While at the Uni-versity of Arizona, we had a visiting professor from Stanford University, Prof. Joshua Fishman. Touted as one of the doyens of sociolinguistics, Prof. Fishman is known for his role in reversing language shift, particularly in reviving indigenous languages all around the world. I caught his attention in a large class with a quip. When asked about the first image that came to our minds after hearing the word "language", I replied, "the smile of a mother" or Shaheed Minar, the monument erected in honour of the language martyrs of 1952. Intrigued by my response, he hurled a volley of follow-up questions, and eventually enquired, "Are you a Bengali who knows about Islam, or a Muslim who knows about Bengali?" Embedded in the question of the orthodox Jewish scholar was the presupposition that these two identities—religious and cultural—are not mutually inclusive.
Yet here we are in Bangladesh proving it otherwise. Ekushey is a living example that subsumes the seemingly oppositional ideas. Surely, it did not happen at one fell swoop, and definitely not on one day. It has a long history that dates back to many stories of oppression, marginalisation, deprivation, disillusionment, trampled hopes and shattered dreams triggering off a resistance. Ekush is the name we give to the resistance that shaped our national identity. Ekush is our symbolic hope and pride.
A national body with two wings and one religious soul, craftily designed by an amateur cartographer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, was a non-starter. Perhaps the search for a home for the Muslim population was a political reality in 1947. With limited access to education and bureaucracy, the Muslims were feeling disenfranchised under the colonial rule. The focus shifted to religion for a political upheaval; the issue of culture, however, was not fully factored in. Soon after the Partition, the political leaders of West Pakistan realised the significance of language for national integration; so did our emerging educated middle class that foresaw the economic and cultural trap that awaited the new nation if Urdu was to become the official language as desired by the central government.
Students, the vanguards of society, were the first to protest. As early as December 1947, the Rastrabhasha Sangram Parishad (Language Action Committee) was formed, which remained alert to any possible transplant of a foreign language. The resounding "no" that exploded the eardrums of the neo-masters was reciprocated by gunshots. An attack on February 21, 1952 on the agitating students demanding Bangla as the official language left scores killed. A 19-year-old Gaffar Chowdhury wrote a poem standing next to an injured activist, which was published in a newspaper, and was put to a tune first by Abdul Latif and then by Altaf Mahmud. Ever since, the poem amar bhaiyer rokte rangano… ("a day stained with my brother's blood/ can I ever forget February the twenty-first?") has become the song that epitomises our national sentiment.
Bengalis irrespective of their religious creed join the probhat feri, a procession to the language memorial on the morning of February 21. Many would do so after saying their morning prayers. They would sing in chorus and carry floral offerings, remembering the dead souls on a day that defined our nation and that is tinged with both cultural and religious politics—an idea to which Prof. Fishman was referring. Ekush (21) has merged the two into one. It is a day that has morphed into a date that bridges divisions.
Bangladesh is an organic growth where national identity is synonymous with our language. Bangla-desh—literally, the Bangla Country—is our motherland where our mother tongue is the essence of our identity. We can put on foreign garb, speak many other languages to correspond and communicate at a professional sphere—but that does not take away from our national consciousness. In 1999, UNESCO recognised Ekushey as the International Mother Language Day, signifying the symbolic spread and endorsement of the idea that language defines our essential existence. The scope and challenge of Ekushey have thus widened, and the onus is on us to learn to respect and accommodate other languages.
It is a shame that the overwhelming presence of media, as an atrophy of what is known as globalisation, often makes us forget who we really are. A satire written by Bhabaniprasad Majumdar has recently captured the doubts that our cousins in West Bengal are suffering from. His poem, Banglata Thik Ashe Na, reads like this:
"My son is rather serious, he hardly ever smiles
To tell you the truth, he can't get his Bangla right
He can say rhymes in English
Debate and studies too
He is very positive, and stays away from futile dreams
To tell you the truth, he can't get his Bangla right" [my translation]
The urge to speak in English and disregard Bangla has also become a fad in our part of the Bangla-speaking territory. Often our new-moneyed class thinks it demeaning to express themselves in their native tongue. Mimicry of the west can only lead to a hybrid nation that yields in quantity, but takes away its essential quality to germinate. The glory and glamour of Ekushey that I mentioned need constant nurturing. It can be done through giving due importance to Bangla as well as through learning to respect the languages of others.
When I was growing up, we lived in a culture that promoted community spirit. Stealing flowers from your neighbour's garden on the eve of Ekushey was approved; publishing wall magazines with plenty of mistakes and slanted lines with ink blotches was tolerated; having small cultural and sports clubs in every locality was common, and joining the morning procession followed by a trip to the book fair was a must. But today's apartment culture has created a post-nuclear fragmented society where we rather watch the procession of agenda-ridden bodies on the TV. While we take pride in Ekushey, we also take it for granted. I guess the stories of disenfranchisement that I briefly mentioned need revisiting so that our new generation becomes aware of the sacrifices made by our previous generations for us to see the smile in our mother or the flowers that adorn the feet of the Shaheed Minar.
Shamsad Mortuza is a Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.