The identity of languages!

23 Feb,2023



By Avik Chattopadhyay


Avik ChattopadhyayA few days back, the world celebrated the International Mother Language Day. Not that it would have mattered to most of us here in India, but in our neighbour Bangladesh it is a national holiday. In fact it’s the biggest national holiday there. Ask a man or woman on the streets of Dhaka, Barisal or Jessore what the nation’s biggest national holiday is and all of them unanimously will say ‘Shoheed Dibosh’ or ‘Martyrs’Day’. It is bigger than Liberation Day or any other occasion on the calendar of a Bangladeshi.



Shaheed Minar, Dhaka


It is the day when the nation pays homage to young students like Abdus Salaam, Rafiquddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar who laid down their lives at the legislative assembly to police firing for the sake of preserving Bengali as the main language of the then East Pakistan. That was on February 21, 1952. It was the first time in world history that a revolution was led on language. Since 1999, the UN celebrates the day to honour the “mother language”.


To a lesser extent, the day is celebrated in West Bengal too as the language is the same. However, the fervour is much muted and frothy.


Language is one of the biggest symbols of identity for mankind.

For our language and ability to speak and express ourselves through words with their intonations are what make us “social” animals.


Therefore languages are brands in themselves.

Each language carries a certain personality quite distinct from others.

Though our individual mother tongue is obviously above all others, to the general public, mention of a specific language elicits specific responses.

One is lyrical. Another is guttural.

One is scientific. Another is soft.

One is pure. Another is an amalgamation.

One is ancient. Another is modern.

One is forgotten. Another is universal.


The language one speaks also conjures up images of the speaker. And that leads to obvious stereotyping.


In my last visit to Dhaka, I realised that the average Bangladeshi still carries this inner hate for Urdu as a language. While most of us regard it as one of the most lyrical, for them it is a symbol of imposition and colonialism. Therefore, they prefer to shun an otherwise beautiful language as the associations are negative. The same must be the case with colonies where their mother tongues were suppressed and sacrificed to impose the coloniser’s language. Russian was shunned by the ex-Soviet republics post dismantling of the USSR. So was the case with German after the end of the Second World War.


Imposition of a certain language over a people or region that does not naturally speak it never works. While Pakistan tried with Urdu on the Bengali speaker, since Independence we too have been trying the same with Hindi on various regions and linguistic pockets. Interestingly, the first attempt was made way back in 1937 by C Rajagopalachari who wanted Hindi to be taught across all schools in Tamil Nadu [then Madras Presidency]. Post-Independence there was a concerted attempt to make Hindi the national language and switch from English to Hindi in 1965. Riots broke out in Madurai and spread like wildfire across the state leading to a loss of seventy lives. Finally in 1967 the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had to officially assure the people of Tamil Nadu and the nation that English would continue to be the common operating language through the union while every regional language would be preserved. It is important to note that the Congress lost the 1967 election in the state and has never managed a foothold since. Later, attempts by the governments in power, whether through the New Education Policy of 1986 or the Home Ministry order of 2014 have all been met with staunch protests leading to the powers in Delhi retracing their steps.


Periyar’s periodical Kudiyarasu of 03.09.1939 saying “Down with Hindi”


Linguistic imperialism has seen its ugly head in various parts of India depending on the agenda of the political party in power, at the centre and in various states. Organisations like “Aamra Bangali” and “Bangla Pokkho” emerged in West Bengal to lead the anti-Hindi backlash since the 1980s. Bengali faced the brunt in Assam and Bihar. Urdu faces the same in Uttar Pradesh and many north Indian states. Inclusion of Hindi in the Bangalore Metro signage in 2017 and the celebration of Hindi Divas in 2019 saw huge anti-Hindi protests in the city. There has also been this long-standing attempt at imposing Kannada over all else in Karnataka.


This perpetuating linguistic imperialism over centuries has seen some of the finest reactionary literary movements across the world as in India. Most of it has been underground to start with coming into the mainstream with the periodic overthrow of the imperialist powers, be they from outside or from within. The socio-religious stranglehold of Sanskrit led to the birth of Prakrit and the Brahmi script way back in 3rd century BCE as progressive reactionary developments that believed in assimilation and proliferation, rather than be restricted as the domain of an elite few.


The longevity of a language depends on how it keeps evolving over time and incorporates from other languages, to appeal to more and more people, to be flexible in expression as well as representation. The more rigid a language is under the pretext of being pure and scientific, the lesser it is to be readily adopted by the larger population, Sanskrit and Latin being two glaring examples.


Ghoom railway station sign in West Bengal; Southall railway station sign in West London


A train journey is the best way to see new languages crop up in various parts of the country with Hindi and English being the common features. The station signage is possibly one of the best symbols of inclusion and integration. Across West Bengal and Jharkhand, the railway stations in the Santhal areas carry signage in the local Ol-Chiki script too!


Thriving languages are about co-habitation and cross-fertilization. The more languages a society or nation accepts, the more habitable it becomes. Trying to impose a uniform language overall will naturally see reactionary movements as it is an attempt to wipe out a certain identity and culture. And it leads to situations where a certain person who speaks a language as beautiful as Bengali refuses to accept another as beautiful as in Urdu.


But then I guess if the imposition had not been tried, the reactionary movement would never have happened and the importance of the “mother language” would have never been understood!


“Urdu hai jis ka naam hamin jaante hain ‘daagh’

Hindustan mein dhoom hamari zabaan ki hai!”

-Dagh Dehlvi


Post a Comment 

Comments are closed.

Today's Top Stories