“… My race began as the sea began,
with no nouns, and with no horizon,
with pebbles under my tongue,
with a different fix on the stars.
A sea-eagle screams from the rock,
and my race began like the osprey
with that cry,
that terrible vowel,
- Derek Walcott, ‘Names’
Since time immemorial, mankind has spent days and nights perfecting itself, working around the baroque facet of itself called ‘language’. Be it the Tower of Babel which never reached completion or something as recent in the history of the world as Colonialism, something that emerges as the fulcrum of human life is nothing but language.
The definition of a very person begins with language; we are born into it, grow into it, with it, and at times tweak the contours of language in order to accommodate phenomena that know no definition. The flow of time has been able to erode a lot of language, and has added a lot more, transforming it into something ephemeral. A language is always in a state of flux, always dynamic.
So much of blood has been shed, so many lives has been lost. Wars have torn countries and families apart. There have been many reasons wars have been fought, but one cause that towers over perhaps every other reason – is the issue of language. We don’t exactly need to delve into the depths of history to discover examples, we can look around and see the way lives are still shattered and deformed by language-related wars. A case in point is the ongoing struggle in Sri Lanka. Another, which led to the formation of Bangladesh.
Conferred the title of ‘Bhasha Andolon Dibosh’ (Language Revolution Day/Language Movement Day), 21st February is a day that is writ in blood in the history of the contemporary world. Back in 1948, under the governance of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, “Urdu, and only Urdu” was declared as the national language of Pakistan. However, only a minority of the Muslims in the then East Pakistan spoke Urdu. The rest were all Bengali-speaking people. Jinnah’s “Urdu only” policy permeated down to his successor, Governor-general Khwaja Nazimuddin, and subsequently resulted in the bone of contention in his rule.
Several incidents took place as a result of the imposition of Urdu as the state language, and several decisions were taken by the masses. The protests reached a climax on February 21, 1952, and strikes and rallies disrupted the functioning of the day, thereby compelling the Government to take note of the gravity of the entire scenario. A subsequent curfew was imposed upon the city of Dhaka on the day, and gathering of more than four people at a public place was banned. Inside the premises of the University of Dhaka, students grouped together, defying Section 144. Surrounded and threatened by the police, the students held on to their ground. After rounds of firing tear-gas shells in warning, the police arrested students citing the reason of violation of Section 144. The police then opened fire, and ended up killing four unarmed students, the names of whom are now synonymous with the Language Revolution – Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abdul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar.
Dhaka, once the news of the killings broke out, resembled a battleground. Riots erupted all over the city and Dhaka was enshrouded by a pall. The blood that was shed on that day, wasn’t in vain. Rafiqul Islam, a present resident of Vancouver, Canada, made sure that he left no stone unturned in the process of providing a befitting tribute to the ones who’d lost their lives on that fateful day. He sent a letter to Kofi Annan, the then Secretary-General of the UNO, asking the latter to take necessary measures to preserve languages from extinction. The letter from Rafiqul Islam set off an avalanche of events, which culminated in UNESCO declaring in 1999, that February 21 every year to be observed as the International Mother Language Day.
Since then, the day is observed as one when awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity is promoted world over, multilingualism is encouraged, and languages on the verge of extinction are saved from being swallowed by oblivion. United Nations General Assembly formally recognised the observance of the same by declaring the year 2008 as the International Year of Languages.
The art of speaking, they say, is an art acclaimed over everything else. The vehicle of that art is language. A person’s identity is defined and described, and at times distorted by language. The myriad of words and phrases, the inexplicable mazes of grammar, the serpentine meanders of sentences, and the cosy recluses of poetry. Language is that which makes lives possible. For many, lives function without food and shelter, but seldom any without language.
Six decades down the line, language still reigns over every life as that which simply can never be done away with. Gallons of blood-shed later, language is still that which defines us and emerges over everything else. The inseparable, inexplicable phenomenon called ‘language’ is one that rules over everything else. Religion, sure, has made men wage many wars against each other, but the formation of Bangladesh is one where even that frenzy was overridden by language. Their race might have begun with ‘no nouns, or with no horizons’, but they made sure that their deaths were not glossed over by the flow of time. The revolution that the likes of Abdus Salam and Abdul Jabbar participated in, was one that altered the demographics of the world forever. That language can tower over everything else in life- their lives and deaths drove that fact home.