Amar Ekushey Book Fair, one of the greatest yearly events of Bangladesh, has returned to millions of readers again this year and will be open for all throughout the month of February. This fair is a tremendous platform to bring the publishers, writers and readers together. This is all about books and booklovers. It has become endemic to our culture while holding the ideal of our language movement of 1952. This month-long book fair is not only intended to interest people on books rather it is to familiarize the young generations of Bangladesh with the ideals of Bengali language movement which brought back our rights to speak in Bengali in exchange of rivers of blood.
After achieving independence in 1947, Pakistan which included the Urdu speaking West Pakistanis and Bengali speaking East Pakistanis, decided Urdu to be their national language. Despite, all the people of East Pakistan being Bengali speaking, the West Pakistani rulers tried to impose Urdu as mother tongue instead of Bengali.
On 13 February 1948 at Karachi, it was proposed that the assembly members would have to speak either Urdu or English at the Assembly. Dhirendranath Datta, a member from the East Pakistan Congress Party, moved an amendment motion to include Bengali as one of the languages of the Constituent Assembly. The central leaders opposed the motion.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the governor of Pakistan on 21 March 1948 declared that Urdu will be the only official language for both East and West Pakistan. On 31st January 1952 representatives of different cultural and political organizations formed an All-Party Central Language Action Committee. A strike was called on 21 February 1952. The government imposed Section 144 but the Central Language Action Committee decided to violate Section 144.
Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, teachers, thousands of students from school and college of Dhaka city assembled on university campus. The police were unable to control the situation; they fired upon the students as well as the crowd. Jabbar, Barkat, Salam, Rafiq and many others were killed. Many were injured and arrested. On 16 February 1956 the movement achieved its goal finally by forcing the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in adopting both Bengali and Urdu as the state languages of Pakistan.
Since 1952, 21 February has been observed every year and this language movement has a vital cultural impact on Bengali people. After the liberation of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971 this language movement was being observed as Language Movement Day or Shaheed Dibosh or Martyrs’ Day. Bengali is the only language in the world for which many people sacrificed their lives. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the day as International Mother Language Day, on November 17 1999.
The 30th session of the General Conference of UNESCO in 1999 decided that the Organization would launch and observe International Mother Language Day on 21st February every year throughout the world. International Mother Language Day has been celebrated every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
The fair began informally in 1972 at Bangla Academy premises. In 1978, the academy officially took the responsibility of organizing the book fair every year. It was named ‘Amar Ekushey Granthamela’ and a guideline was formulated in 1984. The fair venue was extended to Suhrawardy Udyan in 2013 to accommodate more participants as well as to have more breathing space for book lovers.
Every year millions of visitors visit this book fair and most of them are the representatives of the next generations. But this year it was unfortunate for many as the Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exam started from the very beginning of February. More than 2 million students are participating in this exam barring around 10 million probable visitors of the book fair including the students and their family members. These students are actually a large segment of the next generation whom we need to familiarize with our culture, history and tradition and hence, this major exam is going to create a significant barrier to our motive of passing on the legacy.
The Amar Ekushey Book Fair this year is also going through several challenges and one of the major problems is the abundance of dust at the fair venue. As the fair has extended outside the boundary of the Bangla Academy to a much wider open space the Suhrawardy Udyan, the visitors are facing a lot of trouble from the dust generated from the plants-less land. Moreover, the uncovered works of Metro Rail Project in the adjacent areas are also generating loads of dusts.
On the first weekend of this month thousands of visitors rushed to the fair to collect the books of their favorite authors. But many of them complained that they were having difficulty due to immense dust pollution as it was very difficult to breathe. Many even rushed out of the venue to breathe freely. No visible measures were seen to control this problem though few small steps of the organizers and the government could have easily offset this challenge.
There is no clear mapping of different bookstalls or publishers visible for the visitors. If a visitor is looking to go to the stall of a particular publisher, there is no easy way out to trace out its location. The staffs of the organizers are also not visible and if one can luckily get hold of one of them, not much help can be attained. This requires planned training to help out the visitors of the fair and such initiative is missing every year.
Moreover, the organizers placed a huge counter of BKash at immediately after the entry point and there are many volunteers of BKash. As soon as a visitor enters the fair, volunteers start disturbing them to open new accounts. It feels BKash is getting higher priority than the publishers and many publishers actually complained on that.
The venue of the fair became highly widespread when it was extended to the Suhrawardy Udyan and requires a lot of physical effort to cover fully. There is no support for the physically weak people to enjoy the fair. Adding to that, the environmental condition also bars elders and physically weak ones from taking the taste of this cultural gathering. Hence, there should be some arrangements for this group of people.
The government and the organizers should adopt few steps to eliminate these problems and none of those requires any drastic investment rather will require commitment from different stakeholders. If we cannot provide an excellent surroundings and feelings to the visitors, then this fair will lose its attraction to the people at some stage and that will definitely hurt our culture and nationalism.
No board exams should take place during February. Many might feel it will be unwise to change the schedule of public exams due to a fair. But it is not only a fair rather it is the biggest medium to uphold the nationalistic principles through a festive manner. It is a tool to plant the seeds for knowledge seeking and cultural mindset among the future generations of Bangladesh. With the changing world, our lives are being technology-based but without values and nationalism, it will be very hard to take our country forward.
Though many developments are ongoing in Bangladesh under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the sustainability of that progress is highly dependent on the next generations who should not only be talented but also should be strong by heart holding nationalistic ideology. And to obtain that goal, this Amar Ekushey Book Fair can play a vital role which many of us might not realize. Hence, the education ministry should look into this matter and should not choose February for any public exam in the future.
For next year to reduce dust, the city corporation should plant some grass, which grows very fast, throughout the venue. If the City Corporation starts the works immediately after this year’s fair, next year we will have a green environment during the book fair. Temporarily some covers can be arranged to disallow the dust to flow. The Metro Rail project sites should also be covered to reduce dust pollution. Most importantly, the City Corporation should immediately arrange watering of the fair venue twice a day to make the experience of the fair visitors much tolerant.
Large display boards with the locations of the stalls of different publishers should be installed and multiple information booths with trained and active attendants must be placed. Some arrangements should be there for physically challenged visitors. We have seen that facilities of wheelchairs, electric moving vehicles and attendants in different fairs abroad. As we are arranging this fair for more than 40 years, we should think about service improvement.
We, all Bangladeshis, are proud of ‘Amar Ekushe Grantha Mela’ as it is a symbol of our sacrifice for our ‘Bengali’ language that no other country of world has ever made. This fair is not just a place for selling books rather a place to colour our souls with patriotism as well as knowledge. We hope the government, Dhaka South City Corporation and the organizers will put more focus on enhancing mental peace for the visitors. We wish all Bangladeshis who love their country will visit this fair in a pleasant environment and will return home with greater love for the country.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)