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Bangladesh: Secular Education A Must For Realising The Ekushey Spirit

by Zakeria Shirazi, 21 February 2009

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The main reason why the language movement could not be subdued was that it was pro-people and secular. Though initiated by students it escalated into a movement for people’s rights. It also proved that decisions affecting millions of people cannot be foisted on them from above, writes Zakeria Shirazi

Fifty Seven years ago, on this day the campus area of the city of Dhaka, witnessed the first sparks of resistance against the colonial move to snuff out with bullets the hopes and aspirations of the common people of this land who were the majority. The resistance did not remain confined to a single day (the 21st February), or to a single locality (the university and medical college area) or a single group, the students. The sparks signalled an irrepressible mass movement that would baulk at no sacrifices to affirm their rights and dignity. Within a day or two the whole country was in a state of ferment. Through the martyrdom of a few the whole country had spoken. No compromise on questions of national dignity. The colonial rulers could not anticipate the lightning effect that the incident would have on the entire Bengali speaking people. Nor could they realise till then that there was a dormant mass power in the towns and villages of this land, in the farms and fields, in crowded markets and quiet hamlets waiting to be kindled into patriotic flames. This dormant power was once again ignited, nineteen years later, on the battle-fronts of the liberation war.

Ekushey proved that the people could unite across the classes and communities when their rights and dignity were at stake. Language was the common unifying element. The Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities, the urban elite and non-literate rural masses spoke the same language. The language movement had such an electrifying effect on the people that within four years the feudal-bureaucratic ruling elite of Pakistan (which was in theory civilian till then) was forced to climb down from its position of ‘Urdu and Urdu alone shall be ...’ and recognise Bangla as one of the two state languages of Pakistan. Of course, the recognition was a deceptive window dressing but it had to be enshrined in the constitution which came into force on March 23, 1956. The main reason why the language movement could not be subdued was that it was pro-people and secular. Though initiated by students it escalated into a movement for people’s rights. It also proved that decisions affecting millions of people cannot be foisted on them from above.

Although the colonial rulers perforce accepted Bengali as a state language, they were trying ceaselessly to communalise the language, to sunder it from its centuries-old roots in the soil and the people and to undermine the people’s native culture. Even the Bengali alphabet was targeted in a bid to warp and de-personalise the Bengal language and culture. Institutions were built up and quislings were recruited to carry out this long-term agenda in the name of ‘national integration’. The colonial government was afraid of linguistic nationalism for two reasons. Firstly, linguistic right is a secular urge and runs counter to Pakistan’s basic ideology. Patriotism, as Pakistan understands it, is a negative and exclusive aspiration to be nourished by perpetual inter-communal hostility sponsored by the state. Even though in theory Bengali was one of the state languages, the cultural aggrandisement was becoming more and more insufferable. The cultural legacy of the common Bengalis, it appeared, was being remoulded on communal pattern. Institutions like the Pakistan Council and the government-controlled media were being mobilised to this end. The songs of Rabindranath Tagore were banned in the state-controlled media and Kazi Nazrul Islam was projected in a fragmented way. Of course, the Pakistan government did the same with their own national poet Muhammad Iqbal and few Pakistanis were allowed an exposure to Iqbal’s socialist and secular poetry or to know that Iqbal was an avid reader of the Vedas and had translated Gayatri Mantra. The Urdu language was equated with Islam, ignoring the fact that the language was born amid the interaction of peoples speaking different languages and belonging to different communities, and that some leading authorities of Urdu literature, especially in the prose side, are non-Muslims, and that Urdu literature has a strong secular tradition. Pakistanis are not encouraged to know or to remember that the first national anthem of the state which was later discarded was written, at the request of MA Jinnah, by the celebrated Hindu poet of Urdu, Jagannath Azad.

The second reason why Pakistan feared linguistic nationalism was that non-Urdu-speaking population of Pakistan outnumbered the Urdu-speakers. A seething urge for linguistic self-assertion could not be missed in Sind and Balochistan. To match the firing on Dhaka’s students the Balochis were strafed. If Pakistan is weakened and becoming visibly unstable, its seeds were laid in those anti-people policies. The ruling clique of Pakistan did not learn from 1952, or from 1971. Some may say it is futile to dwell too long on the affairs in Pakistan when Ekushey poses many pressing questions for our own country. True, but it is rewarding to follow the motivation of repressive actions stemming from anti-people policies as examples. The 21st of February, 1952 is universally relevant as a historical example.

On this day it is as much a ritual as a patriotic duty to pay homage to the language martyrs. We can never do too much to honour the memories of our language martyrs, Salam Barkat, Rafiq and other heroes who sacrificed their today to give the people an inspiring tomorrow. Their sacrifices have left a lesson not only for this country but eventually for the world. The 21st February is now being observed as International Mother Language Day. The battle for Bengali may be over but the battle for a secular polity drags on. Ekushey will fail to unite the people in the way desired by the language martyrs if the education system itself divides the nation. Three streams of education exist simultaneously and those educated under these different systems are insulated from each other. What is further disturbing is that the three systems are more or less stratified on the economic pattern – English medium for the top income-group, Bengali medium for the middle classes and madrassah or religious seminaries for the underprivileged, and there is no uniform core in the syllabi taught under these varying systems. This means the nation cannot groom the youth in the way desirable. This stratification also means that the underprivileged who are already economically deprived are further being left behind on the cultural front. In many madrassahs, according to reports, Ekushey and other national days are ignored. As for the students of English-medium schools who mostly belong to affluent households, they do not show in the case of Ekushey a fraction of the enthusiasm that they reserve for the Thirty-first night and Valentine’s Day. As long as secular education under a uniform core curriculum remains unimplemented, the spirit of Ekushey shall remain unrealised.

Owing to our efforts and example Ekushey has been elevated to International Mother Language Day upholding the rights of speakers of all languages. We can justly claim credit for this. But within our country there are linguistic minorities. The spirit of Ekushey also demands that we show to the speakers of other languages the respect that we have won for ourselves. Ekushey should unite peoples not only across classes and communities but also across languages.

(The above article appeared earlier in New Age, 21 February 2009)