For the Love of Language

I meant to post about this in a more timely manner, but a brown holiday I find somewhat romantic is commemorated every February 21st in Bangladesh; yesterday was Language Movement Day. Also known as Language Martyr’s Day, its point is to remember the protest made on behalf of the right to use Bengali as a national language:

Around 1950-52, the emerging middle classes of East Bengal underwent an uprising known later as the Language Movement. Bangladeshis (then East Pakistanis) were initially agitated by a decision by Central Pakistan Government to establish Urdu, a minority language…as the sole national language for all of Pakistan. The situation was worsened by an open declaration that “Urdu and only Urdu will be the national language of Pakistan” by the governor, Khawaja Nazimuddin. [wiki]

300px-Shaheed_minar_Roehl.jpg Now you’ll know why Bangladesh’s Shaheed Minar monument exists where it does:

On February 21, 1952, dozens of students and political activists were killed when the Pakistani police force opened fire on Bengali protesters who were demanding equal status to their native tongue, Bangla. The massacre occurred near Dhaka Medical College and Ramna Park in Dhaka. A makeshift monument was erected the same night by students of University of Dhaka and other educational institutions, but soon demolished by the Pakistani police force. [wiki]
The movement spread to the whole of East Pakistan and the whole province came to a standstill. Afterwards, the Government of Pakistan relented and gave Bengali equal status as a national language.[wiki]

First they won respect for their language, then in 1971, they won their freedom.

29 thoughts on “For the Love of Language

  1. Wow, never heard of that commemoration.

    And sorry to be in the wrong place – but Manish, what’s with all the no comment-posts? Some I can understand, but I had something inocuous to say for one of them!

  2. looks shifty and feels guilty that he can only read Bengali at 5 words per minute

    Esp. in the face of the mutinous lengths that his brothers across the Padma river went to, to secure their right to speak in their mother tongue.

  3. First they won respect for their language, then in 1971, they won their freedom.

    Very interesting. Didnt know anything about this at all.

  4. And sorry to be in the wrong place – but Manish, what’s with all the no comment-posts? Some I can understand, but I had something inocuous to say for one of them!

    I have been wondering about that too, but the FAQ does seem to have an answer.

    We close comments: * If personal, non-issues-focused abuse, cussing or flame wars arise. It’s out of respect for readers addicted to the Recent Comments section, i.e. Blog Crack. Not that we’d ever be that obsessive ;) * After the millionth ‘OMG, WTF, pReItY iS sO mUcH h0tTeR tHaN aIsH.’ It’s all been said by then, really. * On posts we know will attract trolls, when we don’t have the time to respond. We’ve all got day jobs. * If we’ve gone 48 hours without sex. Only you can prevent this. * Because we’re feeling vaguely surly.
  5. Good Lord ms, you’re right. Women of America, if you want to read my frequently asinine, oft rambling, but occasionally witty comments, I URGE you – SERVICE MANISH.

    I am willing to start a campaign with the aforementioned slogo (it’s our slogan as well as our logo) as our title. I will lobby parliament if I have to. Hell I’m coming to New York in a few days, I’ll slide some ladies your way Manish, I always attract far too many for one man. Oh no wait, I’m thinking of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    It can’t be the surly one, well, cos that isn’t half as funny.

  6. Even today urdu is a minority language in pakistan Punjabi is the majority language.

  7. Thanks for this post. I miss being in Bangladesh on days like this. The day is celebrated by remembering the lives that were lost on the day and also by the celebration of the language. People start going to the Shahid Minar at midnight to pay respect.

    As far as I know, The middle structure of the Shahid Minar depicts a sad Mother (country) and the structrures to the left and right depicts the students who gave their lives. The red circle behind depicts a new sunrise.

  8. Even today urdu is a minority language in pakistan Punjabi is the majority language.

    I never knew that.

  9. Thanks for posting this. My mom was telling me something about this on N Tv but I was confused.

  10. Even today urdu is a minority language in pakistan Punjabi is the majority language.>

    Agreed. But isn’t urdu the official national language though?

  11. Agreed. But isn’t urdu the official national language though?

    Yes, but its spoken by only 8% population. Highest are Punjabi followed by Sindhi.

  12. Thanks for this post-

    It’s seriously crazy how little is known about this topic- thousands of people died for the sake of language. That’s a pretty strong statement- and I can’t imagine anyone doing the same to save English.

    Last year when I went back, I was able to interview my grandparents on their experiences- my attempt at documenting their story; my grandfather escaped out of West Bengal under the cover of Holi celebrations during partition, of course, the riots around language day, and his stay in a Pakistan concentration camp in 1973. It blew my mind. To this day, though my dad can speak urdu, he refuses to do so with his Pakistani friends.

  13. Yes, but its spoken by only 8% population. Highest are Punjabi followed by Sindhi.

    i believe 8% speak it is a mother tongue, a far greater % have some fluency in the language i’m assuming. my family’s experience with pakistanis, mostly punjabi, in the USofA is that their children are taught/speak urdu some, but are generally ignorant in punjabi. it seems that in pakistani urdu is seen like latin, and it is accepted as the de facto lingua franca (bahasa indonesian is the same, it is closer to the malayan dialects than javanese from what i know, but it is a link language).

    my family also experienced a lot of insensitivity on the language issue from pakistanis, they would continue to argue that urdu should have been the link language at social gatherings and didn’t seem to want to let it go. my parents certainly didn’t bring this issue up, but seeing as how so many bangladeshis died because of the language debate (though more than language was at stake, demographically pakistan pre-1971 was a majority bengali state!).

  14. Thanks for the post anna!

    It’s seriously crazy how little is known about this topic- thousands of people died for the sake of language.

    Not to diminish the value of the lives that were lost that day, but I don’t think thousands died, it’s more in the dozens range. And people are trying to make it known throughout the world:

    “UNESCO decided to observe 21 February as International Mother Language Day. The UNESCO General Conference took a decision to that took effect on 17 November 1999 when it unanimously adopted a draft resolution submitted by Bangladesh and co-sponsored and supported by 28 other countries.” source

    To this day, though my dad can speak urdu, he refuses to do so with his Pakistani friends.

    A lot of Bangladeshis become outraged whenever a compatriot speaks in Urdu :)

  15. The way they define mother-tongue in India/Pakistan is the language of your ethnic group, regardless of whether you can actually speak it or not; in the West we usually mean the actual language you grew up speaking. So 8% of Pakistanis belong to the ETHNICITY that speaks Urdu as a mothertongue i.e. Muhajirs (non-Punjabi muslim migrants from India in 1947). However vast numbers of Punjabis, Sindhis, and Pashtuns are as fluent if not more so in Urdu as compared to their mothertongue. I don’t have the stats but I remember reading that a large majority of urban-dwellers and a sizable minority of rural Pakistanis are fluent in Urdu. Sindhis have had to struggle for their language and now in Sindh they do have Sindhi-medium schools. Punjabi however, has largely been ignored by its own speakers in Pakistan. Although you can study Punjabi literature (B.A. and M.A degrees awarded) at the university level, there are NO Punjabi-medium schools ANYWHERE. The elite go to English-medium, the rest to Urdu medium. In Lahore, which used to be the cultural capital of Punjab, many in the younger generation do not know how to speak Punjabi. And as Razib mentioned, most of the time when Punjabi Pakistanis migrate to other countries, it is Urdu they transmit to their kids, not Punjabi (although in the UK quite a few of them hold on to Punjabi, possibly because of the strong Sikh influence in the desi community there).

    TAZ: You mentioned in post 13 that you can’t imagine anyone trying to save English the way these Bengali martyrs died for Bangla. I think the only people who bear the same emotional, historical, and cultural links to the English language as the Bengalis do to bangla, are the English people themselves (and their diasporic descendants worldwide). But I bet you some of the anglicised elite in India would martyr themselves if they felt that English was in danger in India (meanwhile happily losing their own languages as we speak).

  16. Bengali: You are right. The number of martyrs in 1952 is in dozen’s not thousands. I dont think there is anything wrong with making it known throughout the world just because the number of death is not higher. Ironically, the 1971 war does not get a whole lot of press eventhough over two million civilians were killed according to genocidewatch.

  17. anna–thanks for the post; taz–appreciate the note about your trip/experience in B. must add that i find it unnerving how often language is overlooked w/ regard to immigrant communities’ civil rights, esp. given that its likely riper fruit for discrimination than meets the eye (ear). also- didn’t know the dhaka massacre went down on feb 21 (also malcolm x’s death anniversary (1965)). truly a day on which to pay tribute.

  18. i believe 8% speak it is a mother tongue, a far greater % have some fluency in the language i’m assuming. my family’s experience with pakistanis, mostly punjabi, in the USofA is that their children are taught/speak urdu some, but are generally ignorant in punjabi

    This sits well w/ my observation here too. I was in pakistani punjab in 03, and i noticed that urdu was the formal language and punjabi the informal/plebian language. I’m fluent in both punjabi and urdu and on a couple of occasion people had assumed that i was a local they spoke to me in punjabi when they learned i was from the other punjab they spoke in urdu.

  19. Part of the problem is that Urdu and Punjabi are fairly similar. So what happens is that over time, the Punjabi in Pakistan has become progressively more like Urdu, in a very gradual process that people there may not even be always aware of. It’s not like English and Hindi, say, where even though the urban elite’s Hindi has become progressively mixed with English over the past few decades, you’re still usually sure what’s a Hindi word and what’s an English word. I remember meeting a Pakistani Punjabi while travelling in Europe back in ’99. We were talking about how beautiful the girls in Pakistan are, and I clearly remember he said ‘achchiyan ladkiyan’ instead of ‘changiyan kudian’ (meaning, ‘nice girls’). That’s just on example.

  20. So what happens is that over time, the Punjabi in Pakistan has become progressively more like Urdu, in a very gradual process that people there may not even be always aware of.

    And Urdu in Pakistan has become progressively more like Punjabi. I’m always struck by how Punjabi Musharraf sounds, especially when he’s in fauji mode; his Delhi ancestors are probably turning in their graves.

    The trend in Pakistan appears to be towards some sort of Punjabi-ized Urdu. And I agree with you Amitabh – for all their dominance of the country, Punjabi Pakistanis have an odd relationship with their language. My Punjabi Pakistani friends always lay claim to Urdu as “their” language (horrendous accent and all).

  21. The most sickening thing is no effort has been made to prosecute the war crimes in ’71, which were some of the worst since the Second World War that included mass rape and mass murder of intellectuals. In fact, the Bangladeshi government gave a red carpet reception to Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was responsible for this war. What is EVEN worse, that today’s ruling coalition is partly made up of the Jamaat party, whose members have participated in these atrocities in ’71 and still walk free today.

  22. note: The ruling coalition and Jamaat party I’m referring to above is Bangladesh’s.

  23. Aaami aamer Bangladesh ke prochondo rokom vabe valobhashi….. Vashar jonno jara obodan rekhe gesen tader aamra khokhon o vulte parbone….

  24. But it is till sad to know that Bangladesh was not created only for East Bengal but to combine it with West Bengal. A lot of Bengladeshi refer West Bengalis as Indians which is very sad.

  25. Chapal…your Bbengali is flawed. Please remember that there is no ‘V’ sound in bengali…that it should be ‘bh’ instead. And there is also no ‘S’ sound in Bengali except in words borrowed from English and the like…so ‘gesen’ is not a word.
    It is ‘giyechhhen’.

    Thank you, Tasnim

  26. It is such ashame Punjabis are not proud of their on language. Bengali’s are. Recall that Tagore is the only Indian writer to obtain a Nobel Prize for Literature

  27. I was wondering, why did we become independent from Pakistan if they gave us equal status for our language? Wasn’t the war just killing ppl then since we received recognition from the parliament?

  28. 27 · Likhari said

    It is such ashame Punjabis are not proud of their on language. Bengali’s are.

    Sad but how true it is! Punjabis, Learn from Bengal.

    Salute to the Bengali Martyrs!