Brimming with flowers, the capital's Central Shaheed Minar yesterday wore a solemn look as the International Mother Language Day came upon us. The place was visited by a sea of humans.
Starting from the head of the state, people of all walks of life paid their tribute to those who had sacrificed their lives to restore honour for our mother tongue in 1952, a rare event in the history of the world.
Bare-footed and clad in black and white, the people showed respect and love for the language martyrs by placing wreaths at the Shaheed Minar.
"Placing wreaths is symbolic and it gives our emotion a way out. The language movement was the foundation of our struggle for independence," said ABM Harunur Rashid, a businessman who brought along his six-year-old son Imran to the Shaheed Minar.
He thinks it is important that parents introduce their children to the value of mother language, culture and the history of the land at a very early age.
"However, it is sad that many parents, especially those in the cities, focus more on having their children become good in English," said Smaranika Lopa, a third-year student of Dhaka National Medical College.
Even the educated and the youth consider that being able to speak good English, rather than Bangla, is cool, she said, adding that she had nothing against English but negligence to mother tongue was deplorable to her.
"We must know our history. If some brave sons of the soil can sacrifice their lives for the mother tongue why can't we love and do something good for the country," said university student Tonmoy.
"February 21 unites all Bangladeshis against petty interests and communalism," he said as his eyes were flashing in pride with the song "Amar bhaiyer rokte rangano ekushe February …" playing on loud speakers at the Shaheed Minar.
On this day in 1952, students and people from all strata took to the streets of Dhaka, violating restriction on gatherings, to protest the then Pakistan government's refusal to recognise Bangla as one of the state languages. The government wanted to impose Urdu as the only official language.
Police firing on the demonstration that day killed Salam, Barkat, Rafique, Jabbar and a few brave others. The Pakistan government declared Bangla as one of the state languages on February 29, 1956.
On November 17, 1999, the Unesco declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day which has since been observed globally to promote linguistic diversity and multilingual education and raise awareness about cultural traditions based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.
February 21 is a public holiday in Bangladesh when the national flag is hoisted half-mast at all government, semi-government, autonomous and private organisations. Television channels broadcast special programmes and newspapers bring out supplements on the occasion.
The foreigners living in Bangladesh too observed the day with special significance. Many of them thronged the Central Shaheed Minar yesterday to pay tribute to the language martyrs.
Min-Jung Park, a Korean language teacher at the Modern Language Institute of Dhaka University, is one of them.
"The day is special to us too. We salute the language martyrs," she said, adding that the Koreans too were subject to Japanese lingual hegemony during the colonial period.
There are dozens of indigenous communities in Bangladesh who share the similar feelings.
"I don't differentiate Bangla and my mother tongue Achik, because we learned both the languages from childhood," said Salgi Mree, a Garo youth studying English literature at a private university.
He also said there were many Garos and other indigenous communities who to some extent remain detached from Bangla and therefore face problem in studies.
"Introducing textbooks in Achik language is hence important for the Garo community," said Salgi.
Meanwhile, regrettably there are a significant number of children who do not know why this day is so important to the nation and what happened that day. This is because either they did not have the chance to go to school or their environment kept them uninterested about their history.
Fourteen-year-old Sagar Mia never had the chance to go to school and was found selling flowers at the Shaheed Minar yesterday. He works at a shop in Sylhet and comes to Dhaka to sell flowers on special days like the Ekushey February and Pahela Baishakh.
Sagar knows mother language day as the Independence Day.
Asked if he felt bad that he never went to school, he gave a shameful awkward look and said "no" with a deep sigh.