Sixty one years ago on this day, some valiant sons of the soil had laid down their lives to bring home a simple yet just demand that Bengali, the language of the majority of the newly-established Pakistan, should be its state language. Contrary to some historians' belief, what had prompted the students across the city to break a government ban on gathering was not necessarily nationalism or proto-nationalism, but it was a movement aimed at establishing the right of the common people, the right to speak in one's language.
In Pakistan, the language of the quasi-feudal Punjabi ruling class was Urdu; and the fast evolving bourgeoisie, who would later dominate much of the country's political scene, preferred to speak English. In that sense, the movement to establish Bengali as the state language of Pakistan was essentially linked to the right to determination of the Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi people.
What happened to Pakistan later is a copybook example of what happens when the ruling class tries to silence the voice of the ordinary people--the Bengalis took up arms to fight a nine-month-long war that ended in the birth of Bangladesh. The new country promised to bring about equality and social justice. The 1972 constitution, which promises to uphold the rights of every individual irrespective of their cast, creed of religion, misses a crucial point--it did not recognise the ethnic and linguistic rights of as many as 19 peoples who live in Bangladesh.
It is however true that our liberation war was essentially a nationalist struggle. And it was not an isolated phenomenon. From South China to the Caribbean Sea, nations were breaking free from the shackles of colonisation. But the national revolutionary character of the war was absent in the way Bangladesh was run, and it started from the very onset.
There is no denying that the 1972 Constitution perverts the true spirit of the Liberation war by denying recognition to the small nationalities. It also doesn't even mention the 22 languages that the ethnic minorities in the country speak.
This heinous crime on the linguistic right of these 19 peoples could have been passed on as a mere oversight. But with a sad heart we have noticed that subsequent governments that have amended the constitution on as many as 15 occasions have never bothered to absolve the nation of this sin.
It is high time that this historic mistake is corrected. The ethnic and linguistic rights of all the ethnic minorities must be recognised in the constitution. Medium of education in the country should not be in Bengali and English only. All school and college text books must have versions in languages other than these two. Two universities, one of which will be technical, should immediately be set up where the mode of education will be in these 19 languages.
The true spirit of the language movement of 1952 is to establish a society where everyone will be able to speak, learn and think in her own language. The present Bangladesh is surely far away from materialising that dream. The wreaths placed on the Shaheed Minar do mock us when in our daily life we tend to ignore the presence of as many as 19 nationalities (some of whom had arrived in this delta long before us) who do not share our mother tongue. 1952 teaches us to respect their rights. It's easy to walk barefoot, sing Amar Bhayer Roktey Rangano and become Bengali for a day, but it is indeed difficult to think big and accept the linguistic minorities as one's own.