“Amaar bhayer rokte rangano Ekushe February/Aami ki bhulte pari… (My brothers gave their blood for 21 February/Can I forget…).”
February 21 is celebrated as the International Mother Language Day, as declared by the United Nations in 2000. Bengalis the world over, however, have been commemorating the day as Bhasha Dibas or Shahid Dibas for more than six decades now. It’s 21 February again tomorrow, when the song mentioned above will reverberate both in Bangladesh and West Bengal — the two nations divided by boundaries and religion but bound by language — remembering the sacrifice some of their own made for Bangla, their mother tongue.
It was a unique battle. In world history, there aren’t many examples of people giving up their lives to save their language. But this happened for Bangla. The bloodshed over mother tongue immortalised Salaam, Barkat, Rafique and Jabbar, in whose memory Bangladesh observes Bhasha Shaheed Dibash every year on ‘Ekushe February’.
After a hard-earned Independence from the British in 1947, the region was still nursing the wounds of Partition from India when a devastating diktat came in 1948. The Governor-General of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, declared that “Urdu, and only Urdu” could be the common state language for both parts of Pakistan.
In no mood to oblige, the citizens of East Pakistan were up in arms. They would not settle for Urdu as their official language instead of Bangla, their mother tongue.
The order sparked extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority in East Bengal, and the discontent was gradually leading to unrest. Facing rising sectarian tensions, the Nurul Amin government outlawed public meetings and rallies, imposing prohibiting orders under Section 144.
On 21 February 1952, an action committee formed to fight the order tooth and nail decided to defy the law and organise a protest on the Dhaka University campus. As the protesting students started assembling for the meeting, the government unleashed the police on them. The men in uniform fired teargas shells and also arrested many students, which only intensified the protests. The police then opened fire, and history was made.
Salaam, Barkat, Rafique and Jabbar died in the firing, and the protests against ‘Urdu-only’ policy took the shape of a movement.
The killings took the protests to all corners of the country and all sections of society, leading to widespread civil unrest. People hit the roads, marching down the streets barefoot. In Dhaka, it’s still a custom for people to walk to the Shaheed Minar, a national monument erected as a tribute to the language martyrs, every February 21.
While students were at the forefront of this post-Independence bloody battle, poets and writers too got vocal to assert their Bengali identity. There were more protests and more deaths, though the exact casualty figures were never known due to censorship on news.
Pakistan had lost the plot in this part of its territory. The military rule imposed on East Pakistan only made the matters worse.
After four more years of conflict, the Pakistan government relented and granted second official language status to Bangla in 1956. The Language Movement or Bhasha Andolan was able to retain the script and establish Bangla as the state language for use in government affairs, in media, currency, stamps, and also as a medium of education.
From the student unrest had emerged a new leader, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, who went on to become the founder of Bangladesh when it attained freedom in 1971 with help from India.
February 21 is a national holiday in Bangladesh, and commemoration of the day as the Shahid Dibash (Martyrs’ Day) is its greatest festival.
And the festivity is not limited to Bangladesh. West Bengal celebrates the day as Bhasha Divas with equal reverence and enthusiasm. At Shantiniketan, the day is celebrated in a big way every year, when students from Bangladesh are joined by others in singing the ‘Ekushe February’ anthem, ‘Amaar bhayer rokte… An event takes place at the Lipika Auditorium on the morning of 21 February when the students offer flowers in memory of the language martyrs. This year, the function will take place at the newly built Bangladesh Bhavan, while a separate event will take place in the evening at Lipika Auditorium too where Visva Bharati students from China, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Russia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Iran will also sing in their mother tongue.
Studies suggest one language disappears from the world every week, and according to reports at least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. A language never dies alone. Along with it die a culture and its intellectual heritage. And this is what they wanted to avert when the Bengalis of East Pakistan fought that the one-of-its-kind war.
History does not have another evidence of such a fight. An incident that comes closest to this was witnessed in India, and again had a Bangla connection. In May 1961, police had opened fire on students who were opposing imposition of Assamese language in place of Bengali in Barak valley.