In 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced the celebration of the International Mother Language Day to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by the people of the world. The idea was embraced with open arms by the United Nations and has been observed on the 21st of February every year. The date is of great significance in the history of South Asia, marking a watershed for the Bengali people living in the eastern wing of the subcontinent.

It was on 21 February, 1952 that students protesting the imposition of Urdu as the sole official language of the Pakistani state were shot dead near Dhaka Medical College (in what was then known as East Pakistan) by the police. Outraged Bengali citizens brought the city of Dhaka to a standstill. Protests spread to the countryside and the decision to privilege Urdu over Bengali had to be rolled back. The site of the killings was marked by a monument, the Shahid Minar. Its saga of repeated demolitions and reconstructions mirrored the growing tensions between the two wings – East (overwhelmingly Bengali) and West (dominated by Punjabis).

The issue of language would keep simmering despite the state’s recognition of both Urdu and Bangla (the name used for Bengali by its speakers) as official languages in 1956. There were multiple reasons for the increasing friction. The Pakistani establishment was dominated by an Urdu-speaking elite based in West Pakistan (comprising Punjab, the North West Frontier Province, Sindh and Balochistan). They were culturally and geographically insulated from East Pakistan’s Bengali speakers who comprised 52% of the entire population. The destruction of democratic institutions by Pakistan’s generals made the situation even worse.

The exploitative and authoritarian nature of the Pakistani state meant that Bangla speakers had little say in governance. Cultural marginalization and political alienation gave rise to demands for autonomy. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the West Pakistani establishment’s refusal to accept the Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s electoral victory in 1970. A military operation to eliminate rebellious elements in East Pakistan degenerated into genocide and civil war. The Bengali populace and leadership, assisted by India, overcame the reign of terror unleashed by the Army, paving the way for an independent Bangla-speaking nation, Bangladesh, by 1971.

Every year, on the 21st of February, the people of Bangladesh pay their respects to the hundreds of thousands of martyrs who perished in defense of their mother tongue. It is apt that UNESCO chose to adopt it as International Mother Language Day. Today, Bangladesh is doing much better on social indicators of development when compared to India and Pakistan, countries whose political elites have been dismissive of linguistic nationalism (with the obvious exceptions made for speakers of Hindi and Urdu) and struggling to address regional disparities.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows a sculpture, ‘Aparajeyo Bangla’ (Invincible Bangla), by Syed Abdullah Khalid (dating back to 1979). It is located in the University of Dhaka campus, in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The photograph is credited to Biswarup Ganguly.