In A Language Reborn

I was born on February 21, 1952 — the day the language movement began in Dhaka

Written by Daud Haider | Updated: March 5, 2016 3:35 am
Photo for representational purpose. (Wikimedia commons) Photo for representational purpose. (Wikimedia commons)

It’s difficult to come across an angry and fractious character like my father (Baba). He was a zamindar. Had India’s Partition been delayed by a few years, he would have received the Raj’s title of Khanbahadur, the way Hindus earned the Raibahadur title. The zamindari was ruined. India too was divided. But there was no let-up in his mood. You must have a lot of spunk to doubt his son’s date of birth!

After passing Class 5 from the primary school in Pabna town, I went to take admission at Gopal Chandra Institute, with Baba at my side. He filled in the English form, I signed below. The headmaster ran his eyes over and asked: “Is your son’s date of birth correct?” Baba slapped the headmaster’s desk and bellowed: “If I don’t know my son’s date, month and year of birth, do you? Yes! His date of birth is the bloody February 21 of 1952. My son’s the same age as the Bangla language.” The headmaster agreed with this symbolism and said, “You’re right. We all were reborn out of the Bhasha Andolan of February 21, 1952. We too are the same age as the Bangla language.”

The birth of a language never takes into account calendar dates. It wasn’t so with Bangla either. A language’s cultural heritage and struggle are longstanding. Language and culture are one. A division therein is impossible. Religion and religious culture are different. Pakistan’s birth was in the name of Islam, but this same Islam was the reason for Pakistan’s death, within a year of its birth.

The Muslim League (ML) was born in Dhaka. Its founders couldn’t exercise control, so it passed into the hands of non-Bengali Muslims. I had heard from Baba that, before Partition, hardline ML leaders in East Bengal propagated Urdu as an Islamic language. Illiterate East Bengalis believed them. Jinnah was desperate to make Urdu the national language of Pakistan. In his obstinacy, he may have stoked Muslim sentiments to create Pakistan. But he was an extremely immature politician. At Dhaka’s Race Course Maidan (March 21, 1948), Jinnah told a crowd, “Urdu will be Pakistan’s only national language.” Present was renowned scholar and linguist Muhammad Shahidullah, a philologist at Calcutta University before Partition. He protested that East Pakistan’s national language would be Bangla. It was his protest that began the language movement. Jinnah couldn’t care less. Three days later, at Dhaka University, he made the same speech, and the same demand. This angered the students. The disillusionment with Pakistan had happened. On February 21, 1952, the language movement began in Dhaka. This was also, in effect, the beginning of the struggle for Bangladesh.

I was born on February 21, 1952, in the morning. A few hours later, Dhaka’s streets were bloodied. The sun of independence rose from the Bhasha Andolan. The reason for choosing February 21 in 1952 was Jinnah’s inconsiderate, consequence-ignorant, forceful threat on March 21, 1948. Funny, Jinnah’s speech was not in Urdu, but English. He did not even know Urdu well. The day after Dhaka was bloodied, the struggle spread across East Pakistan.

February 21 isn’t just a date. Unesco announced on November 17, 1999, that every year February 21 will be International Mother Language Day. Behind this, too, were Bengalis. A group of Bangladeshi students in Canada had been demanding it. There was enough reason to choose that date. Unesco agreed. Monuments to martyrs have been built in many countries to commemorate February 21. In New York, the shahid minar is close to the UN, modelled after Dhaka’s.

In Bangladesh, literature has undergone radical changes since February 21, 1952. As has culture. We celebrate Poila Baishakh (New Year), Basanta Utsav, Nabanna (new crop) utsav. It was a cultural renaissance that influenced the naming of children too. Nicknames and proper names are all Bangla, unheard of before 1952. February 21 has now mingled with Bengalis’ blood. Even in West Bengal, it’s being observed in style, which wasn’t the case even five years ago. Kolkata today has not one, but two shahid minars in memory of February 21.

February 21 was a day of grief, but after Bangladesh’s independence, it became a day of festivities. Yet, the language for which we struggled is more and more neglected. In the name of globalisation, everybody is a lover of English. Despite that all-round joy, my fate is scorched. I can’t celebrate my birthday. Friends say, when the entire nation is observing the occasion, why would you observe it separately? Nobody says whether the day is one of sorrow or joy. On my birthday, I listen to Rabindra sangeet: “Amar mukti aloey aloey ei akaashe/ Amar mukti dhulaey dhulaey ghaashe ghaashe (My liberation is in the light of these skies/ My liberation floats on specks of dust, it lies in the grass)”.

Haider, a Bangladeshi poet, lived in political exile in Kolkata before moving to Berlin. Translated from Bangla by Sudeep Paul.