As soon as the Dominion of Pakistan was created in 1948, almost immediately, the question arose as to what would become the state language.
This particular question was arguably more straightforward for other former British colonies, for they did not have to govern two geographically disparate populus whose only link was that of religion. The ruling government was almost entirely made up of West Pakistani politicians, even though only 25 million of the country’s total 69 million citizens were from West Pakistan.
So from the very outset, East Pakistanis were severely underrepresented in the administration of the nation. At a key educational summit in Karachi in 1947, the predominantly West Pakistani government declared that Urdu would not only be the state language but that Urdu would be exclusively used in the media and to implement education.
This immediately gave rise to protests from students and activists in Dhaka, who wanted Bangla to be included as a state language. Any protest by East Pakistanis was met with even more suppression by the government, which in turn only made the people’s resistance stronger, and inadvertently gave rise to what would come to be known as the Bengali Language Movement.
Notwithstanding the growing movement, the government remained steadfast in their decision. Time and time again, government officials reiterated that “Urdu and Urdu alone” was to be the state language even though Bangla was the language spoken by the vast majority of its citizens.
As part of their hard-line approach to crush the movement, Bangla was omitted from the languages of the Constitutional Assembly, disqualified from being an approved school subject, and removed from the official currency and stamps. Additionally, Urdu was exclusively being used in recruitment tests for the navy and at one point, the government even proposed that Bangla, like Urdu, be henceforth written in the Arabic script.
Anyone promoting and advocating for the use of Bangla was labelled an “enemy of Pakistan,” seeking to divide the nation. Ironically enough, the government ended up starkly dividing the newly formed nation in the purported attempt to “unite” it.
To insinuate that the state language had to be either Urdu or Bangla, but not both, was to create a false dichotomy. Pioneers of the Bengali Language Movement never demanded that Bangla be made the sole state language in place of Urdu but rather, one of the state languages alongside Urdu.
They simply demanded that the official language and medium of instruction for East Pakistan be the language its inhabitants have been speaking for centuries, instead of one that they were relatively unfamiliar with. Instead of seeking unity through mutual understanding, the government executed a policy of linguistic nationalism through forced assimilation, which would necessarily entail an erasure of Bangla culture and identity. A growing sense of exploitation and oppression spread throughout East Pakistan, and its citizens quickly realized that a new kind of colonialism had replaced British imperialism.
The language movement reached its peak when the police opened fire on several students protesting the newly imposed and draconian ban on any gathering of more than three people (as a means to cripple the right to protest) on the fateful morning of Feburary 21, 1952.
I feel especially guilty because I would feel more embarrassed to err in English than in Bangla, even though the latter is my mother language
Civil unrest soared and in the following days the police shot and killed other activists, including a nine-year old boy. The language movement persisted until 1956 when the Pakistani Constitutional Assembly at long last recognized Bangla as a state language, after Urdu. Forever etched in our hearts and minds are the names of those who lost their lives in our language movement: Salam, Rafiq, Barkat, and Jabbar.
Our language martyrs who fought with their lives to not only protect the current and future Bengali generations’ right to use their mother language, but who also inadvertently sowed the seeds for our eventual War of Liberation and the corresponding right to self determination.
Sixty-six years later, I, as a Bangali, stand with a natural sense of pride which is, however, inhibited by an increasing sense of guilt. While I am proud to have been born in the only country in the world which shed blood defending the right to use its mother language, my conscience weighs heavy, especially on this day.
I feel guilty because I find that I am better able to articulate myself in English than I am in Bangla (as evinced by my commemorating the Bengali Language Movement in English and the irony therein). I feel guilty because I have never attempted to learn the Bangla language with nearly the same level of vigour as I have when learning the English language.
I feel guilty because I have almost stopped reading or writing in Bangla ever since I completed my O-level Bangla exam. I feel guilty because I would much rather read any given piece of writing in English rather than in Bangla as the former is more intelligible to me.
I feel guilty because I do not understand half of the words uttered by a Bangla newsreader if I ever happen to watch the evening news on television. I feel especially guilty because I would feel more embarrassed to err in English than in Bangla, even though the latter is my mother language. Finally, I feel guilty because somehow I know that all of the aforesaid instances hold true for not only me but rather many of us.
So why is this the case? How did English proficiency become a symbol of socio-intellectual elitism and prestige in the post-colonial mindset? Why should desire to be proficient in English be construed as being unpatriotic or threat to the cultural significance of Bangla?
Why has the relationship between English and Bangla been perceived in exclusionary, rather than complementary terms? Why does a sustained friction between English and Bangla continue to surface in popular rhetoric?
Dr Raqib Chowdhury, former Assistant Professor of English Literature at Dhaka University, believes that “the almost irreconcilable friction between English and Bengali” was forged through the nationalistic sentiment born in the Language Movement of 1952, an episode which is unique to Bangladesh in the history of the world (Language wars: English education policy and practice in Bangladesh, Multilingual Education 2014, 4:21
). He argues that this friction was made worse by the mixed, often incongruous positions on language policy adopted by successive National Education Commissions, formed by various regimes to “advance their own political agenda and ideology rather than to further the country’s pragmatic needs and achieve well-articulated and time-sensitive policy outcomes.”
On the one hand, some policy-makers in Bangladesh often imagined English as a political tool aimed at prolonging colonial imperialism which led them to decolonize the education system by formulating the first Education Commission.
On the other hand, some policy-makers themselves consolidated such colonial mentality as to identify English as an exclusive education for a certain group of privileged and empowered people, some of whom perhaps rightly understood that incompetency in English language may result in foregoing economic advantages from the momentum generated by globalisation, of which English is undoubtedly a major driving force.
Dr Chowdhury explains that such contradictory approaches by policy-makers have precluded English from successfully becoming an “institutionalized additional language” in Bangladesh as it is in nearby India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, thereby rendering the current English curriculum to remain “elitist.”
As such, it is high time we embrace an education system and mindset which are sufficiently insulated from political ploys so as to bring about a fruitful demarcation between heritage and modernity, whereby both Bangla and English find adequate emphasis in order to fulfill their distinct yet equally important objectives.
Taqbir Huda is currently working as a researcher at Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA) and volunteers at Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR).