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How language shaped soul

Bangladesh takes its International Mother Language Day seriously. For a country that was formed on the basis of language, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Bengali isn’t just the language of people here, it’s an article of faith, writes Indrajit Hazra.

world Updated: Feb 22, 2013 01:57 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Bangladesh takes its International Mother Language Day seriously. For a country that was formed on the basis of language, this doesn’t come as a surprise. Bengali isn’t just the language of people here, it’s an article of faith, something that makes Bangladesh Bangladesh and, at one time, (not) the eastern wing of Pakistan.

Sitting in the cool interiors of the Dhaka Club, you wouldn’t know that February 21 is Martyrs’ Day or Language Movement Day. A walk away from the Shaheed Minar, constructed to commemorate those who were killed during the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations of 1952, the Dhaka Club is like any other British-era-established club, with its wood-panelled bar and framed watercolour prints of colonial India.

“The template for these clubs is the same,” writer and editor of the English literary journal Bengal Lights Khademul Islam tells me over a glass of Beefeater gin and tonic. “Even the club rules are common all over the subcontinent. When (former West Bengal chief minister) Jyoti Basu came here, he wasn’t allowed in as he was wearing his trademark dhoti. But he didn’t make a fuss, telling his slightly nonplussed hosts to bring so fas out to the tennis court area. He had a jolly good time.”

Club members break into pucca English, even as a few blocks away at the Shahbagh Square a massive crowd has congregated to mark with a special fervour ‘Ekushey’ — the 21st (February) — marking Language Day. On January 17, 1952, Pakistan’s governor-general Khawaja Nazimuddin had defended the ‘Urdu-only’ policy in a speech. This led to protests in Dhaka that culminated in students gathering at Dhaka University —also a walk away from the Dhaka Club — on February 21, 1952, to protest against the imposition of Urdu as the only official language of Pakistan, Bengali-speaking East Pakistan included.

The Pakistani government had outlawed a gathering of more than four persons and the police opened fire on the protesters killing many students. It was only in 1956 that the constitution of Pakistan was amended to make Bengali as well as Urdu the state language. But the seeds of secession had already been sown, the movement for the Bengali language ultimately resulting in the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, disproving that religion alone could be the basis for nation-formation.

But there has been a curious fall-out of this fervour for the mother tongue: an uncomfortable relationship with English. As Islam explains (in a seamless mix of English and Bengali), “The problem is that somewhere down the line, English came to be seen as a colonial language in the same way as Urdu, the specific language of ‘Pakistani colonialism’. The fact is that class politics is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.”


Khademul Islam was born and spent 17 years of his subsequent life in Karachi. He admits having been “more comfortable” with the ‘northern’ languages such as Urdu and Punjabi than Bengali for a long time. After 1971, his family had to leave Pakistan and when they made the journey in 1972 to Bangladesh — via Quetta, Kandahar, Kabul, Delhi and Calcutta — it was as an exile into their ‘own country’.

Islam tells me how his father, a middle-class government official, overnight became a lower-middle class man without a job and how in the winter of 1972, they had to keep warm by using coarse Red Cross blankets But it’s apt that on ‘Ekushey’ he tells me how in Karachi, his father insisted that Islam and his brother spoke in the ‘power language’ of Urdu and not in Bengali. That changed in 1972. “During our journey to Dhaka, he singled out an Afghan gentleman and asked him whether he had ‘sawal’. The Afghan had no clue what he was talking about. It was later that we realized that my father had asked him whether he had any ‘chaal’, preferring to ask him in what he thought was the Urdu word for rice.


On the 17th day of protests at the Shahbagh Square, a key organiser Imran Sarkar, announced the end of the non-stop protests on Martyrs’ Day. The movement would now focus on becoming more campus-based, pointing to the significant success that had led to the amendment of a law now allowing judicial sentences against war criminals to be challenged.

There is no small irony in the fact that one of the prime accused and former head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Ghulam Azam, is recuperating in the building overlooking Shahbagh. The double irony is that the under-trial Azam is in the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, named after Bangladesh’s first president and architect of the nation who fought and won against Pakistani ‘occupation’.

Between the hospital and the rapturous crowd in the packed square, a dustbin with a caricature of the Jamaat leader on it makes a historical connection: ‘Azam dustbin, made in Pakistan: Clearing up 42 years of rubbish.’