A little over three months ago, when we came across “mai 68” in our French textbook, my language teacher at Alliance Française de Dhaka said, “It was a time of civil unrest in France that took place in May 1968.” She also displayed a disarming honesty by admitting that she did not know more about it, and politely asked me if I knew about it since I take interest in history. Quite the contrary, I did not have any idea that “mai 68” could refer to “May 1968”.
Back home, I searched online for the expression “mai 68” and there was a veritable cornucopia of information on it. One site, in particular, had this to say, “There was not only one but a series of events taking place during ‘mai 68’, and this series of events is so very well known to the French that they dropped 19 from 1968 as unnecessary.” Then it dawned on me that the same principle applies to 9/11 in the United States of America and to Amor Ekushey in our country.
For the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking that though I have grouped three historical watersheds under a simple category, Amor Ekushey stands out from the other two. It is because “mai 68” was a landmark in the history of France only in the 1960s while 9/11 was a watershed only in and around 2001: They gave no more than a shaping spirit to the social, economic and political character of France and the US, but Amor Ekushey gave birth to a new nation! It is true that Amor Ekushey refers to February 21, 1952, yet it traces its origins in the partition of India and foreshadows the emergence of Bangladesh. Amor Ekushey, therefore, defies strict time referencing.
One of the results of such effervescence was that it led the Bangalis to a series of events and movements that would ultimately shape the character of the future nation.
For one thing, on September 15, 1947, exactly one month after the independence of Pakistan on August 14, 1947, a few teachers and students of the University of Dacca (now Dhaka) published a pamphlet. The pamphlet pointed out how hastily Pakistan was created on the basis of religious theories without spelling out the linguistic policies of the nascent state. It also demanded that Bangla be declared the state language, Urdu the inter-provincial language and English the international language of erstwhile East Bengal (It was rechristened East Pakistan in 1955, much to the discomfiture of the Bangalis). Thus the pamphlet raised the concern that if Bangla was not used in every sphere of life in East Bengal, the harmony of a democratic ideal between the two wings of Pakistan would be in jeopardy. Indeed it had set the whole process of self-determination in motion long before the language movement became a collective public agitation.
The looming worries too soon materialised through the Pakistan government’s stance on state language policies that betrayed its deep linguistic chauvinism. In 1947, for example, two ministers of Pakistan proposed installing Urdu as the lingua franca of the country. To register protests against the proposal, Dacca University students convened the first meeting of its kind on the university premises on December 6, 1947. Hardly had a year passed before the governor general of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah, on a state visit to East Bengal in 1948, categorically declared, first in Race Course Ground (now Suhrawardy Udyan) and then at Curzon Hall, that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan, just as Hindi was the state language of India. In the same year, the politicians of East Bengal felt it necessary to form an All Party Central Language Action Committee to voice their objections to this bullish language policy.
The worries over the status of Bangla in the nascent state spilled over into other spheres of life in East Bengal. The racial hatred, economic discrimination and communal violence that the government of Pakistan incited, as well as preaching Urdu as the only vehicle of communication, gave the people of East Bengal a deep sense of insecurities. The upshot of such growing intolerance was the gradual disenchantment with the Pakistan nationalistic ideal. On June 23, 1949, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, Shamsul Huq and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, among others, broke away from the Muslim League to form the Awami Muslim League.
On February 21, 1952, students organised a meeting to mount a public protest against the Prime Minister Kwaja Nazimuddin’s reiteration of Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan, and to break Section 144 that the government had imposed across the country. The police opened fire at the protesting students, and Rafiq, Salam, Barkat and Jabbar became the first martyrs for language in the history of the country. Thus February 21, 1952 became a red-letter day in history. The events of February 21, 1952 apparently happened in the space of a day, but it had a long gestation period. That is precisely why Amor Ekushey should not refer to only February 21, 1952 but to every minute of the years that had preceded this fateful day.
The spirit of Amor Ekushey did not confine itself to a couple of years, either. Before February 21, 1952, mostly the intelligentsia nurtured the spirit. Now the whole of East Bengal was overflowing with effervescence. It spawned an efflorescence of creative and cultural activities. Songs were written; the first anthology of literature on the ideal of new Bangali nationalism was published, and most importantly, East Bengal now had a foundation for building a new nation.
One of the results of such effervescence was that it led the Bangalis to a series of events and movements that would ultimately shape the character of the future nation. For example, the 1956 constitutional recognition of Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan, the 1962 student movement for using Bangla as a medium of educational instruction, the 1965 Six-Point Movement, and even the 1971 Liberation War which resulted in the birth of Bangladesh — all were suffused with the spirit that Amor Ekushey diffused. Amor Ekushey, thus, cuts across ages and generations, and is not time-bound.
The spirit of Amor Ekushey has now transcended the boundaries, too. On November 17, 1999, UNESCO first announced February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to commemorate the spirit of Amor Ekushey and to promote the global multilingualism and cultural plurality. Amor Ekushey is now the best of what the Bangalis have ever thought and said. It is now more than a historical watershed; it is a dream, a nation and also a world.
Zaynul Abedin teaches English at the University of Dhaka.