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'The spirit of the movement is nowhere to be seen today'

  • Published at 01:20 pm February 21st, 2021
web-Amar Ekushey sculpture on the Jahangirnagar University campus in Savar SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

In conversation with Ahmed Rafique

Ahmed Rafique is a language movement veteran. He is also an essayist, literary critic and historian. His books include Shilpa Sangskriti Jiban, Deshbibhag: Fire Dekha, Bhasha Andoloner Dinlipi, Rabindrabhubone Patishar, Rabindrasahityer Nayikara: Drohe O Somorpone.

What were the most striking aspects of the Language Movement?

The main demand of the language movement was Bangla be one of the state languages. But whether we were conscious of it or not, it had much deeper significance. There were two main corollaries to this. One was an increasing sense of nationality in terms of language and the other was the demand that Bangla be used in all spheres of life. All of it was reflected in the slogans students chanted, which were rather spontaneous than formulated by any leader or party.

The most striking aspect of the movement was its spontaneity among all sections of people. The general students’ uncompromising stance on realising these demands was also remarkable. The demands were not fulfilled till 1956. Even so, it was a successful movement. The movement was largely based at educational institutions with students being the main drivers, but since February 22, as the news of police crackdown on students broke out, it spread among the mass people not only in the capital city but also in the whole country. 

While writing the history of the Language Movement outside Dhaka last year, I was surprised to see that even in Chapainawabganj where there was no college in those days, or in the far southern district of Cox’s Bazar, students of class 9 and 10 took part in the movement with general people. As in Dhaka, mass people joined the protesting students all over the country.

What do you think was the impact of the Language Movement on our culture and politics? 

The impact of the Language Movement on our literature, culture and politics was immense.

After the partition in 1947, poetry was mainly about eulogizing Pakistan and Mohammad Ali Zinnah. After February 21, 1952, modernism and progressive ideology swept over the literary and cultural scene. Let me give you an example. In August 1952, there was a cultural conference in Comilla. From Dhaka Gaziul Haq, Anwarul Haq Khan and I, along with many others, attended the conference. Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharod was chief guest. Not only were songs by Tagore and Nazrul were sung, Sheikh Lutful Alam sang a famous song demanding equal rights for the proletariats. Then there was this kobi gaan by Ramesh Sheel and Phoni Barua, which went on for the whole night and which was basically inspired by modern Marxist thoughts. In politics this impact was even more evident.

Language Movement veteran Ahmed Rafique | Courtesy: Faizul Latif Chowdhury

The Muslim League which was unrivalled then as a political party and which was basically controlling the state’s repressive policies, saw a crushing defeat in the 1954 East Pakistan legislative elections with the United Front (consisting of the Awami Muslim League, the Krishak Praja Party, the Ganatantri Dal and Nizam-e-Islam) winning 223 seats and the Muslim League winning only 9 seats. Which was why the government forcefully annulled the election results in one and a half months. Then there was a literature conference in 1954 at Karzon Hall in which at least 25 renowned writers from home and abroad took part. The writers included Manoj Basu, Kazi Abdul Wadud, Radharani Devi, Subhas Mukhopadhyay, Dipen Bandyopadhyay. The conference took strong stance on progressivism, women’s equal rights and linguistic nationalism, among other issues. To this day I clearly remember Laila Samad saying in her speech, “Step out of your veil, women.”

Three years later, at the Kagmari conference called by Maulana Bhasani, modern and progressive political thoughts were voiced. This progressive face of our politics and culture was a legacy of the Language Movement which later led to the independence struggle in 1971.

Do you think the objectives of the movement have been fulfilled?

If we put the current situation of our language and politics in perspective, I think the only demand that has been fulfilled is that of Bangla being a state language. But the other demand that Bangla be used in all spheres of life is far from reality,

and it is very unfortunate that it is so. After independence, it was clearly mentioned in our constitution in 1972 that the state language of the republic is Bangla. Which means the state language should be the national language, as it has been the case in almost all the modern countries in Europe and Asia. But none of our successive governments has implemented it, which is why English is still the medium of communication in higher studies and higher courts.

Why do you think we failed to fulfil the objectives?

I’ll say the first and foremost reason is colonial legacy and the impact of the coloniser’s language on our culture. Following Macaulay’s model, the class that was formed to help the colonisers rule was educated in English. Though the British left, the influence of that class exists till today. It was that very educated class of the erstwhile East Pakistan who realised after the partition that they didn’t get what they had wanted. 56% of Pakistan’s total population were from East Pakistan, so the class that had supported the Muslim League during the partition had also wanted for themselves greater economic freedom, more representation in the CSP and administration etc. As that didn’t happen, they spearheaded the independence movement to replace the ruling clique of West Pakistan. Once independence was achieved, they became the ruling clique and bolstered their own class interests, conveniently forgetting the interests of general people. So instead of introducing one medium of education for all, they retained the English medium and rather strengthened it. They didn’t think it necessary to replace English for higher studies and higher courts.

Just imagine the misery of a villager who has come all the way to the High Court for a case.

His lawyer is defending him in English and the judge is delivering the verdict in English and he doesn’t understand any of it. So, the lawyer can exploit him easily. But he has a right to understand everything about his case, so this is basically a violation of his rights.

And what’s happening to students of Bangla medium schools? When they try to embark on a career after finishing their education, they find themselves in an unequal competition with their counterparts from English medium. In today’s globalised world, there are many employers who prefer students from English medium and thus the existing education system is discriminating against students from Bangla medium.

This is far from what we had fought for during the Language Movement. The spirit of the movement is nowhere to be seen today.

Do you think the current situation can be addressed by taking any initiatives?

What we need now to address this is another revolution. But looking at the way things are going, anyone can tell that there are no ideals under or for which people can gather and protest. So, it is unlikely that any revolution will happen. Even so, I always believe in the indomitable spirit of the youth because one excellent thing about the youth is that they can stake their life on some grand ideal or cause. Thousands and thousands of young people had sacrificed their lives during the independence struggle of Bangladesh. So, I’m pinning all my hopes on a new generation of the youth who will bring about this revolution and put things right.

This interview was first published in a supplement brought out by Dhaka Tribune in 2017

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