They Died for their Langauge: Ekushey February

How important is language for any community? Is it secondary to other facets of identity like religion, culture and race? If one looked at the history of Bangladesh—a country born out of its people’s deep-rooted identification with their mother tongue, Bangla (or Bengali), the answer would be a resounding no. Ekushey (meaning twenty-one in Bangla) February marks the genesis of a movement that established language as the primary force that binds a community. Such was the impact of this movement that a whole nation was carved out on linguistic and cultural lines; even though the people shared the same religion (Islam) with other citizens of the country they were initially part of. 

In 1947, India’s independence from British rule came at a steep cost. The country was divided on the basis of religions into India and Pakistan. The latter officially became a Muslim state, while the Indian constitution laid down secular foundations for the country’s people.

Pakistan found itself in a somewhat tricky situation. The country had two provinces—West and East, which were distanced not just by geography, but also by language and culture. East Pakistanis, who formed a majority of Pakistan’s populace, spoke Bangla as opposed to the Urdu spoken by the people of West Pakistan. The country’s government declared Urdu as the official language, even though the majority of people didn’t communicate in that language. In fact, it was even proposed that Bengali documents should be written in Arabic script. Understandably East Pakistanis weren’t amused at the idea. A movement, mainly spearheaded by students and supported by other members of the intelligentsia, gathered momentum. Sensing the magnitude of the simmering unrest, the government clamped down by declaring Section 144, under which all public meetings were deemed illegal.

When defying the ban, students of Dhaka University took out a peaceful procession on February 21, 1952, the police opened fire on them. Several students were killed. This only further infuriated the Bengali population, which culminated in the cessation of East Pakistan from the territory of Pakistan. In 1971, a new country, Bangladesh, was born. Bangla became its official language.

In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day.

Can I forget Ekushey February
Soaked in my brother’s blood?
Can I forget this February
Made of a thousand son-less mothers?
Can I forget the February
Coloured in the blood of my golden country?

~ Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury
(Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)



11 thoughts on “They Died for their Langauge: Ekushey February

  1. It is shocking the extent to which those people in power can go in order to maintain their personal interests, even when they are opposed to that of their people. This is truly a sad episode but at the same time it also shows the importance of Identity and how far people are willing to go to defend their right to maintain their own language and traditions.Excellent post, Sury!Cesar

  2. Cesar, you said it so well. The stories are the same the world over; politicians smothering the interests of ordinary people to serve their vested interests. Shameless, thanks for reading. I am sure you appreciate the sensitive nature of the issue even more. 🙂

  3. Thank you for sharing this. You’d think with our intelligence we’d be way more evolved than we are. But, it’s the people who fight for what they believe in that give me hope.

  4. Terrific post – thank you for sharing! I have a day home so I am trying to say hello to my internet friends! Hope all is well with you and you have a wonderful day!

  5. Nienke, you are so right. It’s the people who stand up to protect their roots that bring us hope and inspirationMarti, so good to see you! I hope all is well with you. 🙂

  6. Hello,A brilliant post Bhaswati on language!One point I just wanted to mention is that what keeps the East & the West Bengal from living in peace and helping each other when they share the same language~

  7. Bhaswati, a touching post and one which has particular significance for me. My father was born in what became Bangladesh. I’m old enough to remember the turmoil around the time of independence and to remember the terrible fear my father had for the relatives he had left behind many years earlier.I also remember a friend seeing some of the news footage asking how fighting groups knew which group was which. He saw the similarities rather than the differences – as an outsider it was easy for him.”In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as International Mother Tongue Day.”I did not know that and I feel the poorer for not having known it. But I feel the richer for the fact that you have taught me it. Thank you.Language is, indeed, a powerful thing. Spoken, or written we sometimes forget what power it holds.

  8. Abhay, thanks for your kind words. You know, the people of East and West Bengal do have some differences, but nothing insurmountable. But when politicians come into the picture, things start getting murky. Otherwise, the two Bengals are pretty much united in spirit and ethos. Amin, first up, welcome back, friend! I missed you. Thanks for reading the post and sharing your insights. I shudder to think of the trauma people like your father went through. The same happened to my grandparents. My grandma was haunted by memories of East Bengal all through her life. So much so, the setting became a part of my psyche, even though I am yet to visit Bangladesh.

  9. After reading your touching and emotional post I have come to one conclusionEkushey February is the main reason for India not reaching the Super 8 stage of World Cup.Its because of Ekushey “Bangladesh” was created.And I wish to express my gratitude to Bangladesh,for saving us from the Batterring and Bruising , we would have experienced at the hands of Austrlaia and South Africa.Disclaimer: By no means I am underplaying the senstive issue raised in the PostWarm RegardsDr.Sumit SethIndian Foreign Service

  10. Dr. Seth, I can’t disagree with you on that. Sure, Bangladesh actually rescued us from the agony of humiliating defeats at the hands of the bigger teams. I didn’t think your comment underplayed my post. It’s true; without Ekushey, no Bangladesh would be there, and India might have still had a slim chance of passing the league stage of the World Cup. 🙂

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