Bangladesh’s Fight, the World’s Prize: The History of International Mother Language Day

By Sarah Haque, Board Administration and Communication Coordinator

I have heard from more than one non-Bengali speaker that when they hear Bengali spoken it sounds sweet and melodious. I speak Bengali. It is my mother tongue. My language is my identity. But these feelings and my story would’ve been entirely different if Bengali student demonstrators, Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar and many others hadn’t sacrificed their lives and become language martyrs.

It all started in 1952, with the ’Urdu-Only’ policy proposed by the Government of Pakistan. Immediately, there were protests to declare Bengali as an official language in the dominion of Pakistan. These protests marked a milestone in the language movement, an organized movement fighting for the right to speak in one’s mother tongue. The language movement was taken to the streets of Dhaka by students on February 21st, 1952. This unrest claimed the lives of some and injured many more, as police opened fire during the protest.

Following the deaths and arrests, the students of Dhaka Medical College constructed the first Shaheed Smritistombho Monument of Martyrs. The monument was destroyed many times by the police and the war that came after. In 1963 the monument was finally completed and now stands tall and proud, affectionately known as the Shaheed Minar (Martyr Minaret).

Outside East Pakistan, the movement for equal status of Bengali as a language also took place in the Indian state of Assam. On May 19th, 1961, 11 Bengalis were killed in a police firing in Silchar Railway Station, Assam, while demanding state recognition of the Bengali language. Subsequently, Bengali was given co-official status in the three Bengali-majority districts of Assam.

Fast forward to an independent Bangladesh, where I was born. One of my fondest childhood memories is walking barefoot to the martyr minaret with my old man. Every year, we woke up at dawn, donned black and white clothing, and made our way to the local flower market before heading to the minaret. Our hearts filled with gratitude as we spoke and sang in our sweet mother tongue, Bengali.

Today, International Mother language Day is celebrated all over the world, commemorating the Bengali Language Movement in 1952. Most importantly, the day is also celebrated to promote peace and multilingualism around the world, and to protect all native languages. I would like to sincerely thank my fellow Canadian, Rafiqul Islam, a Bengali living in Vancouver, who wrote a letter to Kofi Annan, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, on January 9th, 1998, asking him to take a step in saving the world’s languages from extinction by declaring February 21st International Mother Language Day.  The request was approved at the 1999 UNESCO General Conference, and International Mother Language Day has been observed annually throughout the world since year 2000.

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