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Language as a basis for nation-building

Helal Uddin Ahmed | February 21, 2022 00:00:00

Mother languages may be compared to a mother's milk because of the joy and freedom associated with expressing in mother-tongue. Bangladesh is a land where the name of the country as well as language has remained inseparable. Although the people of Bangladesh were not free from colonial subjugation over long stretches of time, they continued to call their land as a country (Desh) instead of a 'Subah' or province over many centuries. Therefore, linguists of foreign origin have had the notion that the ethos of an independent state has stayed at the core of this habitat, where people spoke the Bangla or Bengali language. In fact, 'Bengal' was a term coined by the British colonial rulers, and the word itself had emerged from the Portuguese 'Bengala' and the 'Bangalah' of the Sultani era. Much earlier, there was a verse by Bhusukhu in the ancient 'Charyapada' script that claimed, "You have become a Bangali today".

Language is in fact the foremost force for building the structure of human societies. It would not be an exaggeration if one calls it a catalytic force. Man's language lays the main foundation of human societies that can also be termed as a super-structure. Humans enhance the strength of their societies by using own languages. It widens and nourishes the scope for exchanging ideas, and psychologists have often described the discovery of alphabets and written languages as the starting point of civilisations. Following the partition of British India in 1947, the mother language Bangla of the Bangali residents of East Bengal attracted the wrath of the ruling coterie in newly independent Pakistan. The Bangalis had to witness the unjust behaviour of this vicious coterie. But to uphold the honour and prestige of mother-language Bangla, they launched a vigorous struggle in 1948 for making it the state language, which continued up to the Language Martyrs' day on February 21, 1952. And as a continuation of that event, the Bangali nation ultimately joined the armed liberation war of 1971, resulting in the ushering of a crimson dawn of freedom on this land in 1971. As a fitting tribute to the language martyrs of Bangladesh, the day is now recognised globally as the International Mother Language Day.

Sociologists claim that it is essential to know the anthropological origin of any population, as it is a major element in building any society, nation, or state. The Bangalis also have distinct cultural and anthropological traits including the mother tongue Bangla. In fact, the ancient inhabitants of Bangladesh territory like the Austric race had originally laid the foundation of Bangla language. They preceded the ancient Dravidians, and these two linguistic races subsequently intermingled with each other. Following the Dravidians, the people of Aryan linguistic race arrived here after emerging from Europe.

Various critical ingredients were absorbed or assimilated in the erection of society and culture in ancient cum medieval Bengal. It appears that the influence of outlook cum lifestyle, faith and customs of the Austric people was intensely felt in the agro-based rural society of ancient Bengal. These cultural ingredients were embraced by the nascent Bangali society in such a way that it erased the distinction between classes and colours. The Bangali life and Bangla language were also enriched socially through this process. Not only Austric ingredients, inputs from innumerable races and tribes later including the Aryans and Non-Aryans, Dravidians and Mongoloids, Arab-Farsi-Turkish-Afghan-Portuguese-French-English features have mingled with these Creole attributes of Bangali culture, which cannot be viewed separately. The strength and adaptability of Bangla language has been so extraordinary that instead of becoming weaker due to the influence of other powerful languages and cultural traits, it has become stronger.

The Turko-Afghan military commander Ikhtiyar al-Din Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khalji conquered the territory of Bangla in the year 1203. The Muslim society of Bangla emerged after that. The Arab traders set up colonies here after arriving for commercial purposes and their numbers gradually increased. According to historians and sociologists, most of the Bangali Muslims had originated from three sources, viz. Hindu converts from the higher classes, lower-class converts, and a few who arrived from other places. The linguist and renowned scholar Dr Muhammad Shahidullah had emphasized, "Just as it is true that we are Hindus or Muslims, it is truer that we are Bangali. It is a reality. Mother nature has put such a stamp of Bangaliness on our looks and language that it cannot be hidden by mala-tilak-tiki (garland-sandal paste mark-tuft of hair of Hindus) or tupi-lungi-dari (cap-loin cloth-beard of Muslims)".

The pioneers of 'Bengal Renaissance' during the 19th century occupy a luminous spot in our history, as it lifted the Bangla language from a provincial status to that of global recognition. Raja Rammohun Ray, Michael Madhusudan Datta, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Akhsay Kumar Datta exposed Bangla language to the realm of global knowledge and philosophy. Although the people of medieval Bengal did not get the opportunity to embrace geographic discoveries, industrial revolution, progress of science and technology, rationalism and abolition of the supremacy of church or religion, the 'Bengal Renaissance' demonstrated sagacity and foresight in putting 'man' above all else. The famous poem of the medieval Bangali poet Chandidas claiming the supremacy of humans may also be recalled here. Similarly, the 'human avatar' extracted from the hearts of pre-modern Bangla by Lalon Shah Fakir, and the worship of humanism filtering from the West were articulated simultaneously in Bangla language. It is therefore evident that the roots of Bangali culture and Bangla language went deep inside the native soil and acquired the needed strength for blossoming in the global arena.

The Hindu-Muslim communalism and two-nation theory emerged towards the fag-end of the independence movement waged in British India because of the absence of an appropriate nationalistic ideal and the backwardness of contemporary outlook. Ultimately, communalism replaced nationalism, and the two separate states Pakistan and India came into being on the premise of communalism. But the Muslim state of Pakistan immediately faced problems centring on state-language, national culture, autonomy, and Constitution. Therefore, Bangali nationalism soon replaced Pakistani nationalism in East Bengal or eastern wing of Pakistan, and Bangladesh was ultimately established through a blood-drenched war in 1971. None of the attempts aimed at creating a lingua-franca, a Pakistani brand of nationalism, and the framing or launching of a Pakistani Constitution were successful. The people in this part of the state reacted sharply to any arrangement or effort that went against the newly-awakened Bangali nationalism. The aspiration for autonomy based on this nationalism soon took the shape of a people's movement, which originally germinated from the movement for state-language Bangla.

The language movement simultaneously carried the desire for a distinct identity, democracy, share in governance, and socio-economic justice for the people of East Bengal. Bangalis from all strata of society identified themselves with this spirit. The people who opposed it were very few in number. The subjects of nation and state-building were also juxtaposed with the issue of state-language. Not everything was crystal-clear at one go, and everything evolved stage by stage. The consciousness that took shape following the events of February 1952 deepened and flourished through the observance of Martyrs' Day during subsequent years. The progressive ideals proliferated among the populace, and the intellectuals and artists played an exceptional role in this journey. Extraordinary strides were made in the cultivation of knowledge, literature and fine arts through application of Bangla. The 21-points of the Jukto Front political alliance in 1954, the 6-points of the Awami League in 1966, 14-points of National Awami Party, 11-point education-movement of the Students' Action Council, the mass upsurge of 1969, national awakening and independence war of 1971, everything happened like a continuum through the unfolding of the Spirit of Ekushey February.

To sum up, the Bangalis of Bangladesh dreamt of a state of their own by synthesising historical trends and waged movements by sacrificing lives during 1952, 1954, 1962, 1966, and 1969 for upholding the honour of their language, demand for autonomy, and self-determination. All these historical forces made the emergence of Bangladesh quite inevitable as an independent, sovereign, secular and democratic nation-state in 1971. Bangladesh was ultimately transformed into a nation-state from the status of an ethnic community through this process.

There are many other large linguistic ethnic communities in the Indian sub-continent, such as the Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtun, Gujarati, Tamil, Telegu, Marathi etc. But none of these could become the possessor of an independent nation-state. Only the Bangalis are now the proud possessors of a state and nation of their own. This could happen because of the ceaseless struggles of the Bangali people over decades for the rightful place of Bangla, Bangali, and Bangladesh in the comity of nations.

Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. [email protected]

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