Scores of Bangladeshis gathered at their embassy in Beirut Sunday to celebrate International Mother Language Day, an occasion inspired by their people’s popular struggle to safeguard their language in 1952. “On Feb. 21, we saved our language,” the Bangladeshi Ambassador Abdul Moaleb Sarkr told The Daily Star. “At the time the government only chose to recognize Urdu as the national language. We wanted to contest this because our people wanted Bangla to be recognized too.”
To pressure the government to do so, thousands of Bangla speaking students demonstrated in what was then the eastern part of Pakistan to demand their right to preserve their mother tongue.
Their bravery was met with open fire from security forces, killing a number of people. They didn’t die in vain, however, as the government of Pakistan soon elected to recognize the language that was native to the overwhelming majority of their citizens in the eastern part of the country.
Nineteen years later, Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan after a nine month guerrilla war that was supported by India.
Yet their history was recognized by the world far before then. This was no more evident than when the United Nations recognized International Mother Language Day on Nov. 17, 1999, a move that was first proposed by a diaspora of Bangladeshi Canadian intellectuals.
The day was established not only to recognize the sacrifice of Bangladeshi 64 years ago, but also to promote the thousands of others languages that remain under threat.
“This day is particularly special for our people, but we also want to promote the need to protect all languages in the world,” said Bangladeshi diplomat Souheil Miah. “It’s very important that we promote this day in Arabic speaking countries like Lebanon. We want people to keep their language.”
Since International Mother Language Day happened to fall on a Sunday this year, it enabled many Bangladeshi workers in Lebanon to attend the ceremony at their embassy. This is because Sunday is supposed to be the designated rest day for migrant workers in the country, though most are pushed to work for their employer regardless.
In any case, Sarkr was still very pleased with the number of people who were able to attend. He further noted that those unable to do so will honor those who died in their way.
“We will always remember our martyrs,” he said.
Diaspora communities in Lebanon have, over their history, also taken the necessary measures to protect their mother tongue while still adopting the national language of Arabic. The Armenians who escaped the genocide against them during World War I are the most notable example.
Other communities in Lebanon, such as the Kurds, have been less successful in doing so. While their most spoken dialect, Kurmunji, remains a strong source of pride among elderly Lebanese Kurds, many fear that the younger generation will soon lose their mother tongue.
It’s for this very reason that International Mother Tongue Day – known as Ekushey – has become so important, according to the president of Bangladesh, Abdul Hamid.
“Language Martyrs Day is now an indomitable source of inspiration for protecting self-uniqueness of people around the globe,” he said in a statement. “Let the people of different languages be united, let the utmost defunct languages of the world be revived in their communities and let the globe be colored with diverse languages and cultures.”