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Making language a unifier rather than a divider

25 Feb 2020 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      


PM Mahinda Rajapaksa at International Mother Language Day celebration held at Independence Square



  • Bengalis are known for their painters, poets and singers, the Bangladesh High Commission in Sri Lanka celebrates the “International Mother Language Day” by organising painting, music and essay writing competitions for school kids
  • On February 21 this year, Independence Square in Colombo came alive with songs in Sinhalese, Russian, Bengali, Hindi, Vietnamese and Dihevi (Maldivian) sung by native speakers of those languages as well as Sri Lankans



Historically, languages have been a unifier as well as a divider of communities and counties, though their divisive role has gained more attention, as indeed, all conflicts do.   

In India, in 1950, its top leaders wanted to make Hindi the sole official language with English to be used only till 1965. When the time for the changeover came in 1965, there was a massive agitation in Tamil-speaking Tamil Nadu. The “language war” was so important politically that the Congress Party which stood for Hindi has not been able to come to power in the State since 1967.   

Although the Central Indian Government assured English would remain a co-official language indefinitely, Hindi was sought to be imposed through the “Three Language Formula.” But Tamil Nadu rejected it. The TN government schools teach only Tamil and English. It also rejected the Central Government-funded “Navodaya Schools” because Hindi would be compulsory there.   

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the language issue gave the movement for a federal constitution a turbo boost when, in 1956, the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike Government declared Sinhala as the sole official language. This gravely affected the Tamils living in the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces. The language issue, coupled with the earlier demand for regional autonomy, led to agitations, which resulted in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (B-C) pact in 1957.   

The B-C pact recognised Tamil as the official language of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, but without infringing the position of Sinhala as the official language. The pact also envisaged a degree of “regional autonomy” for the Northern and Eastern Provinces. However, due to Sinhalese opposition, Bandaranaike tore up the B-C pact in 1958.   
A Tamil militant movement which began in the 1970s was temporarily stopped by the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. The accord said the official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala, Tamil and English. It also united, albeit conditionally, the North and East to meet the Tamils’ demand for a united Tamil-speaking province.   

However, in 2006, the unification of N-E was annulled by a court. To this day, the actual use of Tamil is very limited outside the North and East due to the non-recruitment of translators. Bilingualism exists only in its barest form. Recently, a conflict arose over the singing of the national anthem in Tamil at national functions. The incumbent regime stopped it at the national level but said the Tamil version could be used in the North and East.   


In Bangladesh, the language movement played a critical and catalytic role in shaping Bengali nationalism which resulted in the formation of Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971.   

The Bengali-speaking majority in Islamic Pakistan living in the Eastern Wing of the country called East Pakistan (which subsequently became Bangladesh) had been agitating to get recognition for Bengali as a co-official language of the country along with Urdu since Pakistan was formed in 1947.

To resist the imposition of Urdu as the sole official language, “Tamaddun Majlish” was established by Prof. Abul Kashem in 1947. On December 6, 1947, Dhaka University students demanded that Bengali be made one of the official languages of Pakistan and the Rashtrabasha Sangram Parishad (Language Action Committee) was formed with Prof. Nurul Huq Bhuiyan as convener.   

In 1948, in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, only English and Urdu could be used. This provoked Dhirendranath Datta, a member from the East Pakistan Congress Party, moved an amendment to include Bengali as one of the languages of the Constituent Assembly. He noted that out of the 6 crore 90 lakhs people of Pakistan, 4 crore 40 lakhs were from East Pakistan with Bengali as their mother tongue. But Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and Khawaja Nazimuddin, Chief Minister of East Pakistan, opposed the motion.   

Bengali students and intellectuals rose in revolt. On March 11, 1948, a general strike was observed in East Pakistan. When Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder and Governor-General of Pakistan, visited East Pakistan on March 19, 1948, he reiterated that Urdu would be the only State language of Pakistan. This led to the formation of the Dhaka University Language Action Committee on March 11, 1950. By the beginning of 1952, the language movement had taken a serious turn. A severe economic downturn at the time added fuel to the fire.   
On January 27, 1952, Khawaja Nazimuddin, as Pakistani Prime Minister, offered a compromise: He said East Pakistan could use Bengali but Pakistan’s national language would be only Urdu. There was an instantaneous negative reaction to Nazimuddin’s speech. Adding fuel to the fire, the Pakistani Government also proposed that Bengali be written in the Arabic script.   
The Language Action Committee decided to call a hartal and organise demonstrations and processions on February 21, 1952 throughout East Pakistan.The East Bengal Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution recommending the recognition of Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan. The demonstrations led to police firing and deaths.   
The language movement continued till 1956 when it finally forced the Pakistan Constituent Assembly to adopt both Bangla and Urdu as State languages of Pakistan.   

Martyrs’ And International Mother Language Day

Since 1952, February 21 has been observed as Martyrs’ Day. On November 17, 1999, UNESCO adopted a resolution proclaiming February 21 as International Mother Language Day.   
The observances of Martyr’s Day on February 21 in Bangladesh and elsewhere are free from rancor towards Urdu or any other language. The accent is on bringing to the fore the need to safeguard one’s mother language for the preservation of a people’s culture, ethos, history, arts and crafts against the displacement or obliteration of languages due to globalisation and authoritarianism.   

Perhaps, because Bengalis are known for their painters, poets and singers, the Bangladesh High Commission in Sri Lanka celebrates the “International Mother Language Day” by organising painting, music and essay writing competitions for school kids, instead of holding seminars for the erudite or creating a platform for airing contentious political issues relating to language.   

On February 21 this year, Independence Square in Colombo came alive with songs in Sinhalese, Russian, Bengali, Hindi, Vietnamese and Dihevi (Maldivian) sung by native speakers of those languages as well as Sri Lankans.   

The Muslim Choral Ensemble directed by Haadia Galely presented a full-throated rendition of a Bengali song closely associated with the 1952 language movement in Bangladesh. The ensemble also sang a Lankan patriotic song in Sinhalese made originally by Pandit Amaradeva. An India-trained Sri Lankan Hindustani classical singer, Palinda Udawela Arachchi sang Rabindranath Tagore’s “Ekla Chalo Re” in an innovative way, combining the original Bengali melody with Hindustani classical embellishments.   

Ambassador of Vietnam Phan Kieu Thu surprised everybody by singing a song in Vietnamese and another in Russian. Two Lankan students from the Russian Cultural Centre sang typical Russian folk melodies with gusto. A young Lankan girl played a plaintive Chinese tune on the Chinese oboe called Hulusu flawlessly. Maldivian students presented two melodious songs in Dhivehi.   

Bangladeshi High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Riaz Hamidullah said languages should be celebrated through art, painting, poetry, essay writing and through song and dance. The arts bring out the best and noblest in man and are therefore the best medium to express the theme of the 2020 International Mother Language Day, which was ‘Language for Unity.’   
The envoy said the response to his idea of celebrating the International Mother Language Day in this fashion was tremendous. The competitions announced attracted over 2,000 entries. Three renowned Sri Lankan artistes carefully went through the paintings entered and chose 19 winners in various categories. The prizes were given away by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.   


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