February 21st marks the International Mother Language Day, which has been celebrated since the year 2000 after UNESCO decided to observe the day to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.
The day underlines the importance of the mother tongue and its role in learning and development, as well as in preserving the cultural heritage. Learning to understand and express oneself in one’s mother tongue should indeed be a democratic right. A good command of the mother tongue is also the best ground to build on when learning other languages.
Currently it is estimated that almost half of the around 6000 languages spoken in the world may disappear by the end of this century. Many of these languages are spoken by a very small number of people – 96 % of the languages in the world are spoken by a total of 4 % of the world population.
Bengali Language Movement
The significance of choosing the date of 21st February is its connection to the Bengali Language Movement. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in a Pakistan that consisted of two parts separated by 1600 km (not sure how the British thought there, divide and rule, I guess…).
The East and the West Pakistan had little in common beside the religion (Islam) and the West dominated to such extent, that they wanted to make Urdu the only official language. The people in the East would not give up on their own language Bengali, and they stood up for their rights.
On the 21st of February 1952, university students in Dhaka were demonstrating against the Pakistani government’s decision to declare Urdu as the only national language. Several were killed while defending their right to the Bengali language.
Eventually the protests did lead to Bengali being recognised as the second official language in 1956, but the East Pakistani population continued to be under-represented in government and divisions grew when the eastern part found itself at an economic disadvantage as well. Ultimately the Bengali Language Movement led to the independence struggle and Bangladesh Liberation War, leading to East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in 1971.
The language martyrs and the movement have been honoured by a monument called Shaheed Minar (pictured above) at the place of the massacre, and the date has been commemorated as a public holiday in the country as Martyr’s Day.
The International Mother Language Day on 21st February 2016 is marked in Stockholm in different ways, for example with different programme at libraries, including Salem al Fakir performing at the Flemingsberg library. The Bangladesh Embassy has an event at 16:00 with cultural programme and discussions.