Being a second generation immigrant often means you are raised bilingual, and switching between languages is a part of life. Often it is easy to fall into dismissing the weight and significance of what you’re doing or the unique effect it can have on people. Language is a representation of the people that speak it; it will tell you where a people have come from, what they treasure, their thought patterns. It’s a roadmap to their culture, but only those who care to look long enough will be able to direct themselves.
For myself, speaking Bangla was just part of being a second generation immigrant. It was only upon discovering Ekushey February, literally meaning 21st February, that I found a deeper gratitude and pride to the language that I was raised with. On this day in 1952, the Pakistani police force opened fire on protesting Bengali students campaigning for the recognition of their mother tongue, Bangla. The date defines a unique point in history where lives were sacrificed for their mother tongue. And for me, sitting halfway across the world, over fifty years later, it filled me with a surprising sense of belonging to a piece of my identity that I hadn’t realised I had neglected.
Pakistan was created in 1947, following partition from India and existed as two separate parts: West Pakistan (current day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (current day Bangladesh). The Government of Pakistan declared Urdu to be the sole national language of the new country, despite Bangla being more commonly spoken within the total population. Governor-General at the time, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, branded those who supported the use of Bangla as traitors and enemies of the state. Amongst many other factors, this was viewed as another attempt at supressing the vastly differing culture, arts and heritage of the East wing. With tensions rising, in 1948, protests began to spring up for Bangla to be recognised as at least one of the national languages of Pakistan.
After repeated protests, resistance from the government, and the wavering promises from supporting politicians, zealous students at Dhaka University, currently found in the capital of Bangladesh, pledged to carry forward the language movement. A strike was planned to be held in all educational institutions of the province. On its part, the government invoked Section 144 of the constitution, banning public meetings, rallies and processions. It wasn’t enough to sway the impassioned youths. Bengalis had managed to keep their language distinct within the plethora of languages in the Asian sub-continent and despite centuries of colonisation; its people were all too familiar with defending their heritage. The peaceful procession carried through but was met with blood from West-Pakistani based police forces; five protestors were killed and hundreds more were injured.
To me, Bangla had always been my Amma’s prayers, my Abba’s reassurance, my Nani’s praise. It’s the language of my home and my upbringing. Little had I known that not long ago, the very words I speak with love and endearment, the language that I sorely miss when I’m away from home, was not long ago suppressed and later criminalised on a governmental level. Little had I known that its speakers had always held their mother-tongue to such high regard, unabashedly speaking out to praise and defend the sweetest language in the world.
Ekushey February’s impact transcended the national border, with the sentiment resonating with people across the globe, leading to the creation of International Mother Tongue Day by the UN in 2000. The Shaheed Minar monument in Dhaka stands to commemorate those who were killed in the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations of 1952. It reminds us of the sadness of that day, but also brings us honour in the lengths that Bengalis have gone to retain our heritage. So much so, that the Bengali community of Whitechapel, London, had a replica built, openly displayed for others to visit, see, and learn from.
This International Mother Tongue Day, I implore any Bengalis reading this piece to look further into our rich and resilient history, as this has only scratched the surface of the heritage you hold. I hope after reading this, any polyglots, diasporas, or souls with a connection to their mother-tongue, cherish their language more deeply, as it forms a pivotal part of your very existence on this Earth.
And to those of you who speak one language, and have only been surrounded by one language, know that language is the door into another world. Learn some new words, investigate the origins of the ones you already speak, watch films produced in another tongue, and I guarantee your appreciation for language will only grow. There are worlds yet to discover, and you don’t need to travel to outer space to find them.
Discovering Ekushey February brought me appreciation to my language that I didn’t know was missing, despite my everyday use and love for my mother tongue. And I pray it does the same to you. Language underpins a people’s identity, weaving through each encounter, each cheer of rejoice, each heart felt cry; attacking it is an attack on the very community and culture itself. Ekushey February truly highlights the type and magnitude of kinship that language fosters. Its distinct effect is definitely something to be celebrated!
“Discovering Ekushey February brought me appreciation for my language that I didn’t know was missing.”