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O Amar Bangla Bhasha

The question as to what would be the state language of Pakistan was raised immediately after its creation. Muslim scholars and leaders logically believed that Urdu, only spoken by 7%, should be the lingua franca because it had gained a reputation as the cultural symbol of subcontinental Muslims. However, eastern Pakistanis regarded Urdu as the language of the elite, not the language of the people in the eastern province - who made up 56% of Pakistan's population - where Bangla was the mother tongue.

After Pakistan's "founding father" Muhammad Ali Jinnah and, later, fellow Bengali Khwaja Nazimuddin declared Urdu as the official state language, protest erupted throughout the eastern wing. On 21 February 1952 (8 Falgun 1359 in Bangla calendar) students protest led to killing of ordinary citizen by the police. More people were killed the next day. In Bangladesh 21st February - 'Ekushey February' in Bangla - is observed as 'Shaheed Dibosh' (Martyr's Day) whilst the United Nations declared it officially as "International Mother Language Day". The Shaheed Minar (Martyr's Column) in Dhaka, and other replicas around the world, was constructed as tribute to those who lost their lives to protect Bangla.

However, the language movement was more than a fight to preserve a rich language dating back over 1,000 years. It was a fight for social and economic justice. A fight to maintain one's own identity at a time when official measures were taken to crush it. A fight taken up by ordinary people, who just wanted to live. A fight taken up by women and children so future generation can say "moder gorob, moder aasha, a'mori Bangla bhasha". For Bengali speaking people worldwide, the language itself is a big part of their history... the very birth of today’s Bangladesh is intimately linked with the Bengali language or Bangla.

Today, Bangla is the 6th most spoken language in the world.

Timeline of major events during Bhasha Andolon of 1947-52

  • (June 1936 - 14-Point Manifesto by Central Parliamentary Board of Pakistan for "protection and promotion of Urdu")
  • (3 October 1937 - "Urdu should be language of Bengali Muslims" advocated at Lucknow Session of Muslim League)
  • 17 May 1947 - Muslim League leaders announce in Hyderabad, India, that Urdu will become state language for the still to be formed Pakistan
  • 14 July 1947 - Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed says Pakistan should adopt Urdu
  • 29 July 1947 - Bengali Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah defends Bangla
  • July 1947 - Gono Azadi League (GAL) formed by Kamruddin Ahmed
  • 1 September 1947 - Tamaddun Majlish formed under Professor Abdul Kashem's leadership
  • 6-7 September 1947 - Gonotantric Jubo League (Democratic Youth League or DYL) held conference to resist Urdu
  • 15 September 1947 - Tamaddun publish pamphlet "Pakistaner Rashtro Bhasha Bangla na Urdu?"
  • 27 November 1947 - Fazlur Rahman Khan, Bengali Minister of Education, held Education Conference in Karachi, Pakistan, where Bangla is dropped
  • 6 December 1947 - Dhaka University's teachers & students demand Bangla as an official language
  • December 1947 - First "Rastrobhasha Sangram Parishad" (State Language Movement Committee) formed by Tamaddun's Professor Nurul Huq Bhuiyan
  • 25 February 1948 - Dhirendranath Datta request Bangla as an official language in Constituent Assembly of Pakistan held in Karachi. Liaquat Ali Khan, Khwaja Nazimuddin & others object
  • 26 February 1948 - Student in Dhaka protest
  • 11 March 1948 - Shamsul Huq forms committee to led student hartal (demonstration) in order to conduct the Language Movement in a systematic way an all party organization named “Rastro Bhasha Sangram Parishad” was formed
  • March 1948 - Chief Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin signs 7-Point agreement with 'Parishad'
  • 21 Mar 1948 - Md. Ali Jinnah, father of the nation and Governor General of Pakistan, declares "Urdu and only Urdu" as national language of Pakistan in Ramna Racecourse (Suhrawardy Udyan), Dhaka, East Pakistan
  • 24 March 1948 - Jinnah reiterates point in Curzon Hall campus of DU. Bangla students protest by crying out collectively "no, no" in loud voice
  • 11 September 1948 - Jinnah dies. Nazimuddin becomes new Governor-General of Pakistan
  • 8 November 1948 - Nazimuddin delivers watered down version of Bangla policy in the East Bengal Legislative Assembly
  • 27 November 1948 - Golam Azam presents 'Historic Memorandum' to PM Liaquat Ali Khan demanding Bangla as state language
  • 7 February 1949 - Central Pakistan education advisory board recommends Arabization of Bangla after receiving recommendation from Fazlur Rahman
  • 23 June 1949 - Awami Muslim League formed by Maulana Bhashani
  • 6 December 1950 - East Bengal Language Committee, presided by Maulana Akram Khan, recommends Arabization of Bangla
  • 1950 - PM Liaquat Ali Khan declares "Only Urdu will be the national language of Pakistan"
  • 16 October 1951 - Liaquat Ali Khan assassinated in Rawalpindi. Nazimuddin becomes new Prime Minister and Ghulam Muhammad, a public servant, becomes Governor-General
  • 26 January 1952 - Nazimuddin declares "only Urdu" as state language in Paltan Maidan, Dhaka. This enrages people in East Pakistan
  • 31 January 1952 - Kazi Golam Mahboob convenes "Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrobhasha Kormi Porishod" (All-Party Central Language Action Committee) with 40 various members. Maulana Bhashani selected as chairman
  • 4 February 1952 - Abdul Matin forms "Dhaka University's State Language Committee" in language protest. Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrobhasha Kormi Porishod decide to declare February 21 as the day for strikes throughout the province terming the day as "Bhasha Dibosh" (Language Day). Gaziul Haq and Abdul Matin led student procession
  • 19 February 1952 - Zillur Rahman leads student protest in Amtala of DU
  • 20 February 1952 - Section 144, banning all processions and meetings for 30 days, imposed by District Magistrate of Dhaka on behalf of Pakistan Government
  • Ekushey (21) February 1952 - Peaceful student, and later public, protest leads to killing by armed police. Amongst the dead is a 9 year old boy. They become the first shaheeds (martyrs) of Bangladesh. Chief Minister Nurul Amin ignores plea by Maulana Tarkabagish and others. Curfew announced by government
  • 22 February 1952 - Gayebana Janaza held for Ekushey shaheeds, but more people killed by police again. First Shaheed Minar created in Dhaka
  • 23 February 1952 - Tamaddun criticises government. Government orders crackdown of student leaders and prominent figures
  • (17 April 1953 - Ghulam Muhammad dismisses PM Nazimuddin and appoints Bengali Muhammad Ali Bogra, Ambassador to USA, as new PM)
  • (21 October 1955 - Awami Muslim League renamed to 'Awami League')

Globe made up of flags around the world

Importance of language

Language is a crucial part of any culture. It is important in building a democratic state and transcends the distinctions of class. It is the first tool for a child to express himself or herself.

Language is a dominant feature in determining the bases of nationalism or ethnicity, as it represents a nation’s identity and preserves its heritage. It is also the driving force behind the unity of the peoples and makes them distinct from other nations. Once a language is adopted into a society it is difficult to eliminate it until the society itself decides to change or adopt something different.

Language becomes a symbol of identity when different ethnic groups compete for power and resources. Easy communication facilitates the manipulation of group identities on the basis of religion or language.

In industrial, modern societies one simply cannot enter the domains of power without being able to manipulate language for entry into these domains. It is the language of employment, and without employment one cannot possess much power in modern societies.

Dr. Tariq Rahman, author of "Language and Politics in Pakistan" (1996)

No better form of expression then your own mother language

It is often said that poets and writers find some of their best pieces of work in their own language. William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language, wrote his masterpiece "Romeo and Juliet" (c. 1591) in English. Victor Hugo wrote "Les Miserable" (1862) in his mother tongue French. Leo Tolstoy wrote "War and Peace" (1869) in his native language Russian. The first Chinese to win Nobel Prize in Literature, Gao Xingiian, wrote his award winning "Soul Mountain" (1990) in Chinese. And there are many other literary master pieces that were fist written in the respective mother tongue and then translated into other languages.

Literature is woven round the lives of people like a spider's web. Literature therefore is at its epic when it speaks the language of the people.

Power of word

Michael Madhushodhon Dutta, the father of Bangla sonnets and the pioneer of Bangla literature, spoke of a void in his work after adopting English as his medium for his early literary work (such as poetry and drama) and not using his mother tongue Bangla.

Kobita - Kopothokkho Nod

Michael Madhushudan Dutta reflecting on the loneliness of his soul while he is away from his homeland, away from his mother tongue, in the poem "Kopothakko Nod"

In stark contrast, Rabindranath Tagore's literature flourished in Bangla. He covered each and every aspect of life with his literary work and it was Bangla that brought him all the glory, including the Nobel Prize for Literature (1913).

Kobita - Banglar Mati Banglar Jol

"Banglar Mati, Banglar Jol" by Rabindranath Tagore

From an early age, Madhusudan desired to be an Englishman and was lured by the works of English poet Byron. However, he was to regret his desire in later life when he talked ardently of his homeland as is seen in his poems and sonnets from this period.

On the other hand, come to Rabindranath Tagore, writing in Bangla how he remains, even to this day the versifier of Bangla literature! Tagore's works touch the souls of people and fill the hearts with joy. The hearts are enlightened with the messages in his poems, songs, fictions and plays. A section of the songs of "Gitobitan" is dedicated to "shodesh" (motherland). He was deeply patriotic and like an artist painted the picture of Bangla throughout his literary life. His works reverberate his love for motherland and mother tongue.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

  • # Rabindranath Tagore (aka Robindronath Thakur) (1861 - 1941)
  • Michael Madhusudan Dutta (1824 - 1873)
  • William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) English poet and playwright.
  • Victor (Marie) Hugo (1802 - 1885) French poet, novelist, and dramatist who was the most well-known of all the French Romantic writers. Among many volumes of poetry, 'Les Contemplations' and 'La Légende des siècles' stand particularly high in critical esteem. Outside France, his best-known works are the novels 'Les Misérables' (1862) and 'Notre-Dame de Paris' (1831), also known in English as 'The Hunchback of Notre-Dame'.
  • Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (aka Leo Tolstoy) (1828 – 1910) Russian writer who primarily wrote novels and short stories. Later in life, he also wrote plays and essays. His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as 'The Kingdom of God Is Within You', were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Gao Xingjian (Born 1940) Chinese novelist, playwright, critic, and renowned stage director and an artist. First Chinese to be awarded Nobel Prize for Literature (2000) "for an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity". Migrated to France in 1987 and granted French citizenship in 1997.

Motherland, mother tongue and the mother herself are essential to epitomize a person's life. The importance of these in the over all development of an individual is immense. Without the proper identity of these in life a person is like a wingless bird. The mother tongue is like the wind under the wings. It is the medium through which self- expression takes place in its highest form. There are people who can express themselves well in foreign languages too. However history seems to show that it is the mother tongue that bears the beacon.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

World ranking

There are over 6,900 living languages in the world and Bangla is the 6th most spoken language with nearly 300 million speakers in the Indian subcontinent alone. It's spoken by three times more people than Urdu. Bengali is the 2nd most spoken language in India which has the second highest world population after China.

In contrast, Urdu is ranked 20th.

Regional dialect of Bangla, such as Rangpuri (north-west), Chittagonian (south-east), and Sylheti (north-east) are also in the top 100 most spoken languages in the world. Though these dialects an vary from the formal version of Bengali, they still contain Standard Bengali words.

Table: Most spoken languages in the world (2012)
RankingLanguageSpeakers (millions)
1 Chinese 1,213
2 Spanish 329
3 English 328
4 Arabic 221
5 Hindi 182
6 Bengali 181
7 Portuguese 178
8 Russian 144
9 Japanese 122
10 German 90.3
20 Urdu 60.6
59 Rangpuri (dialect, Bangladesh) 15
69 Chittagonian (dialect, Bangladesh) 13
78 Sylheti (dialect, Bangladesh) 10.3

Source: Ethnologue - Languages of the World

Bangladesh is considered to be a monolingual country in which more than 98% of the population is speakers of Bangla language. However, there are more than ten languages in such a small country like Bangladesh. Urdu, Monipuri, Chakma, Santali, Garo, Rakhain, Tipra are just some of the other languages present in Bangladesh.

S. M. Mehdi Hasan, Analyst