The language we fought for is the language being used to oppress our minority communities.
Two years ago, I visited schools in Khagrachari where a recent initiative is ensuring certain indigenous languages are still taught in schools till grade 5. I saw scripts, a different language, being paraded at local stores and at the tip of the children’s tongue. I listened to locals hopeful about maybe being able to keep their stories alive in writing.
It made me see how language can be reincarnated. As a people, we have seen how language is birthed. Our 1952 uprising to demand the privilege of speaking our mother tongue -- and subsequent victory -- is a testament to the (justifiable) entitlement we feel to our mother tongue.
But, six decades on, we’re channeling this entitlement in a destructive way. And it’s evident in our treatment of the indigenous communities.
There lies a deep irony in the fact that the language we once shed blood over is now an instrumental tool in silencing the indigenous communities.
We’ve long been aware of the systematic oppression of the indigenous communities by Bangali settlers as well as the army.
It’s easy to celebrate a language; real freedom is in our ability to stand up -- like we did many years ago -- to measures that continue to stifle voices that are in the minority, work to erase languages of indigenous communities
But the most recent event -- or, I should say, series of events -- surrounding the sexual violence against two Marma sisters by the members of the army, the following harassment and intimidation, the disappearance of the victims from the hospital by plainclothesmen, the confinement of the community’s leader, and abuse of a volunteer -- has left me speechless.
It has left me without language -- the language we so proudly fought for.
We were once an oppressed minority. And we paid with blood to bring home our language. A victory we bang our chest about even today. It’s beautiful to have access to it. Be able to think in it, feel in it.
But it’s also a privilege. Not everybody is allowed to have it at the tip of their tongue.
In Dighinala, the town I visited in Khagrachari, a local handbook that’s supposed to be a Chakma-Bengali guide, sells for as little as Tk10. The shopkeepers there aren’t selling them for profit. They are selling them to barely hold on to the existence of the languages. But the price of language shouldn’t be so low.
Through history, we have seen how language is birthed. And today, we can see how easily language can be put shackles on -- even by those of us who once fought for it.
The impunity of Bangali settlers in the Hill Tracts is destructive, and a big part of that destruction comes from the privilege warranted to us by our language. Today, there’s a lot to celebrate for Bangalis. The spirit of freedom, the love of language.
But it’s easy to celebrate a language; real freedom is in our ability to stand up -- like we did many years ago -- to measures that continue to stifle voices that are in the minority, work to erase languages of indigenous communities.
Samira Sadeque is a New York-based Bangladeshi journalist.