International mother language day and promoting multiculturalism

Published : Tuesday, 19 February, 2019 at 12:00 AM

February 21 is approaching soon. Along with being an iconic day for the 1952 Bengali Language movement, it attained great importance as international Mother Language Day. This recognition has brought the focus of the whole world on the struggle that this nation had to go through to preserve the right of the beloved language. This day is also known as ‘Shaheed Dibosh’ or ‘Martys’s Day’ as many from then East Pakistan died from the ruthless bullets of the West Pakistani force on the same day of 1952 while they were holding a demonstration in demand of Bengali language as their mother tongue. The world has recognized our sacrifice and we are even demanding Bengali to be the official language of the United Nations. But if we are upholding the values associated with this day as we should still remains a big question.

International Mother Language Day is a worldwide annual observance held to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity. It is also to promote multilingualism. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 17 November, 1999 first announced Feb 21 as International Mother Language Day. The idea to celebrate this day was from the initiative of Bangladesh. International Mother Language Day has been observed annually since 2000 to promote peace and multilingualism around the world and to protect all mother languages, especially those languages which are facing the threat of extinction.

In a resolution, the United Nations General Assembly called on its member states to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world. The resolution was suggested by Rafiqul Islam, a Bengali living in Vancouver, Canada. He wrote a letter to Kofi Annan on 9 January 1998 asking him to take a step for saving the world’s languages from extinction by declaring an International Mother Language Day. He proposed the date as 21 February to commemorate the 1952 killings in Dhaka during the Language Movement.

After Feb 21 getting recognized as International Mother Language Day, another proposal was placed few years back to make Bengali the official language of the United Nations which currently has six official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. But, the proposal seems most unlikely to be materialized, at least in the near future, due to many practical reasons including issues related to geo-politics, finance and country’s influence on the face of the world.

While addressing the 64th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September, 2009 Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina put forward the proposal to make Bengali as an official language of the UN. She argued that, Bengali as a language holds a singular place as a symbol of people’s faith in the power of languages to sustain cultures and indeed the identity of nations. She repeated her call during her addresses at the UNGA in 2010 and 2011.

In 2009, parliament passed a resolution endorsing the prime minister’s proposal. The assembly of West Bengal, a chiefly Bengali-speaking state of India, also passed a similar resolution. Roughly, 30 crore people speak Bengali across the globe. Bengali is also widely spoken in Indian states of Assam and Tripura. The demand is also mostly pushed by the Bangladeshi expatriates along with millions at home. But to realize that dream, we need to have passionate and planned actions which will justify our demands.

In a simple statement, we need to do more for getting higher acknowledgement of the history of Bengali language. It is not only a language but also a culture. International Mother Language Day is not about a single language rather a rare recognition of the diversity among the people of the world. Though throughout the world, several activities are surrounding this day as well as the cause, we remain far behind to do something significant to glorify this day as a world symbol.

There are few activities we do in Bangladesh to celebrate International Mother language Day or the Martyr’s Day. ‘Amar Ekushey Grontho Mela’ or ‘Ekushey Book Fair’ is held throughout the month of February since 1974. This book fair has become a part and parcel of our culture holding the ideals of 1952 language movement as well as has established itself as a platform for exchange of cultural values. This event is equally popular among the children, the youths and the elders. Though the event had been successful in drawing millions of visitors and booklovers every year, it has not yet succeeded to promote the importance of language to the extent it should have. It is turning into just another event like; Dhaka International Trade Fair with lots of visitors but no ideals or nationalistic emotions.

‘Ekushey Padak’ or ‘Twenty First Award’ is provided every year in February. This is the second highest civilian award of the country. The award is given to recognize contributions in a number of fields. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs administers the award. This award should have been somewhat related to Bengali language and literature. But looking into the winners of past few years including this year, unfortunately we must say that nepotism and influence might have become the core of receiving this award. Hence, the principle behind this award which is the preservation of our language and culture is somewhat going missing.

International Mother Language Institute was established in March 2001 after Feb 21 received the recognition of International Mother Language Day with the purpose of language research, promotion and preservation broadly. But regretfully that did not happen a bit and the institution seems to be a complete failure despite its opening in the presence of former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan. The success of this institute could have been a great contributing factor in taking the legacy of Bengali language much further. Despite failures and ineffectiveness, the top management of this institute remains pretty stable though reform in this organization is highly required.

We celebrate International Mother Language Day with some programs and events. But these programs do not go beyond the border. There is no focus on the works of other languages depicting our inability to adopt multilingualism and multiculturalism. To recognize thousands of languages around the world, we need to adopt dynamic programs to promote the achievement of our language martyrs.

Few things should be changed and few things should be added to show our passion to our language and that of others. Though Feb 21 was recognized for the sacrifice of the language martyrs, we should remember that Bengali is a very rich language as many global experts also opined the same. The world has three Bengali speaking Noble prize winners – Rabindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen and Muhammad Yunus. We have many world famous authors – Tagore being the biggest name, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Sharatchandra Chattopadhay, Satyajit Roy, Manik Bondopadhay and many others are legends. But unfortunately Bengali books are not translated in other languages as much as we translate the books from other languages. We need to inform the world about the richness of Bengali Language by promoting it on different forums.

The Amar Ekushey Book Fair’s gravity and sphere should be increased. We should invite the publishers and writers from around the world to participate in this fair. We have to take this opportunity to exchange cultural values and practices. We have to come out from mental narrowness to make it a bigger platform.

We also need to be very careful to choose the winners or nominees of ‘Ekushey Padak’. People with real contribution in language, literature, art and culture should receive this award. Only performance or production should not be the qualification of the winners rather it should be the contribution in the related field. No nepotism or influence can be the deciding factor for this award.

Moreover, we should introduce awards for contributors of foreign language. Throughout the year, we should observe the works in the field of language, literature, art and culture and International Mother Language Institute should be reformed for a much proactive role in this aspect.

Bangladeshi embassies at different countries should have an individual language office. They should promote the richness of Bengali language from that office to create interest among the foreigners to learn Bengali. Scholarship for learning Bengali should be introduced. The embassies should also introduce awards for the scholars of the operating country who are working in the fields of language, literature and culture.

We should also host different events and programs at global forums related to language as that will strengthen our demands of having Bengali as an official language at the UN. These activities will show our respectfulness to Bengali as well as other languages and will portray our seriousness over the importance of language.

Bengali as a language is our pride and 1952’s Language Movement is the force behind our independence. From a mere protest over the issues of Bengali Language as mother tongue gave us the greatest force to achieve something which defines our existence. Hence, we need to work around Feb 21 with a much broader sense in a much planned way. We hope under the wise leadership of PM Sheikh Hasina, Language Movement of 1952 and Bengali language will reach new heights.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)

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