There shall be an authentic text of this Constitution in Bengali, and an authentic text of an authorised translation in English, both of which shall be certified as such by the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly.
A text certified […] shall be conclusive evidence of the provisions of this Constitution:
Provided that in the event of conflict between the Bengali and the English text, the Bengali text shall prevail.
– Article 153, The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh
In the making of Bangladesh Constitution, the issue of language – particularly ‘Bangla as a language’ – had been practically very significant to be understood from two historical contexts. Firstly, our Constitution makers felt the necessity to produce a Bangla text of the Constitution along with an English one in order to respect the nationalist spirit of the 1952 language movement. Sacrifices made for the mother tongue of Bangla was constitutionally then honoured. Secondly and quite contrary to the spirit of language movement, with the constitutional declaration of ‘Bangla’ – the majority Bangalee population’s mother tongue – as the ‘State language’, we ignored showing respect to languages of other communities, mainly those of the indigenous communities. The idea of inclusive constitutionalism had then faced its first blow also.
Despite the fact that whatever accomplishment or pitfalls we have made after the national independence concerning the practice of constitutionalism, the name and contribution of Emeritus Professor Anisuzzaman is historically oft-cited and remembered in the discussion of Bangladesh Constitution. Our Constitution was adopted in 1972 when he used to teach in the Department of Bangla, Chittagong University. In 1952, he was an active participant of State Language Movement Council from Jagannath College. Though he was not a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee in the Constituent Assembly, Anisuzzaman with his knowledge of language and literature apolitically contributed by writing the Bangla text of our Constitution. He was requested by Dr. Kamal Hossain, the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, to take the responsibility of drafting the Constitution in Bangla which subsequently adopted as an official version of the Constitution on November 4, 1972.
For the purpose of writing the Constitution in Bangla, Anisuzzaman used to attend the debates of the Constituent Assembly and take help from Dr. Kamal Hossain to understand the explanations of complicated constitutional law jargons. Basically he used to translate constitution provisions from English to Bangla. For the sake of ensuring legitimacy of the translation work, Anisuzzaman always felt the necessity of official recognition for the translation team. When he raised this issue to the Constitution Drafting Committee, Dr. Kamal Hossain formed the ‘Language Expert Committee’ after receiving approval of the Drafting Committee. Anisuzzaman was the Convener of this Committee, while Poet Syed Ali Ahsan and Director General of Bangla Academy Majharul Islam were appointed as members of the Committee. Their terms of reference included mainly translating the Constitution and ensuring linguistic perfection as well as harmony.
The Draft Constitution in its English form was linguistically improvised by an Irish lawyer named Robert Gathrie. He was a professional legislative draftsman who used to work in the British Parliament to assist the private members draft and prepare bills.
The Language Expert Committee worked from July 3-20 in 1972 and during this time it met for eleven times. Finally on August 19 of the same year, the Committee submitted its suggestions (concerning the linguistic improvisation of the Constitution) to the Constitution Drafting Committee for consideration. Suggestions were submitted before Robert Gathrie officially completed his work of improvising the English text of the Constitution. Bangla and English texts of the Constitution were finalised respectively in the 4th and the 5th meetings of the Constitution Drafting Committee.
Recently in December 2016, Anisuzzaman gave a public lecture in Dhaka University sharing his experiences of writing the Constitution. As he spoke, during the translation work, a debate took place between Anisuzzaman and the then Chief Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem regarding the Bangla translation of the words ‘Justice’ and ‘Judge’. Anisuzzaman translated the word ‘Justice’ into ‘Bicharpati’ and ‘Judge’ into ‘Bicharak’. Chief Justice Sayem was in favour of calling all the judges of the Supreme Court (inclusive of both High Court Division and Appellate Division) as ‘Justices’. But Anisuzzaman argued that the terms ‘Justice’ and ‘Judge’ should differently be used in Bangla keeping in mind their linguistic differences. Therefore, the word ‘Justice’ has been used in our Constitution only in case of ‘Chief Justice’. Many years later, Chief Justice Sayem once told Anisuzzaman, “I won’t forgive you. Because of you ‘Justices’ are now constitutionally known as ‘Judges’”. Such dispute, though ‘not that much serious’ according to Anissuzaman, could have been avoided, if a specific session-dedicated debate among the Constituent Assembly members would have taken place while adopting the English and Bangla texts of our Constitution. The Language Expert Committee could have then had an opportunity to justify the usages of each word substantially and technically. Unfortunately, such debate did not take place according to our knowledge.
The contribution of Anisuzzaman was not confined only in writing Bangla text of the Constitution. Very often and still he writes on constitutional law matters, specially on fundamental principles of our Constitution such as secularism, non-communalism, etc. in connection to our liberation war history.
On February 18 this year, Anisuzzaman has celebrated his 80th birthday anniversary. On this pleasant occasion, we pay our sincere tribute to the ‘lighthouse’ of this nation and remember his unique contribution in the history of making Bangladesh Constitution.
The writer is Lecturer in Law, University of Asia Pacific.