A language of our own

Last Updated: Tue, Feb 12, 2013 16:11 hrs

Bhasha Divas, a symbol of self-assertion in Bangladesh, has been in news lately as Bengal's ex-CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has persuaded the Left trade union to confine the proposed two-day nationwide general strike to one in Bengal and instead dedicate 21 February to the Language day. Ranjita Biswas recalls a visit to Bangladesh on the commemorative day and examines its relevance today

One's mother tongue can be a clarion call for self-rule as the Bhasha Divas celebration on 21 February in Bangladesh shows.

It is a day both of mourning and celebration in the country. Mourning because scores of people, mostly students and teachers of the Dhaka University, were mercilessly shot down by the Pakistani army in 1952 in erstwhile East Pakistan. The activists had protested against imposition of Urdu as the national language side-stepping Bengali-their mother tongue. But the incident calls for celebration too. Because, the protest sowed the seeds of home-grown nationalism that ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh from the ashes of war in 1971.

UNESCO has now declared 21 February as the International Mother Language Day, being observed since 2000 'to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism'.

Visiting Dhaka on this particular day, the experience personally was overwhelming. From midnight onwards thousands of people from all corners of Bangladesh poured in to pay homage to their language martyrs at the commemorative Shaheed Minar. The huge crowd, women adorning themselves symbolically in black and white sarees and men kurta-pajamas, milled around the venue. Young arts school students had drawn huge alpana on surface of the road leading to the monument; many body-art artists were ready to paint patriotic symbols on your cheeks or hands.

Journalist-writer Sagar Chaudhury of Kolkata has visited Dhaka several times on this occasion. He finds the gathering 'highly impressive' with people from all walks of life, young and old, spontaneously joining in. "It's likely that not all of them, especially the young, realise the true significance of the day and are not consciously aware of the historical events leading up to it. But their enthusiasm is certainly infectious and their sincerity is genuine," he observes.

For anyone vexed by the slow disappearance of mother-tongue reading and its cultivation, 21 February in Dhaka can be reassuring indeed. You witness first-hand how love of one's language can become a symbol of self-determination of a people chafing under an alien imposition on their culture. In front of an evocative sculpture in the University campus, a woman standing next was explaining to her son how she as a student had joined the protest marches fighting for Independence.

It was indeed a journey to find an identity by this land created by a quirk of fate during Partition of the sub-continent. As Urmi Rahman, journalist-writer from Bangladesh recalls, 21 February is "Extremely important for our generation and , for the next generations too. That was the beginning of our freedom movement. Since 1952 we went through many movements and uprisings and finally reached our destination in 1971. Bhasha shaheeds Rafiq, Jabbar, Salam and others showed us the way."

Living in Chittagong in 1952, Rahman was too young to "understand what was happening but we used to shout with the elders 'Rashtro Bhasha Bangla Chai' (We want Bangla as our national language).

However, after living abroad for years, how does Rahman feel about the ambience of the Bhasha Divas in her country today? "It's very much alive. At the same time, it's also been hijacked by political parties to some extent . During our youth, we used to walk around the whole night till early morning of 21 February - from Press Club to Shaheed Minar to Bangla Academy. Now it's not so easy or safe,"
she says, adding "But then, there's also a spontaneous flow of ordinary people who go to the Shaheed Minar, not for publicity but just to pay homage. That gives us hope for the future, for a secular country we all dreamt of."

Doubts may still arise. Is the celebration is more a tokenism today since children prefer to read in English on both epar Bangla, oper Bangla (West Bengal and Bangladesh) which share the same language? Chaudhury hits the nail as he says," I regret to say that in West Bengal hardly anyone bothers about the Language Day, at least personally I don't know of anyone who does."

Saying that he also observes, "I don't think preference for the English language is really a factor in the creation of this apathy because, after all, people in West Bengal have much more exposure to English, Hindi and other regional languages than the people in Bangladesh. It's quite natural that they would let themselves be influenced by the broader Indian culture rather than the narrower Bengali culture. Economic factors also play an important role in this respect. "

Even in Bangladesh , according to him, the younger generation is prone to cultivate English more than Bengali, due, no doubt, to the proliferation of the so called English-medium schools. " Of late, there has been increasing concern among teachers of Bengali language in schools that the vocabulary of young children is being dominated by English and Hindi as spoken on (Indian) TV programmes. Sadly, this practice is encouraged by their parents at home who suffer from the misguided belief that this would make their children more," he says.

Now that relevance of the Language Day is being discussed and debated in the social and academic arena, one wonders if bhasha or mother tongue, regional language as referred to, has any place in the globalised world where survival in the job market is vital. Chaudhury feels it is certainly important to celebrate any event that would generate affection and love for a nation's cultural heritage and history. However, behind such celebrations there must be a true understanding of the significance of that event.

"Celebrating something like Bhasha Divas, for example, is paying respect to an idea, to a symbol of greatness inherent in one's national heritage and tradition. Without an awareness of this, it's meaningless to celebrate Bhasha Divas, or anything else, for that matter," he says.

Image caption for Wall of Peace: The Wall of Peace is a glass and metal monument erected in Paris on the Champs de Mars at the foot of Eiffel Tower. Inaugurated in March 2000, it features the word peace written in 49 world languages.

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