Our Language Movement: Moments, Momentum, Milieu

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70th birthday of Amar Ekushey

Illustration: Noor Us Safa Anik

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Illustration: Noor Us Safa Anik

Our Bhasha Andolan— the Language Movement — was undoubtedly a major event in our political history. In fact, it was the first major political movement in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Although 1952 is considered the year of this movement, it neither started nor ended in 1952 as such. Its history dates back to 1947 with the formation of the first Rashtra Bhasha Sangram Parishad (State Language Movement Council) in October of the same year. Corn Ekushey FebruaryFebruary 21, 1952 marks a watershed moment in our history, when thousands of students gathered in front of the old building of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Dhaka, shouting slogans such as “Rashtra Bhasha Bangla Chai” (We Demand Bangla as the State Language), and later disobeyed Article 144. Police eventually opened fire, killing five students and injuring many others. As a Bengali poem once put it succinctly, “Bengali was written in blood in 1952” (translation is by the author).

Indeed, the students themselves gave a circumstantial, but resolutely ferocious voice to the language movement. But it soon turned into a grassroots movement, as Badruddin Umar’s monumental three-volume historical study of the movement rigorously reveals. The language itself turned out to be a massive site of class struggle. In fact, this movement would not have been possible without the broad participation of peasants and workers. And the movement increasingly assumed a liberating and emancipatory character, cutting at least the first ground for our national liberation movement of 1971 – fundamentally a people’s war against Pakistani neo-colonialism – guided by its three clearly pronounced principles: equality, justice and human rights. dignity. But the very anti-colonial ethos of our language movement was also evident early on, as the movement confronted and fought against what I wish to call language colonialism.

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But the era of linguistic colonialism is by no means over. Our bourgeois, waterlogged and sentimental nationalism continues to celebrate Ekushey every year, while erasing, obscuring and even obscuring the sites of real material contradictions and antagonisms which involve, among other things, issues of class and gender, as so than the question of equality. This routine celebration also continues to rid Ekushey of its radical content and emancipatory politics. Moreover, given how our dominant ruling-class political culture has evolved – one characterized today by anti-popular, anti-democratic and even fascist elements – the annual “celebration” of Ekushey, centered on Dhaka, repeatedly reveals how it is reduced to a narrow “cultural” event, giving the outrageously misleading impression that our language movement has nothing to do with the emancipatory aspirations and struggles of the oppressed in Bangladesh.

And the question remains: with economic justice or economic equality, where does linguistic justice or linguistic equality stand in our country today? There are violently unequal power relations between the privileged who know or use English, and the poor in Bangladesh who speak or use Bengali (people from the ruling class also use Bengali; but no, I don’t speak of them, and obviously they do not belong to the wretches in question). The question of language in this case continues to be the question of class, although the former also extends beyond the latter. There are also unequal power relations between what is institutionally and otherwise legitimized as ‘standard Bengali’, and non-standard Bengali/regional languages/dialects etc. And, no less significant, the languages ​​of other nations, indigenous peoples or ethnic minorities. in Bangladesh remain firmly the most marginalized languages ​​in the country. Of course, despite the tales of so-called progress – Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s line comes to mind, “Progress is the dirty joke of history” – we have yet to have an egalitarian language policy. on a national level.

All of this means that we have not yet been able to live up to the anti-colonial spirit of our language movement. In fact, our language movement and our liberation movement remained decisively and disastrously unfinished.

Finally, I am not against learning English (or any foreign language), nor against what is called “technological progress”. But then I question those who continue to celebrate the English language in the name of globalization, conveniently debunking the stubborn facts that globalization itself is a euphemism for the current stage of disaster capitalism and digital imperialism; that it is a “globalization” (to use Eduardo Galeano’s word) for many; that this very “globalization” globalizes unequal class relations, unequal race relations, unequal gender relations and even unequal language relations themselves, as globalization continues to unequally connect and interconnect people, places, cultures and languages ​​around the world. And I think it is in this light that what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution should be critically questioned. But what we really need is a new, even revolutionary, policy that remains deeply committed to ensuring the integrity and equality of all mother tongues, among other things.

Doctor Azfar Hussain is Acting Director of the Social Innovation Graduate Program and Associate Professor of Integrative, Religious, and Cultural Studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, USA. He is also Vice President of the US-based Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS).


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