How can I ever forget February 21 – a day smeared in the blood of my brothers?

It’s a day that evokes very strong emotions. Because, it was not just a movement for getting
official recognition for Bangla from the erstwhile Central Government of Pakistan, it became an
assertion of Bengali nationalist identity and set East and West Pakistan on a collision course that
eventually led to the birth of Bangladesh. And thebhasha andolan (language movement) also
inspired development and celebration of Bangla literature, arts and culture, thus having a major
impact on Bengali society at large. February 21, which was recognized by Unesco as
International Mother Language Day at its session in November, 1999, is a national holiday in
Bangladesh where lakhs of people congregate at iconic Shahid Minar in Dhaka – and its replicas
across the country – to pay respects to the martyrs of the movement who were killed in police
firing in Dhaka on this day in 1952. Ekushey Padak, one of the highest civilian awards of
Bangladesh, is given out on this day.

But across the international border, in India, Ekushey February evokes a somewhat mixed and a
trifle tepid response. While a section of Bangla-advocates in West Bengal decry the gradual
erosion of the language from the state’s popular discourse and narrative, many litterateurs and
intellectuals see no reason for attaching too much importance to this day. Linguist Pabitro Sarkar
is one who strongly feels that February 21 should be observed with vigour every year “to
recreate history and promote awareness of the importance of one’s mother tongue,” especially
among the young. “Bangla is being marginalized by English which has political and economic
power. In fact, all vernacular languages in our country are facing a threat from English. People
today feel that learning English opens the doors to higher knowledge and employment. While
that’s true, one also needs to learn one’s mother tongue. But there’s no quarrel between English
and Bangla; my only contention is that English should not be learnt at the cost of Bangla,” he

Author Mani Shankar Mukherjee echoes this view. “Mother tongue should be the foundation of a
proper education. A person who hasn’t learnt his own mother language can’t master a foreign
language,” he says, adding that both Bangla and English can co-exist harmoniously. February
21, reminds Shankar (he’s popularly known by his nom de plume), is not only for Bangla, but for
all vernacular languages all over the world. “In West Bengal, we’ve always had a liberal outlook
towards foreign languages and our litterateurs have mastered many languages including Arabic
and Persian. But they never forgot their mother tongue and were equally fluent and comfortable
in it,” he added. Like Sarkar, he says that many Bengalis, primarily the urban middle class, feel
mastering Bangla is a waste of time because it offers no employment opportunities. “This hasn’t
happened in Bangladesh; they’re committed to Bangla,” he says.

Sarkar says that the craze for “English education”, especially among parents in urban and
semi-urban areas, is harming Bangla. “Parents are obsessed with getting their kids admitted to
English-medium schools, many of which don’t impart quality education. So a large number of
children don’t know wither English or Bangla properly. There are good Bengla-medium schools,
but they’re badly maintained and don’t have proper uniforms etc which parents these days think
is necessary,” says Sarkar. “The move by the last government to have Bangla as the medium of
instruction at the primary level was right, but the government couldn’t convince people about its
desirability,” he added. Shankar, too, felt that a strong grounding in one’s mother tongue is
necessary. “Unfortunately, the craze for English is such that Bangla is suffering. But that’s
because people aren’t aware that a child needs to learn one’s mother tongue first before
learning other languages,” said Shankar.

But both Sarkar and Shankar assert that Bangla won’t die. “As long as literature, theatre and
films are produced in good Bangla, the language will thrive. And a lot of good productions in all
these fields are happening in Bangla,” says Sarkar. Shankar says that with 250 million people
speaking in Bangla, there’s no question of the language dying out. Historian Jayanta Ray, who is
an authority on Bangladesh, disagrees with the contention that Bangla is being neglected in
West Bengal. “If children are not learning Bangla properly, it is the fault of the teachers. There’s
no apathy towards Bangla,” he says.

Poet Sankha Ghosh, however, says Bangla is being neglected. “It’s unfortunate that Bangla is
not given its due place in West Bengal. Bangla is our identity and we should love it, but we have
not been able to make the masses realize this.” While creating awareness about the importance
of Bangla among the masses is important, it should be preceded by making the government
aware of the importance of promoting Bangla, says Ghosh.

National Library director general Swapan Chakraborty, however, has a different take. “The
sooner we realize that West Bengal has more than one language, the better for us. For instance,
it took a long time for us to realize that Gorkhali is a language spoken by many in North Bengal.
A large number of people speak in Urdu. So associating February 21 with only Bangla is wrong…
The best way to observe February 21 is to pay respect to all languages we speak,” he says.

Jayanta Ray contends that with all the hype over February 21, few care to remember another
day where Bengalis were killed while demanding official recognition to Bangla – the May 19,
1961, incident when 11 Bengalis died in police firing in Silchar in Assam.

(Source: )

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