Seed of independence

Muhammad Zamir

Words are symbols of thought. They enable us not only to express ourselves but also to identify our areas of interest, our dreams, our beliefs and our aspirations. Collectively, words turn into a language that in its own way is the expression of the glory of the human spirit.

Philosophically, one is tempted to state that the ethos of a people is best reflected in their language and its variety of usage. These factors in turn create a people's heritage and anoint them with their unique vision.

South Asia, with its diversity, has been the cradle for the evolution of many languages. Of these indigenous modes of expression, Sanskrit and Pali are best known. Inter-action of external factors in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries led to the intrusion of Arabic and then Persian into the Indian scene. Urdu emerged in the seventeenth century but the scenario changed once again with the advent of the Portuguese, the French and eventually the English. The victory at Palassey and the expanding presence of the East India Company in the latter part of the eighteenth century changed the ball game. English as a language slowly assumed the focal point not only within the administrative structure but also in education. It also cast a comprehensive shadow in both the social and cultural horizons.

The interesting aspect of this osmosis was that though English spread its influence in the western part of Bengal, its impact was relatively marginal in the rural eastern Bengal. English became an important part of life in the urban areas, particularly Calcutta, but remained less in use in other parts of this big province. The vast majority spoke and studied Bengali. It remained the preferred means of communication in the villages. Daily life revolved around Bengali. It was the vehicle of choice for literature, theatrical arts and songs.

This emphasis on Bengali did not also take a back seat during the crucial years between 1930 and 1947 when the general focus among the Muslim community in eastern Bengal shifted towards the creation of Pakistan. The people were willing to accept Urdu as an important language within the new country's paradigm but were also aware of their own rich Bengali traditions and their own language. Consequently, the decision to protect Bengali, surfaced immediately after Mr. Jinnah, the Pakistani leader announced that Urdu alone would be the state language of the new country. It was seen as an affront by everyone- the intelligentsia, the liberal left of the center political leadership and the volatile student community.

The Pakistani overlords sitting in Karachi, the capital of Pakistan failed to appreciate the importance of the issue. The military- bureaucratic- right of the center religious clique with their Urdu background were shortsighted. Their deviate interpretation of what was consistent with Pakistani values led them to disrespect the rights of the majority and their language. For them, Bengali became a challenge that had both cultural as well as political connotations. They were joined in this unfortunate approach by a group of extreme right political leaders from the then East Pakistan.

Such a course of action, quite understandably resulted in confrontation. This in turn raised the stakes of engagement. It unleashed forces that gradually acquired nationalistic overtones. As a result what happened on 21 February, 1952 became the first step that not only facilitated the consciousness that we might be part of Pakistan but also that we were a separate entity, a people who were suffering the pangs of discrimination.

The seed of a new independent country was sown.
The divergence within the country was further sharpened by the federal administrators through their emphasis on Urdu and English and their unwillingness to teach Bengali- the language of the majority in the western wing of the country. Gradually, a perception emerged within the Bangalee community that there was a structured effort in Karachi and Islamabad to snuff out Bangalee aspirations not only in the field of culture and education but also in matters related to economic development. Disparity became the buzz word.

Events within the political scene between 1958 and 1965 further exacerbated the situation. The Bangalee matrix its leadership, the intellectuals and educationists were targeted by the West Pakistani clique. More often than not, any one speaking out about the importance of Bengali was seen as anti-Pakistani and had to suffer persecution and discrimination.

Matters deteriorated sharply after 1965. By then Bengali had ceased to be just another language or the mother tongue. It acquired a special identity. It became the vehicle for protest and also the banner that represented justice, equity and equal opportunities. This metamorphosis was a direct result of the psychological trauma that had permeated every corner of the Bangalee presence.

Language, subsequently between 1967 and 1970, became the catalyst that inspired our quest for our own homeland, independent and sovereign, where Bangalees could live in freedom and also have the dignity of speaking their own mother tongue. This was the principal factor that swayed voters to support the Awami League party in the parliamentary polls that were scheduled at the end of 1970.

It took another year for our dream to be translated into reality. The turmoil of the War of Liberation took its massive toll and shattered millions of lives. Nevertheless, our love for our language endowed us with the necessary courage and patience to emerge victorious. We were able to traverse the final mile to freedom, overcome all our difficulties and take our rightful place among the comity of nations.

Consequently, it was only natural that under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Constitution of the newly independent country should have been written in Bengali. It was also correct that the world should have eventually recognized the importance of 'Ekushey' by bestowing upon it the accolade of being the International Mother Language Day.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador and can be reached at

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