Bengali: The Language that Sparked a Revolution

February 21 is International Mother Language Day (IMLD) and
every year since 2000, UNESCO has led the world in celebrating the occasion.
IMLD was first proposed by Bangladesh, a UN Member State, in 1998 and its
observance was approved by the UNESCO General Conference in 1999. February 21 represents
much more for Bangladeshis, however, than a desire to promote linguistic
diversity. Known as Language Movement Day in Bangladesh, February 21 represents
the culmination of years of institutional racism and police brutality. 
In 1947, the British ceded control of India and the country was
partitioned into two sovereign nations: the Dominion of India and the Dominion
of Pakistan. Subsequently, a dispute arose among Pakistanis as to what the
country’s official language should be. Western Pakistanis, who numbered
approximately 25 million, argued that Urdu should be the sole national language.
Eastern Pakistanis, who numbered approximately 44 million, argued that both
Urdu and Bengali should be Pakistan’s official languages.
From 1947 to 1952, tensions were high between western and eastern
Pakistanis. The government of Pakistan, largely comprised of western
Pakistanis, omitted Bengali from the country’s stamps, currency, and navy
recruitment tests. Eastern Pakistanis, particularly college students and
professors, staged protests and demanded that Bengali be given official status
as a national language. Police attempted to clamp down on public demonstrations
by attacking and arresting protesters.    
On February 21, 1952, tensions came to a head. Student
protesters gathered at the University of Dhaka and armed police surrounded the
campus. Students attempted to break the police line at the university gate and
police began firing tear gas shells toward the gate. Some students attempted to
leave the premises but were arrested as they fled.
Outraged by the arrests of some of their peers, students congregated
outside the East Bengal Legislative Assembly. They attempted to storm the
building and police opened fire on them, killing several people. As news of the
shootings spread, shops closed, public transportation came to a halt, and a
general strike ensued. In 1954, after a lengthy period of violence and unrest, the
Pakistani government granted Bengali official status as a national language.
Unfortunately, that didn’t completely extinguish the flames
of unrest. From 1956 to 1959, the Pakistani military attempted to reestablish
Urdu as the sole national language. Though it failed to do so, eastern
Pakistanis continued to struggle under the weight of discriminatory policies.
They were under-represented in civil and military services and received far
less state funding than their western counterparts.
In 1971, the Pakistani military carried out Operation
Searchlight. One of the stated goals of the operation was to arrest eastern
Pakistanis in favor of independence from western Pakistan. In actuality, the
operation claimed the lives of tens of thousands of eastern Pakistanis. Though
eastern Pakistanis declared independence that same year, they have never
forgotten all those who lost their lives during the Bengali Language Movement.     


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