Only that which does not cease to hurt remains in memory.” — Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)
Growing up in a coastal town, I have seen people from all walks of life—students, artists, politicians, workers, peasants, and everyday families—participate in social rituals of Amar Ekushey.
Every year on February 21, they would passionately go on prabhat pheri to commemorate the historic event of 1952 when students and workers laid down their lives for the right to language. Carrying flowers in hand and singing the Ekushey song “Amar bhaier rokte rangano Ekushey February/ Ami ki bhulite pari?” in unison, they would march towards Shaheed Minar.
It was a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest against oppression and autocratic attitudes of the ruling class, characterised by the collective agency of the people. It is no wonder that the Shaheed Minar became a sacred secular space where people would gather to protest injustices. Whenever the need for collective action arose, people looked to Ekushey to embolden themselves with a sense of collective power. This was true not just for anti-autocratic and anti-sectarian movements at the national level, but also for local protests against oppressions.
The way we observe Ekushey now has changed significantly over the years. We are evidently moving away from the language of grief and mourning. Sixty-seven years after martyrdom, the pain of loss has diminished, and our grief for the dead has faded. The sombre atmosphere has given way to a celebratory mood. Successive governments have also contributed in devising a language of celebration after Ekushey went international with its recognition by the United Nations as the International Mother Language Day. Its appeal to young people seems to be fading away as the day is becoming more and more commercialised. The collective exercise of remembering is long gone. And the Ekushey “celebrations” increasingly reflect a crass form of individualism, characterised by exhibitionism and attention-seeking: for politicians, it's a photo op; for celebrities, it's an opportunity to show their fans how much they love their language and country; for ordinary people, it's a chance to wear new attire and take photos to post on social media.
What are the political and cultural implications of these changes? Does the direction we seem to be headed in run the risk of creating a disjunction between history and memory?
We all know that collective memory can mobilise social change. The act of remembering not only represents the context of a past event, but also influences and drives current efforts. Any popular resistance has to be able to establish itself based on collective memory. In other words, struggles are impossible without memory. In our nation's life, Ekushey occupies a unique place—not only as a reminder of the martyrdom of students and workers, the suppression of our mother language, and the assault on our culture, but also by instilling the sense of possibility and the potential power of the streets. At every turn of our nation's life when we felt we were making history, or in every struggle for democratic transformation of society, the memory of Ekushey's heroic resistance mobilised us.
Ekushey's immediate significance was more cultural and social rather than political, but in a very short time, it changed Bengali society forever. Ekushey is the day when we declared that this language is ours, that we belong to this land. It is the day when the heartbeat of an unborn Bangladesh was heard for the first time. The first clear expression of Bengali nationalism came with this Language Movement. Ekushey cultivated a sense of self and a sense of belonging that allowed ordinary people's democratic agency to take hold and fired up resistance against oppression. It was a protest against stripping of our national rights and national repression. It represents the loss of meaning in the “Pakistan Ideology”, which was based on the divisive “two-nation” theory, while giving way to a search for a new meaning, the “Bangladesh Ideology”, based on the principles of “equality, human dignity and social justice.” The emancipatory and egalitarian character embodied in Ekushey has, for generations, been a constant source of inspiration and vitality for social and political movements. That is why, it is so important to guard against attempts to debase the memory of Ekushey.
A key principle of the Language Movement is its appeal to universality: the idea that all human beings should have the right to practise one's own language and culture. It speaks for all the people and their languages. There is no denying that UN's adoption of Ekushey as the International Mother Language Day on November 17, 1999 made us all proud and boosted Bangladesh's stature on the world stage. UN efforts since the turn of the century to promote linguistic and cultural diversity the world over are undoubtedly a great development. But it is disheartening to hear some people argue that since Ekushey is now recognised as the International Mother Language Day, we should start celebrating it with the whole world, rather than observing it as a day of mourning. I am not opposed to celebrating the achievements of International Mother Language Day, but I firmly believe it is our duty to mourn and remember.
If we give up mourning, we might soon no longer remember the past. It is how we approach a historical memory to keep it alive and relevant; our realisation and interpretation of its legacy depend on it. If we do not preserve and transmit the meaning of this historical day, our future generations will no longer be touched by the history that our heroes gave up their lives for. That would mean we do not belong. That would mean we are from nowhere. We are part of a nation that is today carving out a place for itself on the world stage. How can we imagine going forward without a sense of belonging or as a people without history when we have such “immortal” memories?
The timeless promise of Ekushey is yet to be fulfilled. It still possesses tremendous symbolic significance that has the power to mobilise a collective force and bring about major changes. There is no denying that letting it go international has allowed greater participation of individuals from all over the world, but it can have much greater influence nationally so that we can achieve more collectively. It is vital for the future generations to know that their people died fighting for their rights, and many people are still fighting.
The process of revision and/or erasure has begun. Only mourning and remembrance can stop the erasure of our collective memory.
Zobaida Nasreen is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Dhaka. She has recently authored Lingo Boichitrer Boyan (Shrabon Prokashani, 2019). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.