How Mother Language Day was born


Tareq Nurul Hasan and Carl Dixon :
International Mother Language Day, which falls on 21 February, has been recognised by the UN since 1999. However, this celebration of cultural and linguistic diversity has its roots in a 1950s movement that fought for the right to speak Bangla in Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan.
In 1947, the birth of India and Pakistan as independent states saw the partition of the Bengal region. Hindu-majority West Bengal became a part of India, while Muslim-majority East Bengal (now Bangladesh) was declared a part of Pakistan.
Although more than half of the people in ‘East Pakistan’ spoke Bangla, the government of Pakistan declared Urdu as the official language, only sanctioning the use of Bangla in Arabic script.
Dr John Hood, an Australian researcher on Indology, Bangla literature, film and history, explains that after formal protests in the assembly failed, the government imposed a curfew and outlawed gatherings to prevent agitation over the issue.
 “What happened on that 21st of February back in the early 1950s was not really a celebration of language, it was actually a fight for the very existence of a language,” Dr Hood told SBS Bangla.
On 21 February 1952, a group of students broke the curfew and led a procession demanding Bangla as the state language. Police opened fire at them, and students named Abdus Salam, Abul Barkat, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abdul Jabbar and Shafiur Rahman were killed.
Nirmal Paul, who is a language activist, and organiser of the Mother Language Movement in Australia, said, “This was the first time in the [history of the] world for the [mother] language people were shot dead.”
The government of Pakistan finally relented under the pressure by the language movement and recognised Bangla language as an official language in 1956.
Ever since, the people of Bangladesh have remembered the day with respect.
‘Ekushey February’ (21 February) was known as National Martyrs’ Day until 1999, when UNESCO declared it International Mother Language Day (IMLD).
Abdul Matin was one of the student leaders who survived the shooting, and he was later recognised by the Bangladesh government.
His wife, Gulbadan Nesa Monica, told SBS Bangla, “After the shooting on the 21st, people built a temporary Shaheed Minar (martyr tower) at the site. But the government demolished that too.”
By 1983, the government of Bangladesh had built a permanent tower at the place where the students died.
The annual remembrance of this day is etched in the childhood memories of many Bangladeshis.
Bangla is the sixth most spoken language in the world, and there are around 70,000 speakers living in Australia.
Dr Anwar Sadat Shimul is the Deputy Director for Graduate Research of the School of Management and Marketing at Curtin University in Western Australia. He is also the author of several Bangla books.
He said, “I remember those days in the late 1980s and early 1990s when we celebrated ‘Ekushey February’ events organised by our local primary school.”
He recalled that every morning on 21 February walking barefoot with other students to the local Shaheed Minar to pay their respects with flowers, banners and flags in their hands. Thousands of these temporary monuments are built all over the country to mark this occasion.
Dr Shimul said that this language movement has had a lasting impact.
“It served as the driving force behind the establishment of the Bengali national identity and subsequently paved the way for various movements towards Bengali nationalism and, ultimately, the Bangladesh Liberation War [which led to the independence of Bangladesh] in 1971.”
Now observed globally, IMLD recognises the important role that languages and multilingualism can play in advancing inclusion.
While welcoming international recognition of the day, some Bangladeshis may question whether its history has been overlooked on the global stage.
For Dr Shimul, though, Bangladeshis should be proud of their role in highlighting the importance of language in maintaining history, heritage and culture.
“Bangladeshis should emphasise the notion that they have their own country, language and rich culture because they could protect the language in 1952.
The government of Bangladesh has named one of the country’s most prestigious awards ‘Ekushey Padak’, which is awarded annually to people who have made significant contributions in various fields.
In February every year, the Bangla Academy, a government-funded institution that implements the country’s language policy, organises a month-long book fair called ‘Ekushey Boi Mela’.
Mrs Monica said, “In February, the importance of Bangla, that means our mother tongue, is realised anew in people’s minds.”
Many languages are today under threat of extinction worldwide. A 2021 study, led by The Australian National University (ANU), shows half of the 7,000 languages in the world are endangered, and without any initiatives a lot of those may disappear by the end of this century. This year, UNESCO’s events will explore the potential of multilingualism, as it estimates globally 40 percent population do not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand.
In Australia, of the 250 First Nations languages from pre-colonisation, only 40 are still spoken and 12 are taught to children.
Mr Paul believes the events and efforts of IMLD can inspire the global community to step up efforts to protect endangered languages
“[That way] no more languages will be lost,” he said.