The Power of Language: The importance of International Mother Language Day

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If you are interested in learning more, Bangladeshi Student Association will be holding an informational meeting about International Mother Language Day featuring Professor Abdul Khaleque, who lived through it all, today in Monteith 320 from 6 to 7 p.m. ( Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr Creative Commons )

If you are interested in learning more, Bangladeshi Student Association will be holding an informational meeting about International Mother Language Day featuring Professor Abdul Khaleque, who lived through it all, today in Monteith 320 from 6 to 7 p.m. (Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr Creative Commons)

Freedom of speech. That’s a phase everyone in America seems to know inside and out. In fact, it’s a value so true to America that we use it as a way to defend almost everything, good or bad. Now imagine freedom of speech literally meaning freedom to speak the language of your choosing.

Let’s take a step back, both to look at a bigger picture and to travel back to the 1950s, when Pakistan and Bangladesh (called East Pakistan prior to becoming independent) were the same country, after years of blood and war between the mostly-Hindu India and the mostly-Muslim Pakistan/Bangladesh duo. The only similarity holding the remaining two countries together was the major religion of both countries, Islam. Otherwise, the two countries differed in many of cultural factors, including food, clothes, religious intensity and above all, language.

It is important to notice the geography behind the history of the three countries involved. Pakistan borders India on India’s left side, while Bangladesh is nestled on India’s right side, so over 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) separate Bangladesh and Pakistan. Pakistan and Bangladesh were separated from India because of religion, as mentioned, and Pakistan maintained its Indian and Middle Eastern influenced culture while Bangladesh maintained a heavily Indian influenced culture. As time progressed, Bengalis developed their own identity culturally, but even more than that, institutionally. The government, educational system, media/entertainment and everything between and beyond used a different language than Pakistan’s Urdu. The language Bengalis hold so close to their heart, the language we had to fight for: Bangla.

In 1947, the Pakistani government tried to tighten its control by wrapping its hand around language and attempting to make Urdu the official language of Pakistan (which would include Bangladesh/East Pakistan). As previously explained, this would nullify all the foundations of Bangladeshi institutions and culture, since all those foundations are dependent on Bangla in some way or form. Essentially, this would deem Bangladeshi illiterate and incapable of maintaining the country they had built. The Bangladeshi government proposed allowing the East Pakistani state to keep Bangla as their language, but after years of tension and shortcoming compromises, public outrage took its last hit in 1952.

The Pakistani government made a huge push for an Urdu-only policy and the Bangladeshi government reacted with activism. The students of Dhaka University (the hub of activity and perhaps the best school there at the time) joined forces with political activists and organized a protest on Feb. 21, 1952. The Pakistani government set Section 144 to ban protests fighting their Urdu-only policy, so the protest in Dhaka was met with hostility. That day the protestors endured dense police lines, tear gas and even open fire. The tension continued for years, through governmental boundaries from Pakistan and even a shooting during a “janaza,” or mourning, for those who died on Feb. 21.

Eventually, with the help of the Muslim League, Bangladesh was able to gain recognition for Bangla, which became the second official language of Pakistan. This struggle and worthy success ignited a passion that continued and progressed towards Bangladesh’s liberation, which happened in 1971 after a genocide that occurred during the generation of Bengalis that many of this current generation’s grandparents and parents were a part of.

Some might argue that the past is in the past or will brush the significance of the day off. Even though the day has been internationally recognized by UNESCO since 1999/2000, there are plenty of people who still do not know that this day exists—even people of Bangladeshi origin, especially the younger people of this current generation.

Part of this comes from the fact that many can feel Bangla dying. As a Bengali myself, I was raised to speak Bangla and embrace Bengali culture with my whole heart. However, I am guilty of not speaking Bangla when I could be (like at home). Sure, I’m just one person, but it adds up. Conversely, one person educating people can add up and bring awareness to the importance of Bangla as a language and a symbol of the true meaning of freedom of speech.

If you are interested in learning more, Bangladeshi Student Association will be holding an informational meeting about International Mother Language Day featuring Professor Abdul Khaleque, who lived through it all, today in Monteith 320 from 6 to 7 p.m.


Armana Islam is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at armana.islam@uconn.edu.

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