At 7:30 this morning the staff from LAMB school and hospital, admin, rehab and other departments, along with many of our children, gathered together in the grounds of LAMB.
We walked through sand, over pebbles, on roads spattered with animal blood and faeces and stopped traffic including tractors and buses which normally hurtle along without stopping for anyone at some risk to ourselves – although it was carefully done.
At the memorial we laid flowers, prayed and – as we had done throughout the procession – sang special songs.
Finally we marched back to the front of LAMB’s hospital and sang the National Anthem as the flag of Bangladesh was raised followed by a black flag which was raised in a complicated fashion resulting in the black flag at the top and the Bangladesh flag half-mast.
Why did we do all of this – all before the school day began properly at 8:40am? Because today is Ekushe February.
Ekushe literally means 21st and this date is celebrated in a similar manner each and every year. It is one of the most important dates in the Bangla calendar (and believe me, there are many candidates in the calendar to challenge it) and it is one that, in theory, the whole world should be celebrating too. In fact, you should be celebrating it too because of the events that took place on the 21st February 1952.
Briefly, what happened was this:
On 14th August 1947 Pakistan became a new independent country but was dogged immediately by many overwhelming problems – not least of which was the physical division of one half being on the west side of India and the other half (now Bangladesh) on the east side.
In March 1948, attempting to unify his country, Jinnah stated that Urdu would be the only state language despite calls for Bangla to be included as it was the language spoken by the majority of Pakistanis.
On 21st February 1952, students at Dhaka University decided to ignore the ban on processions and meetings, newly implemented to stop a march for Bangla to be recognised, and marched anyway. They were shot down by the police and several students (and even farmers) were killed. Many more were injured. Inflamed by this, the people quickly reacted and, eventually, the government had to capitulate. In 1956 Bangla was officially recognised as a state language. But by then, it was too late to stop the rising tide of nationalism.
Jinnah didn’t know it at the time, but he had set the catalyst for the eventual civil war that would take place in 1971 and lead to the formation of Bangladesh. Many more would lose their lives before this country would finally be able to speak its own language freely and with honour. Indeed the name “Bangladesh” literally means ‘The country of Bangla (language)’. The student martyrs of 1952 have been remembered ever since.
In 2000, 21st February became the date of the International Mother Language Day. It was chosen because of what happened on this date in Dhaka. On this day, across the world, we all now celebrate our own national languages and the freedom we have to speak them. Or, at least, we should be.
Being English, I – like most of my own people I suspect – tend to take English for granted. We tend to forget that our language is a vibrant, living thing and it changes as we change. We grow it, nurture it and turn it into the thing it is. Each language has a grace, a style, a character that defines it and defines those that speak it. I have been grateful to learn Bangla, not just to appreciate the language itself and the people who speak it, but to re-evaluate my own language and re-appreciate it all over again.
I am not aware of anything special we do in the UK to celebrate our language, but the Bangladeshis do have another, very practical way to remember. Throughout February, in Dhaka on the university grounds, is held a boimela – a book fair – that lasts a whole month. This is the time that all the new books in Bangla each year are published and released. Thousands upon thousands throng the many stalls and marquees every day in search of new goodies. What a brilliant way to celebrate their language – by celebrating the birth of new Bangla works. There is excitement every year as the fair draws near and helps keep the meaning of ekushe fresh in minds and hearts. These books represent words that young people died to protect – the mela is a tribute to their success.
Those who died 60 years ago today did a remarkable thing and the world should be a better place for it. So be careful with you use of words today. They are yours only for as long as you are prepared to fight for them. Be grateful you won’t have to die for them.