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Language heroes and our nationhood

Shihab Sarkar | February 21, 2021 12:00:00

There are literally no nations in the world, the movement of whose people's struggle to save their mother tongue eventually turned into a national struggle for freedom. Bangladesh has emerged as the only nation on the world map which can lay claim to this credit. The breadth and significance of this extraordinary achievement has yet to go through a full appraisal. The Bangla Language Movement was not an event of ordinary popular upsurge held across the then province of East Bengal in Pakistan just seven decades ago. The length of the movement was also not brief. The problem lies with the fact that many notable facets of the movement have been buried in its turbulent character. As decades wore on, these features of the 1952 Language Movement continued to gather dust. Many had finally found themselves consigned to history's footnotes.

In the early two decades of the 21st century, many heroes of the Bangla Language Movement have left this world --- lots of them erased from public memories. Many other firebrand language activists of the late 1940s, precisely 1948, and the early 50s reached their old age in the nooks and crannies of the land. Few bothered to enquire about their physical and socio-economic status. The heroic nation in its different phases has recalled the contributions of its 1971 Liberation War Freedom Fighters. They were honoured with long-deserving awards as well as monthly allowances and income-generation openings. In spite of many lapses detected in the list of Freedom Fighters, the present government has taken massive attempts to bring the forgotten war heroes back to the mainstream national life.

At this point, lots of today's elderly people who were direct witness to the Language Movement as teenagers raise a vital issue. Watching many heroes of the street movement, which erupted especially in 1952, languish in the twilight of history, or die in obscurity, these people come up with a rational demand. As the Language Movement heroes are no less important in their contribution to the creation of the free Bangladesh, they warrant a special place in the pantheon of the national heroes. Like the Freedom Fighters, these heroes who could escape the swoop of untimely deaths, should be requested to attend a special assemblage of the Language Movement heroes. It could be organised in the capital. Given the long gap of time, starting from the 1950s, these language heroes who would be able to finally make it to Dhaka cannot be expected to raise their demand for state recognition. After a screening and cross-screening process, the proven movement participants ought to be awarded with state honour --- as well as financial incentives for those who needed them.

Apart from the immortal language martyrs like Salam, Barkat, Rafiq et al, the 21st, 22nd and 23rd February in 1952 had witnessed dozens of unknown youths and adolescents who were gunned down in different parts of the country. In Dhaka, they became victims of bullets of the then police and other forces, and knife attacks of the elements opposed to the demand of declaring Bangla as the state language of Pakistan. Many of them embraced martyrdom, many became crippled for life. In the three days, the Language Movement spread to all parts of country. At one moment, it was the village and small-town school students who were seen spearheading the great movement for retaining the honour of Bangla. A few books and researches on the 1952 Language Movement dwelt at length on the role of the outlying schools and their students in spreading the message of the movement to the rural people. The role of these teenagers, now mostly octogenarians, has yet to be recognised formally. Time is running fast. Upon locating them and bringing them from all over Bangladesh, the then teenage participants of the movement could be feted in their old age with state honour.

Over the decades, the Language Movement came to be known as a historic upsurge led by Dhaka-centred university and college students. Few analysts have touched upon the all-out participation of the common people of all professions in the movement. Though mostly based in Dhaka, impromptu surveys later found them bringing out processions in every part of the country. It has happened in the towns close to Dhaka, like Narayanganj and Munshiganj, after a campaign of arrests, midnight raids and other repressive measures terrified Dhaka for some time. In the period covering seventy years, a vital segment of the original spirit of the 21st February, in short Ekushey or Amor Ekushey (immortal Ekushey) is gone. Today's youths, though their observance of Ekushey doesn't lack in showing proper respect, can hardly feel the solemn mood of the Day. It would begin with the barefoot procession of people of all ages proceeding towards the grand memorial of Shaheed Minar on the Dhaka University campus. Placing flowers and floral bouquets at the foot of the memorial was the chief segment of the Ekushey observance. Few people nowadays feel the urge to sing the anthem of the Day --- Aamar bhaiyer rokte rangano ….that used to be rendered in chorus. The day-long observance of the 1952 Language Martyrs' Day comprised in essence a mournful mood.

In its place, dozens of socio-cultural events' observance marks the Day nowadays --- a few bordering on a celebratory mood. Many defend the new character of Ekushey. According to them the jubilation, though observed in solemnity, cannot be resisted as the Day also marked the victory of Bangla language, as well as the eventual triumph of the freedom-loving people over the neo-colonial oppressions perpetrated by the Pakistani oligarchic rulers.

In the early days of the 1950s and the 60s, special commemorative souvenirs emerged as tributes to the Language Martyrs. Those souvenirs, containing the outpouring of love and respect for the language heroes, have eventually faded out. The saddest aspect of the Day is the newer generations have inherited a distorted message of Ekushey. It is far from the quintessential spirit of the Language Movement, a unique event in the world's socio-cultural map. However, the fact that the publication of literary souvenirs on the day of Ekushey (Ekushey Sangkalan) has latter coalesced into a month-long book fair symbolises the permanence of the Bangla language and culture.

In the context of Bangladesh, the Language Movement was a phenomenal event. It later emerged as a unique saga in the nation's history. Due to their being inextricably linked to the Bangla language, the blood-drenched protests and martyrdoms were filled with the future germination of our nationhood, as well as our culture on a broader scale. Today's month-long book fair is a perfect corollary to the Language Movement. Viewing in a wider perspective, the protests, and later the movement, embraced all the allied fields of Bengali culture, the language being the leitmotif. The then East Bengal-wide movement began as isolated protests in Dhaka against an arrogant declaration by Pakistan's Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah in Dhaka in March, 1948. Jinnah asserted, "Urdu and Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan, and no other languages." Although Bangla was later recognised as one of the state languages besides Urdu, the seeds of division had already been sown by the rulers. In the following decade, few could realise that the ramifications of the 1952 Language Movement were headed for the emergence of East Pakistan as the independent Bangladesh only 19 years later.

It's now a part of history that the students and people's movement in 1952 emerged from the sparks of protest throughout the country. Apart from other Bangla-centred activities, the movement presented the nation with a rich corpus of literature of protest. It was destined to continue for some time. So it did. The Language Movement was eventually etched out as an unparalleled event in history. The Ekushey and its spirit went on metamorphosing, and eventually turned into the nation's War of Independence. But there was another perspective --- the role of the Bengalees' cultural background. As expected, this phenomenon of Ekushey had heralded a body of new arts, with literature enjoying a dominant place. It also helped the dream of freedom get a strong shape. The Ekushey spirit had been viewed by many as inspiration for the pure literature of protest and dissent. But thanks to the creative gifts of our literary-cultural activists, both young and old, the spirit was elegantly able to break free of the narrow confines of protest only. Thus, the historic anthology of writings, the 'Ekushey February', edited by Hasan Hafizur Rahman, could transform itself into 'Samakal'. It came out as the first journal of pure literature in the late fifties edited by Sikandar Abu Zafar. Accordingly, other forms of our literary-cultural activities that began after the Language Movement started occupying major places in their respective genres. To speak concisely, the Ekushey spirit, in the earlier days, had opened a new horizon of the Bengalees' new-age literature in Bangladesh. All this occurred as part of the dynamics of cultural development through different phases of time.

On the other hand, the developments also spoke of a shortcoming of ours. Long after the direct impact of the Ekushey had faded out, many of our creative people remained spellbound by the movement's immediate impact felt in 1952. The smarter artists were able to decipher the clues to their destined paths in the later socio-political developments. They kept coming up with their new and rich collections of creative works.

The spirit of the Language Movement has largely been identified by our people in the literary and broader cultural worlds. They have unmistakably discovered in it the unalloyed national identity, the earliest outlines of the emerging Bengalee nationhood.

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