The Language Movement


Category : Shelley

Struggle for emancipation through enlightenment
Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelley
” You cannot wipe out years of lightning with a single day of drums”, goes the old saying. The 21st February 1952, however, rolled years of lightning and a single day of drums in one everlasting mosaic. In essence, it is a mélange of varied colours of sadness, pride and enduring joy of success achieved through unparalleled sacrifice.

As the world knows the unique happening on that day was a turning point in the life of Bengalees of Bangladesh. The language martyrs, Salam, Barkat, Rafique, Shafique, Jabbar and others laid down their lives at the prime of youth to establish Bangla as state language of the then united Pakistan. Their supreme sacrifice did not go in vain. The unforgettable struggle that the students and youth of this territory waged was, spearheaded by the students of the Dhaka University and succeeded in achieving for Bangla the status of a state language of undivided Pakistan.

In course of the following two decades the language movement snowballed into an irresistible avalanche in the shape of a struggle for the self-assertion of the Bengali nation. The cherished dream of the people was realised through a historic war of liberation in 1971 when Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign and independent state. Thus, the seeds of political, cultural and economic emancipation planted by the language movement of the late 1940s and early fifties found the scope for full flowering in an independent homeland. A millennium long journey lay behind the transformation of an old nation into a new state.

Hindsight makes it clear that the language movement in the erstwhile eastern wing of pre-1971 Pakistan was a multi-dimensional happening. It reached the climax in the tragic but glorious events of the 21st February, 1952. The impacts of these events have been epoch making. The international community has appropriately acknowledged the significance of a nation’s sacrifice for establishing the right of its language. The world now observes the 21st February as the International Mother Language Day.

Within the nation Bangla enjoys its rightful place as the state language. Bangladesh as the homeland of the Bangla speaking majority is now the principal abode of this major language with centuries of rich heritage. Without doubt, these are remarkable achievements for a people still struggling against poverty, malnourishment, illiteracy and superstition.

Nevertheless, a close look reveals the sad faces of many missions unfulfilled. Literacy has spread fast in recent years. Admirable steps have been taken to close the gender gap in literacy and education. More girls are now enrolled at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The drop-out rate for both girls and boys however, remains higher than desirable. Moreover, while numbers of literates and educated increased, quality of education still remains unsatisfactory.

This poses a great obstacle to the realisation of the multi-dimensional objectives of the language movement. As a look back brings it home, the youth and people of the 1940s and 50s fought for much more than achieving the status of a State language for Bangla. This was a titanic struggle for the realisation of the best self of the entire people inhabiting the territories now comprising Bangladesh. It was also a struggle for politico-economic emancipation of a people unified through enlightenment. That noble goal is still far from achievement.

During three and a half decades since the sanguinary birth of Bangladesh, the nation has achieved some success, though still inadequate, in political, economic and social development. Nevertheless, a considerable segment of the people remains trapped in poverty, ignorance and illiteracy.

Again, among those who are fortunate enough to receive education, there are great gulfs fixed. Three main streams of education virtually trisect the nation. In consequence, these, singly and together, do not succeed in producing a citizen who is conscious of his national identity and equipped with the skill to engage the world at large.

Essentially a comprehensive movement for complete emancipation of the Bengalees of Bangladesh, the Language Movement was not geared to produce xenophobia. It was a movement that was cosmopolitan and secular in nature without severing religious, cultural and literary routes both national and international. The youth that spearheaded the language movement were well versed both in Bangla and English. Their pride in their mother tongue did not exclude their eagerness and ability to learn a second international language. In this they only upheld the glorious tradition of yesteryears. Most of the giants of Bangla language and literature such as Iswar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Bankim Chandra Chattarjee, Michael Madhushudon Dutta, and Rabindranath Thakur were as much at ease in English as in Bangla. The rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam had admirable knowledge of Persian and Arabic. He used words from those languages with elegant skill in his timeless Bangla poems and songs. In Bangladesh today, poets Shamsur Rahman, Syed Shamsul Haque and others have command over both Bangla and English. Revered Bengali poet Begum Sufia Kamal spoke and wrote elegant Urdu. Reputed teachers and writers such as Professors Kabir Chowdhury, Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, Serajul Islam Chowdhury, Mostafa Nurul Islam and other eminent persons are as good in Bangla as in English. Late Prof. Muner Chowdhury was another personality who had great command over Bangla and English.
Unfortunately, the trisected system of education in Bangladesh today does not hold out the promise of producing such teachers, writers and thinkers who can roll the national and international languages into one glorious possession.

Despite attempts in recent years to rebuild our proficiency in English, the mainstream Bangla language dependent system of education suffers greatly from weakness in English.

This is the reason why many meritorious products of this stream remain unable to compete successfully in the international arenas of higher education, and the job markets including those in Information Communication Technology (ICT).

The English dominated stream, manifest in Kindergartens and English medium schools and private universities largely contribute to the making of a class with weak and inadequate knowledge of their own mother language Bangla and its rich literature.

Further, the third stream composed of madrasas (Muslim religious schools) principally imparts religious education without building soundly the bases of knowledge and skill in either Bangla or English.

All this results in the veritable trisection of the youth and therefore the future of Bangladesh. One does not need to do away with the three streams and unify them. That will not only be impractical and difficult but may also lead to a ‘dead uniformity’ nobody wants. What can be and should be done immediately is to supply vigorously the component that each one of these diverse streams lack or has in inadequate measure. Thus, the madrasa students must be helped to learn Bangla and English as thoroughly as possible. The English medium educational institutions must impart compulsory education in Bangla language and literature. The Bengali medium institutions of learning need to strengthen compulsory teaching of English to their students.

This is the least we can do right now, to help realize the basic aim of the language movement: to emancipate the nation from darkness and to enable the people to become one and united in enlightenment which equally values national identity and cosmopolitanism.

The author, a noted social scientist and litterateur, is Executive Chairman of the independent organization Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB), Overseas Director, American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS) and Editor, socio economic quarterly “ASIAN AFFAIRS”.

The author is a former civil servent and the founder Chairman, Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB).

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