Celebrate the Richness of Mother Tongue and Culture
Bangladeshi Canadians turn memories of a loss into cultural joy
By Ryan Hurley
International Mother Language Day was celebrated on February 20 and into the night of the 21st at the Crescent Town Public School. Members of the Bangladeshi community,
along with many others, gathered to commemorate the events of February 21, 1952, when student protestors marching in support of Bengali language rights were shot by police in what was then East Bengal. The day is considered a seminal event in the movement for Bengali language rights, and by extension, for Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan.
After the partition of India in 1947/1948, the British divided their former imperial colony along religious lines. This solution was favoured by the British, and the west in general—cuius regio eius religio, (“whose region, his religion”) if you will. Dividing people along religious and ethnic lines was also seen as a way to avoid potential class conflict, and therefore the spread of communism. The (then) Dominion of Pakistan was to encompass the predominately Muslim regions of what is today Pakistan and Bangladesh, whereas the Indian peninsula was to be governed by Hindus. This solution caused great anguish on all sides of the divide, and is partially to blame for the continuing hostility in that part of the world today.
East Bengal was placed under the control of the Dominion of Pakistan, which declared Urdu as the only official language. This was problematic as the Bengali-speaking population had its own language and associated culture. Conflict between Bengali and Urdu language groups also preceded partition, as Urdu was favoured by Indian Muslims as a lingua franca (a language adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different), leaving Bengali-speaking Muslims outside of much of the Muslim intellectual discourse. This discontent led to the student protests, and the massacre of the marchers on February 21, 1952, leading to further civil unrest. The massacre is widely viewed as a turning point in the movement for Bangladeshi independence, which would only be won after several decades of conflict in the mid-twentieth century.
The historical implications of the events of February 21 might suggest that the Bangladeshi community would hold it firmly as their own patriotic holiday. However, it has instead gradually turned into an event celebrating mother tongues across the world. This altruistic gesture illustrates the open-mindedness and understanding of the Bangladeshi community as a whole.
At this year’s celebration, attendees were entertained by traditional song and dance. Many politicians were there, including local MPs Matthew Kellway, who introduced a private members bill into the House of Commons seeking official recognition for the day, and Dan Harris, who supported his motion. MPs Olivia Chow and Rathika Sitsabaiesan were also in attendance. There was candle lighting and a laying of wreaths to honour the marchers of February 21. A rendition of the traditional song, “Amar Bhaiyer Rôkte Rangano Ekushe Februari” (“My Brothers’ Blood Spattered”) was sung in memory of the student protestors.
This event was a sombre, yet joyful, celebration of not just the Bengali language, but mother languages around the world. The hard work of those involved made sure that everyone young and old, of Bangladeshi or other descent, had an experience that was both fun and enlightening. The fight for language rights around the world will continue into the 21st century. Events like this one serve to remind us all of the importance of cultural autonomy for people around the world. The Bangladeshi community in Canada serves as an example to all of us.