The soul of a country

Rashid Askari

Tirgan teanga, tirgan anam. This Irish proverb means a country without a language is a country without a soul. We do not know how far the Irish people could understand the spirit of this Gaelic saying but we know for sure the people of Bangladesh could very well get the meaning and did their best about it. They could realize the importance of language in the building up of a nation and were able to found their nation on the basis of their language. Yes, Bangladesh is that State which was founded on the basis of Bengali nationalism whose soul is the Bengali language. It is the quintessence of what we call a Nation-State and the core of this nationality is the language. The birth of Bangladesh became inevitable when Bengali language aspired to a State of its own. So, the history of the emergence of Bangladesh is the history of the pretty long and rugged way from autonomy to independence. And the seeds of that autonomy were sown in the mind of the Bengali folks primarily on question of language. They for the first time felt the urgency of home rule when their mother tongue fell a victim of an unprovoked attack by the Pakistani rulers right after the division on India (1947). The so-called 'Two-nation theory' had already started taking its toll. The people of East Bengal could realize that they would need to make amends for the historical blunder of the Indian subcontinent committed by opportunist Jinnah, egoistic Nehru, helpless Gandhi and crafty British rulers. This crude awakening led them first to the road to autonomy and then to independence.

Really it was one of the costliest mistakes in human history to divide a country merely on the grounds of religious affiliation where people regardless of caste, creed and religion had been united under an anti-British umbrella. Post-division India could have been one of the world's biggest lands for unity in diversity. But the vested quarters had separated one from the other by a preposterous religio-political surgery which has perpetuated ethnic clashes in the subcontinent. As a matter of fact, the 'Two-nation theory' proved abortive almost immediately. The true character of the self-styled guardians of Islam was unmasked. The West Pakistani rulers assumed a Big Brotherly and a holier-than-thou attitude towards the East Pakistanis. They unleashed the big stick upon them. Despite the sameness of religious identity, no other affinities could develop between the West and the East Pakistanis. In addition, the neo-champions of Islam thought a language like Bengali which was originated from and developed through non-Islamic sources and influences was not worthy of being the official language of a newly emerged holly place, Pakistan (Pak=holy and Sta=place) ).They also thought that on having been a part of the 'holy place', the then Indian province East Bengal would need to be renamed and considerably sanctified. They renamed it as East Pakistan and tried to make Urdu its official language.

Although Urdu is an Indian language and a standardized form of Hindi, it is written in Arabic script and used by the Indian and Pakistani Muslims. So they consider it holier than Bengali which was originated from a vulgar dialect of India and nurtured by the Buddhist and Hindu monks over the centuries. This was at the back of the mind of those Pakistani neo-custodians of Islam. So, they planned to make Urdu the official language of Pakistan and did not give a damn about Bengali, although Bengali was used by the majority of the people of entire Pakistan. But all their efforts came badly unstuck. Bengali language is the lifeblood of the Bengali people. They prefer death to dishonour of their mother-tongue. They are happy for evermore with their own sweet language. They have won the Nobel Prize for their literature in that language. This is their proud possession. They do not bother about whether or not their language is sacred. When Jinnah made the declaration at Dhaka University Curzon Hall that Urdu and only Urdu would be the official language of Pakistan, the agitated audience threw a straight no at him.

The people of East Bengal came to realize that their language and literature, society and culture, politics and economy all of their life and legacy are not in safe hands. They discovered that the Pakistani rulers under the guise of religious fraternity are in truth snakes in the grass. It was no go asking them for rights to language. So they put up the line of active resistance .The Government tried to subdue it with iron hands. This fanned the flame of fight. There came 21st February (1952). Innocent blood was spilt in the resistance. But there is no holding the Bengali. They had learnt to die for their mother-tongue. The public defiance gained momentum. Martial law was let loose to put a curb on the popular movement. But all repressive Government measures produced diminishing returns. People came up with historic Six-points (1966) which amounted to full autonomy for East Bengal. The autonomy movement became so intense that the ruling Government was compelled to hold a general election (1970).The Bengali won a landslide victory. But the rulers were not willing to give up so easily. They shot their last bolt. Operation Searchlight (March 25, 1971) was launched. The Bengali were at the point of no return. They already had their back to the wall. So they decided to fight it out. And they fought to a finish and seized their most prized possession, their Independence in exchange for a sea of blood.

If our national liberty (1971) compares with the fruit of a tree, the trunk of the tree is the 24-year struggle for autonomy and the root is the language movement (1952).The history of Bangladesh is the history of the whole tree, from the root to the fruit. If we want to enjoy the fruit of our liberty we have to take care of the whole tree and the ground it is planted in. As the Rig Veda puts it: "One should respect his motherland, his country, and his mother-tonguebecause these are givers of happiness". We can never be happy in the true sense of the term without loving this trinityBangladesh, Bengali culture and Bengali language.

Dr. Rashid Askari is a columnist and professor of English, Islamic University, Kushtia. E-mail:

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