million, and English with 372 million dominate in a way no other language can: Chinese by sheer size, Spanish by way of expanding through US migration, and English boasting the most globally distributed language of them all.

That's not all. Though China's growth into global-power status depends largely upon its low-wage, well-protected economic performances, few, if any, will notice how the slow but subtle expansion of Confucian Institutes across the world is replicating precisely what made English the world's most distributed language: establishing a political anchor for disseminating the language. For English it was the empire, "where the sun would never set," and for China, in whose burgeoning trading networks the sun may also not set. Though Chinese can be disaggregated into almost a dozen dialects, with Mandarin and Cantonese dominating them all, it is becoming the lingua franca in business, with Mandarin made an official language only this year in no other country than the artificially constructed Pakistan.

Noting how the first internal threat Pakistan ever faced was the identity-threatening 1952 Language Movement, it is not hard to directly connect that auspicious martyrdom moment to Bangladesh's March 26, 1971 independence declaration. No wonder these five weeks constitute the Bangladesh's, if not holy-grail, then holy-trail.

That trail may itself be endangered. Current trends and developments predict more diluted recognition many generations down the road, raising questions if language still binds the people and, indeed, what its boundary-lines may be. Our hitherto-held 'independence' notions may convey a different mindset.

It is tempting to say the Internet and exposure to foreign media, most particularly education or training abroad, feed into this evaporation. To be sure, just to hit the argument on its head, notice how increasing proportions of children learn Internet terminologies more effortlessly than those from his or her own language; and that, as the child moves towards adulthood, seductive Internet jargons, and phrases may enter and embed in their mind than, let's say, any of the 'ten commandments', that is, the essentials, of any discipline. Whether this is in English Literature, Economics, Philosophy, Political Science, or Sociology within the Arts domain, or their counterparts in the Sciences and Engineering, for every case of knowledge-accumulation in one area, attrition unfolds somewhere else. Typically, whatever is seen as 'old', which includes tradition, customs, and beliefs, often gets smacked right in the face by the 'new', only this time the 'new' is descending constantly and in back-to-back bunches for the 'old' to continue to hold on too much longer.

Educators at primary, secondary, tertiary, and university levels already notice this trend taking on irreversible properties. Then when we see the mangling of both Bangla and English in street signs, store-names, and particularly advertisements, what looks like a local problem but is in fact a global epidemic, actually exposes how our impurity-friendliness goes deeper than our once-hallowed purity-watchdog. We all know, for instance, that a Facebook 'like' conveys popularity no matter how hollow or horrendous the message, but for the avid book reader or litterateur of yesteryears, there is no such counterpart to, or even desire for, the clicking option. Widening that gulf between 'then' and 'now' ultimately boils down to how much more we must toil to uphold our identity.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina noted this malaise in her February 21, 2018 comments, urging us to strengthen our language at the core. That is precisely wherefrom the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize a century or so ago projected the language to a global audience, taking it to the pedestal with respect and erudition. Our Language Movement continued that strain, and our 1971 independence drove that language to its apogee: what was a local language movement eventually became an internationally celebrated occasion when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared February 21 as International Mothers Language Day in November 1999 (driven by a Canadian-Bangladeshi, Rafiqul Islam). Whether it was complacency, nonchalance, or alternate priorities that loosened our linguistic bondages, technological and globalising forces were there to pounce on the vulnerabilities. Since too many languages have already fallen to these forces, it would be presumptuous to expect the sixth largest will not.

Unlike Spanish, which gets fortified with every Latin migrant who settles abroad, particularly in a Hispanic-curried United States, our migrants have preferred to learn the host country's language more than advance his/her own. Unlike English, the language of the Internet, therefore capable of surviving the shrinking proportion of Anglo-Saxon people in the global population, Bangla has not anchored itself on any similar growth-infusing technology. Unlike Chinese, once the most closeted language, even more so than Bangla, now trumpeting across a global playground, Bangla has not been able to gather as much moss by a long shot.

In short, with the language weakening at the core and the country soon to be populated fully by generations born after the liberation war, thus weakening independence bondages, the five-week bridge between our most honourable and victorious moments gets exposed to a tremor which could have as calamitous consequences as the 1917 Russia Revolution did unless we do what is desperately needed: make the Bangla 'core' the fulcrum of learning new technologies, in classrooms, and through social engagements.

This is not a nationalistic or populist call, fashionable as those trends currently are globally. By cautioning against bending over backwards to be 'liked' a la Facebook, that call carries the very essence of our neo-liberal age: export at least as much as import to survive in increasingly cut-throat markets. Only this time, the merchandise being transacted is not a product or service, but identity-reeking culture, and tongue-twanging language.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

[email protected]


Share if you like

Filter By Topic