February 21:
The Struggle For Our Mother Tongue

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Hey, International Mother Language Day is just around the corner. You might know it as the day that raises awareness and respect for many unique and beautiful languages around the world. This day is observed every year on February 21. But what is so special about the date? Well, it’s about what the date represents. Back in 1952, there was a movement. People fought to have the right to speak their mother tongue. And many people died because of it.

     Bangladesh is a country with a ton of deep and sad history. And an important part of its history takes place before, during and after The Language Movement of February 21, 1952.

Before 1952

        The British had been in control of India for over 200 years. When India won independence in 1947, the British left, and the Indian subcontinent broke down into four new independent states: The Dominion of India, The Union of Burma (Present day Myanmar), The Dominion of Ceylon (Present day Sri Lanka), and the Dominion of Pakistan.

The Dominion of Pakistan had 2 geographically detached parts: East Pakistan (Present day Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (Present day Pakistan), which were separated by India. The East and West parts were very different in sense of culture and language. The people speaking Bengali in East Pakistan made up most of the Dominion’s 69 million people, the population of Bengali speakers at that time being 44 million.

In November 1947, Urdu and English were advocated by The Pakistan Service Commission to be the only languages of the state, raising immediate rejection and protests in East Pakistan, especially since Bengali was the mother language of so many people living there. The first demand for Bengali to be a language of Pakistan came from Dhirendranath Datta, a Bengali lawyer. On December 8, 1947, Bengali students formally demanded, on University grounds, for Bengali to be one of the official languages. Many Bengali scholars also argued in favour of Bengali, saying that changing the language would result negatively, as many people spoke Bengali and knew little to no Urdu. Despite these reasons to make Bengali a language of Pakistan, the request was simply ignored. The central education minister Fazlur Rahman went ahead and made some preparations, and in 1948, it was announced that Urdu would be the only national language of Pakistan, angering many Bengalis in the East. 

The demand for Bengali continued for years. Many peaceful protests, rallies and strikes were led during this time, organized by University students and the general public. However, very little was accomplished, as Bengali still wasn’t an official language. And then came 1952, when something major happened. However, it is an event that still saddens many Bengalis to this day.

The Language Movement, 1952

The Language Movement was still at large, and the Bengali activists were as motivated as ever. The Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrabhasha Kormi Porishod (All-Party Central Language Action Committee) held a meeting on January 31, 1952, where it was decided that on February 21, there would be an all-out peaceful protest, with rallies and strikes. In an attempt to stop this from happening, The Government of Pakistan passed a British law called Section 144, which banned public meetings, protests and rallies, and didn’t allow more than 3 people from gathering. But the people of East Pakistan loved Bengali dearly and were not going to give up easily. 

In the early morning of February 21, 1952, many students began gathering outside the University of Dhaka, disobeying Section 144. The police also stood ready at the entrance. 2 hours later, the students attempted to break the police obstruction, which was answered with a warning shot of tear-gas aimed at the gate. A few students ran to shelter, but many continued to rally against the opposers. The vice-chancellor then stepped in and told all the students to leave. However, the students stood their ground and continued protesting and trying to get through the police barricade. 

Without warning, the police took out their guns and started shooting. Students Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abdul Jabbar, and Abul Barkat were killed on the spot, and many more were injured.

What began as a peaceful protest had taken a turn for the worst. And people weren’t about to be silenced.

Shooting Aftermath

        The news of the killings spread quickly, sparking anger throughout East Pakistan. 

In the days following, more and more people began violating Section 144. On February 22, more than 30,000 Bengalis gathered outside Curzon Hall in Dhaka, and offices were boycotted as people joined rallies and protests. A mourning rally was passing along Nawabpur Road, where the police opened fire, killing an activist and a 9-year-old boy, as well as several more. 

        The chaos continued through the night. Families of the martyrs tried to charge the police for murder, but those charges were ignored. A Shaheed Smriti Stombho (Monument of Martyrs) was built and finished on February 24. 2 days later, the police force destroyed that monument. On February 29, police beat many people during a protest.

        A year later, on the anniversary of the tragic and horrible day, people in East Pakistan wore black badges in memory of all those who had died. West Pakistani politicians responded to this by declaring that anyone who still wanted Bengali to be a national language would be considered an enemy of the state. This, however, was once again ignored as people continued their mourning. Black flags were raised in the halls of the University of Dhaka, and demonstrations went on throughout the night.

        It wasn’t until 1956 that Bengali was finally made one of the national languages. This small gesture, however, did little to remove the grief in the hearts of East Bengal people. Every year afterwards, people mourned the lives lost on February 21, visiting monuments of the martyrs. 

Many years later, this event would result in a new internationally perceived day that is observed annually every year, on February 21.  

International Mother Language Day

        In 1999, UNESCO declared that February 21 was to be International Mother Language Day. The date was suggested by Rafiqul Islam, a Bangladeshi living in Vancouver, Canada. The suggestion was made as a tribute to Bangladesh’s long struggle in hopes of keeping the language Bengali alive. The day has been observed

        International Mother Language Day is observed for 2 reasons. One is to commemorate the Language Movement in Dhaka in 1952, where many people were martyred for their mother tongue. Another is to promote and preserve mother languages from different cultures and countries, as so many languages are being forgotten each year. 

In Bangladesh, it is a holiday. People take the day off to go and place flowers at the Martyrs’ Monument. It is also known as Shohid Dibosh or Martyr Day. Social Gatherings are organized where Bangladeshis honour the culture they fought so hard to keep. They hold literary competitions, eat festive foods and enjoy Bengali songs.

And it’s not just in Bangladesh. Bengalis all over the globe acknowledge the dark part of history, where men and women stood up for their mother tongue. This struggle not only protected  Bengali from extinction, but the anger and strength gathered from the language movement later led to East Pakistan becoming an independent country- Bangladesh.

“আমার ভায়ের রক্তে রাঙানো একুশে ফেব্রুয়ারি, আমি কি ভুলিতে পারি”







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