Ekushey February is one of the many dates in the Bangladeshi calendar that supposedly unites the nation in a bout of nationalist fervour. Despite very few commemorations dealing with the complex history behind the Language Movement – its seeds sowed during the colonial era’s Divide and Conquer policies around linguistic division – and its extended timeframe – the constitutional discussion around Bengali being set off in 1948 and not fully dealt with until 1956 – the watershed date of 21 February 1952 is treated with due reverence, pomp and ceremony befitting a moment that shaped our nation’s history. That it became enshrined by UNESCO as International Mother Language Day in 1999 further serves to enhance its aura.
Amidst such patriotic fervour, it is inevitable that the mythos of Ekushey is misappropriated. Our language martyrs are not simply tragic human losses in a wider cultural struggle but political symbols of the superiority of a specific brand of nationalism. In this narrative, they are not heroes standing up for wider cultural and linguistic autonomy but the first losses in a wider battle for Bengali supremacy. And by warping the scope of their sacrifice from something universal to something narrow and defined, the true spirit of Ekushey is lost.
A common refrain about the language martyrs is that they are only people in the history of the world to give their lives to preserve a language. This implicitly places Bengali on a pedestal. If no other individual has died for their language that automatically means no other language has been worth the fight and the sacrifice. While there is no denying the bravery of the protestors during the Language Movement, including the thousands who were part of the struggle but are not immortalised because they did not shed blood, it is a historical fallacy to assume they are the only ones to have fought for their linguistic freedom.
History is rife with cases of many communities being persecuted for refusing to assimilate with the language of their conquerors. Spanish conquistadors tied in speaking Spanish and Latin with religious salvation, so communities that did not reject their own tongues were condemned to servitude or, in some cases, death. Africans ripped away from their homes in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade were forced to reject all aspects of their culture, including language, in order to fit in to their masters’ homes. Punishment was brutal and the trauma transcended generations. Even modern assassinated revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Steve Biko and Ken Saro-Wiwa included linguistic autonomy within their wider movements.
Bengal itself has a rich heritage of linguistic protest and dissent. During the height of the British Raj, protest music was the most effective way of speeding political mobilisation amongst the masses. Tagore and Nazrul are both famous for their songs criticising the status quo during the Partition of Bengal and subsequent anti-colonial struggles. In fact, the prevalence of English in modern day Bangladeshi education can be traced back to the fact that the British intentionally tied in the ability to speak English with the potential for social and economic mobility – making the vernacular appear barbaric and radical, thus undermining the power of anti-colonial movements that were framed in local languages.
The greatest omission in our understanding of linguistic history is forgetting that indigenous and tribal peoples picked up the fight for the freedom to speak in our mother tongue decades before Ekushey came to pass. During the early 20th century, the Tanka riots took place across the Bengal Presidency, including in modern-day Rajshahi, Dhaka and Sylhet Divisions. Carried forward entirely by tribal communities, the riots were aimed at protecting the right to speak, teach and (when it was not just an oral tradition) write in local languages. Dozens were killed in the ensuing police action, with the authorities interpreting the protest as a direct insult on their own culture.
Prophetically, the failure of the Tanka riots in becoming a part of the wider anti-colonial narrative is down to the same socio-political dynamics that continue to sideline tribal communities today. The indigenous groups were marginalised even within the wider Indian and Bengali communities, which meant that their revolt was too niche to be considered important. Additionally, there was the potential that the riots would grow to criticise the arbitrary social superiority of written languages (another division that was heightened by colonial policy) which allowed some parts of Indian society to gain power and privilege even without speaking English. Where solidarity would, arguably, have included Tanka as a central plank of anti-British revolution, the lack thereof resulted in heightened persecution of tribal communities that are still perpetuated today
The Chittagong Hill Tracts conflict was partially set off by the enforced cultural and linguistic superiority of Bengali across the whole of Bangladesh. Like the West Pakistani Government in 1948, the Bangladeshi Government ignored a multitude of other languages – 37 tribal languages and dozens of dialects for each one – in favour of attempting to forge an identity founded on Bengali supremacy.
Tens of thousands have been killed in the fighting. In 2018, Mithun Chakma was gunned down earlier this year, proving that the 1997 Peace Accords did not bring an end to the prejudice and violence against minority communities in the country. Part of the Accords was a promise to allow the free practice of tribal culture and language, but that clause is far from being implemented.
We should not be ashamed of the legacy of Bengali dissent in the narrative of Ekushey. It is definitely true that the fight then was because of the suppression of a specific language, even though it came to represent a wider right. What we should be ashamed of, however, is how the lessons of Ekushey have been intentionally ignored. Our Language Movement was against the forced supremacy of one culture onto the adherents of another. It behoves us to make sure that cycle is finally broken.