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OP-ED: The story of a stolen language

  • Published at 08:25 pm February 28th, 2021
bangla alphabet
There is an absence of critical analysis in our universities FILE PHOTO

Growing up, we were not taught enough about the history of our nation

Bangladesh’s history of liberation is marked by a series of constant challenges to unity. While the nation grappled with its own sense of identity, in 1948, soon after Partition, language became the first banner that the Bangladeshi people united under. 

West Pakistan’s (now Pakistan) order of enshrining Urdu as the only national language of both West and East Pakistan sparked a flame that lit the way to our liberation in 1971. 

February 21 of 1952 marks a point in history where the world, for the first time, saw a people galvanize in an attempt to protect the right of a people to use their own mother tongue as a means of daily communication. 

Bear in mind, the order from the Pakistani government did not stipulate that Bangla could not be uttered at all; merely that Bangla would not enjoy the same status as Urdu as a national language, despite the fact that a vast majority of the population of combined Pakistan were Bangla speakers. 

Even then, our brave language warriors and martyrs knew the underlying implications of this order. It meant that, slowly, Bangla would be confined to the pages of language textbooks and the ubiquity of the language itself would be slowly eroded. 

With the use of Bangla being only limited to social interactions, goal-oriented Bangla speakers would slowly be disincentivized to learn the language at the cost of other learning opportunities. 

The fear was that, as generations pass, the relevance of the language would fade away. To prevent this, brave language warriors of Dhaka University and many others sought to take a stance and, in doing so, sacrificed their lives, so that Bangla could retain its position among the people. 

The mother tongue survived -- Bangla continued to be used for bed-time stories for future nation builders and in offices for the functioning of the state. The language remained, as beautiful as Tagore’s songs and as powerful as Bangabandhu’s speech on March 7, echoing the very spirit of Bangladesh. 

Note that even the nation is named after the language. This is the fervent history of the relationship that the people of this nation shares with their mother tongue. 

Regrettably, my story is a bit different. As a young child, my parents saw it fit to enrol me into an English Medium School. Much like many of their peers, my parents wanted to give me the best opportunity in a world that was globalizing at unprecedented speed at the time and English was the language that dominated global discourse. 

Little did they know what this would mean a few years down the line. At school, the mode of delivery for lessons was English. As were our exams and textbooks -- of course, with the exception of Bangla language and literature classes. 

However, my schoolmates and I were often cautioned that we would be punished if we spoke in our mother tongues outside of Bangla classrooms. Of course, I did not think much of it at the time. 

So, my peers and I endeavoured to learn English to the best of our abilities, using it not only for class, but also in private settings amongst friends and family. This practice was encouraged by our elders as it would translate to honing our skills in this foreign language. To my friend and I, Bangla was confined to the two hours of class per week or when speaking casually at home. Imagine the scenario at play here -- chastised for using our mother tongue, rewarded for speaking in a foreign language; naturally, we chose to be rewarded as often as possible. 

In fact, back in the day, if one spoke well in English and had a western accent, one would often be put on a pedestal and applauded for their abilities. Bangla did not share the same stage. 

Not only was this true for Bangla, but growing up, we simply were not taught enough about the history of our nation. Our elders felt that our generation had to be prepared for the troubles of competing in life. 

So, we were asked to focus on more “important” things like the sciences or matters of business. Bengali literature, even those of Tagore or Nazrul, were deemed less important than the works of Shakespeare and Lord Tennyson, simply by virtue of the span of their readership, ignoring the significance the former had to our culture and heritage.

Going forward a few years, as we finished off 10th grade, Bangla was no longer a mandatory subject. Neither the language nor the literature was of much use to us. By now, most of us were quite comfortable with English. 

Our world of pop-culture and fiction was designed by western authors and our mode of communication with our tutors and peers was English. We had no incentive to read the works of Bangla authors or the historical texts that explain the struggles of our own people. As we passed through our formative years, we were taught little of the history of our liberation. Independence Day, Victory day, and other nationally significant moments in history were matters of secondary thought. 

Unnecessary, compared to the sort of education needed for our daily bread and butter. And so, our generation was distanced even further from the desire or the need to learn our mother tongue.  

Effectively, by the nature of our own schooling and upbringing, for many of us who grew up in certain urban clusters of Bangladesh, our mother tongue was systematically stolen from us. Our connection to the language and, in many ways, to the country, was chiselled away over years of being told to pursue life from the perspective of earning a livelihood. 

We, somehow, no longer belonged. Coming out of the bubble of our high-schools, we soon learned the gravity of this tragedy. Granted, we did connect to the globe outside of our national boundaries, but we got there at the cost of forgetting our own roots. In many ways, we no longer belonged to the land we once called home.  

For me, it took a year of living abroad to realize what had been done to me. I am ashamed to admit that though Bangla is my mother tongue, it is perhaps, no longer my first language. It was stolen from me.

Ahmed Shafquat Hassan is a Barrister (Non Practicing) at the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, and currently a student of International Law and Governance at Durham University.

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