Our first eternal flame
Ekushey is a collection of metaphors -- springtime, undying embers, inalienable right to mother tongue, self-identity and, above all, renewal of roots and moorings.
The discourse revolved around one question whether we are Muslim Bengalees or Bengalee Muslims. Obviously, we are Bengalee Muslims. The unassailable fact is that ethnically we are Bengalee and religiously we are pluralistic being Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians. This is the crux of what secularism and pluralistic polity is all about.
But the then Pakistani Establishment thought Muslim-ness should take precedence over Bengali-ness. Hence, they insisted that Urdu which was not even court language in Mughal era, let alone British period (originate as it did in military camps) should be the state language of Pakistan at the expense of the mother tongue in majority province -- the eastern wing. This was a rude shock for the Bengalees who considered it as an act of ingratitude given that they contributed signally to the creation of Pakistan among all the Muslim-majority provinces of India. Both by reason of being a majority population as well as for their role in Pakistan movement, the people of the eastern wing hoped that all citizens, irrespective of ethnic, regional and religious backgrounds would be treated on equal footing free from any domineering influence over the practice of their linguistic and cultural ethos.
The Ekushey's etymology, ethnicity and history have been oft-repeated to bear another repetition. Undimmed exception to the narrative refrain is the lyric Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano Ekushey February, Ami Ki Bhulite Pari -- Ekushey February soaked in the blood of our brothers, can we ever forget it? The sonority of the melancholic appeal is the sweetest of songs because it is the saddest.
Mother tongue and brother's blood were in perfect communion to produce our first finest hour in clasping handholding with which we would subsequently achieve a series of glories -- education upsurge in 1962, six-point programme for politico-economic autonomy in 1966, mass upheaval in 1969, election in 1970 and Liberation War in 1971 culminating in the crowing finest hour. It set the forbidden breath free through the birth of Bangladesh.
Our first martyrs of freedom have carved a unique niche to have shed blood in defence of mother tongue, a rarity in the history of nations. In a tribute to the motherhood of language that Ekushey February symbolises, the day is commemorated as the International Mother Language Day by virtue of a historic UNESCO declaration. By doing this the international community wanted every citizen to imbibe the idea that all languages deserve equal respect and right to development and that the mother tongue of howsoever a miniscule population should be saved from extinction as part of common heritage of mankind.
Apart from the debt we owe to our language martyrs, the international recognition of the day redoubles our responsibility in terms of what good use we have put our language to. Literacy in any country spreads through the native language but in Bangladesh the Three R's have not reached a vast majority of our population. Illiteracy remains an overwhelming disconnect and a cultural deficit in a country that has profound love for alphabets and has been free for more than four decades.
As a medium of instruction in education, Bangla is being employed even in higher education and competitive examinations to an increasing degree. The emphasis on English as second language should continue to be laid with greater commitment to proficiency attainment. A sort of linguistic chauvinism had cost us heavily vis-à-vis India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan which religiously clung to English attaining greater proficiency in it than we could on a comparable scale. Though English medium education is a modernist choice we cannot be elitist in our educational predilections because a vast majority are educated through the common stream of predominantly Bangla medium. Besides, proficiency in English need not be acquired at the expense of Bangla.
In a belated step in the right direction English has been introduced as compulsory subject right up to the higher secondary level. But English teaching being of poor-to-passable quality for the vast majority of educational institutions, the drawback in the language of international business and communication is stalking our footsteps.
The science faculties have limited use of Bangla equivalents to English words and terms. We need not be so fussy about being a halfway house there; for, we can adapt scientific terms in other languages to our lexicon without losing out on intelligibility.
But genuineness and originality have an appeal and demand of their own. For instance, Rod Liddle wrote in The Sunday Times last year: "A strange air of reality has suddenly gripped the French. The country's minister for higher education is demanding that universities start to teach science in English, warning that otherwise the only foreign students they'll get will be from Guadeloupe and Burkina Faso."
To finish on a practical note -- 'in modern times only archbishop of Canterbury and Diana Ross use the word "thee". Today, thanks to text and Twitter, we are undergoing a complete revolution, and it's no good hanging on to rules that were laid down hundreds of years ago' (Jeremy Clarkson under News Review in The Sunday Times in March last year).
The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star