Barrister Nazir Ahmed reviews the place of the Bangla language, the sacrifices made for its recognition and “International Mother Language Day”.
Bangla is the state language of Bangladesh – more than 155 million people of Bangladesh speak Bangla. It is the mother tongue of almost all people of Bangladeshi origin. Bangla is one of the 23 official languages recognised by the Republic of India and it is the official language of the states of West Bengal and Tripura. It is also a major language in the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Bangla is also the co-official language of Assam, where there are three predominantly Sylheti-speaking districts in southern Assam: Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi. Bangla has been a second official language of the Indian state of Jharkhand since September 2011. It is also a recognised secondary language in the city of Karachi in Pakistan. In December 2002, Sierra Leone’s President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah named Bangla as an “official language” of Sierra Leone in recognition of the work of more than 5,300 troops from Bangladesh in the United Nations (UN) Mission in Sierra Leone peacekeeping force. The national anthems of both India and Bangladesh were written in Bangla by the Bangla Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Another giant of Bangla literature, Kazi Nazrul Islam, is the national poet of Bangladesh. In 2009, elected representatives in both Bangladesh and West Bengal called for Bangla to be made an official language of the UN.
There may be some other countries which have campaigned for or demanded recognition of their languages, but Bangla is the only language for which people have made the highest sacrifice. People gave their lives for Bangla on 21st February 1952. The day of that utmost sacrifice was declared as the “International Mother Language Day” throughout the world by the UN on 17th November 1999 – a day to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000. As a Bengali as well as a Bangladeshi, I remember with utmost respect those who sacrificed their lives for the Bangla language to be recognised. My thoughts and prayers are for those martyrs. May the Almighty (SWT) accept their sacrifice and grant them jannatul ferdous – the highest place in jannah. I would also like to remember and thank those who contributed to the cause and suffered for it (harassment, torture, being falsely implicated in legal cases, being jailed, etc.) in this historic chapter of our language movement which has fought from 1948 for Bangla to be recognised officially.
Three languages are very important to us: Bengali, English and Arabic
In my view, people of Bangladeshi origin must learn three languages side by side: Bengali, English and Arabic. They must learn Bangla because it is their mother tongue and state language, and it is for this language that the utmost sacrifice of an unprecedented nature was made. With about 220 million native speakers, and about 250 million speakers in total, Bengali is one of the most spoken languages, ranked seventh in the world. In order to learn other languages, one must be good at one’s own native language. One who is competent in his or her own language can easily pick up other languages. In other words, the mother tongue is a gateway to other languages.
Alongside Bangla, English must be learned because it is the only international language by which one can communicate anywhere in the globe. Truly, the “English” language is the most important language in the world. It is an international language in the proper and true sense. It is the mother tongue and the first language of some of the most powerful nations and developed countries of the world. After Bangla, English is a highly desirable language in Bangladesh. In many countries of the world, English is the second or third official language. Hardly any country can be found on the earth where English is not spoken or written or at least understood. English is given due importance (often over-importance, too) in non-English speaking countries. Even in those countries, native applicants who are fluent or competent in English are given apparent priority in the competitive job market. Almost all international bodies, agencies, institutions and organisations consider fluency and competence in the English language as one of the mandatory requirements for recruitment or appointment of their staff. The English calendar is followed in all international trades and businesses and by almost all countries of the world, regardless of whether they are English speaking or non-English speaking.
In Bangladesh, English is widely spoken, written and used. Students who conducted their school studies in the medium of English or students who studied at public schools but were good at English have, statistically, been doing better in their subsequent profession, job or career. Generally, a student or job applicant who has good command of English is considered to be smart, skilled and competent. Thus, apart from linguistic value and the international dimension, the English language has a distinct economic value too. The former British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Mr Anwar Chowdhury once rightly said “English is not only a language, but it is an essential commodity too.”
Besides Bangla and English, Arabic must also be learned. At least 85% of the population in Bangladesh are Muslims. The holy book of Islam, the Quran, was revealed in Arabic. Other important religious texts, including the major and authentic hadith books and original tafseers, are written in Arabic. In order to understand the religion of Islam properly and perfectly in a non-alienated way, a knowledge of the Arabic language is essential. Apart from the religious perspective, there are economic and business benefits as well in learning Arabic. There are huge markets and employment prospects in the Middle East and in some countries of Africa, in which the native or state languages include Arabic. Arabic is one of the current official languages of the UN. Therefore, knowledge of the Arabic language, regardless of religion, would be an invaluable communicative asset for exploring that huge market and to obtain the maximum benefit from that global opportunity.
Our children in the UK can easily learn four languages
Our children who live in the United Kingdom can easily learn four languages: English, Bangla, Arabic and one modern language. The medium in which our children’s teaching and learning is conducted in the UK is English. Therefore, parents do not need to do anything extra for their children to learn the English language. They will automatically and naturally learn and be competent in the English language and literature. Alongside the English language, all pupils in state school are required to learn a modern language: either French or Germany or Spanish or another suitable language. It is a part of their national curriculum. With the efforts of their school and a little effort and support from their parents, our children can learn one of the modern languages. The first or at least the second language of almost all of our children is Bangla. Most of them have Bangla as their mother tongue. Bangla is widely spoken in the house and the community they live in. With proper support and care, our children can easily learn Bangla. Almost 90% or above of those of British-Bangladeshi origin in the UK are Muslims. To all Muslims, Arabic has a distant value and importance, for the reasons stated above. With extra care and support, our children can easily learn the Arabic language. Learning more languages is like acquiring new skills. Those who are competent in their own language, be it Bangla or English or any other, they can easily grasp other languages. With proper support, guidance and care, our children can be multi-lingual – skilled in four languages! This is a unique opportunity for our children which should not be taken or considered lightly.
Can “Bangla” be fully introduced in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh?
Although “Bangla” is our mother tongue and the state language of Bangladesh, the language of the Apex Court of Bangladesh is, however, English. Thus, many people demand that “Bangla” be fully introduced in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. As mentioned above, we are the only nation on earth which sacrificed lives for the restoration of our mother tongue. This is probably why when the month of February comes, we become emotional and there is, no doubt, a logic for being so. But when people demand the introduction of “Bangla” fully in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, they genuinely need to consider the wider importance and international implications. When the late Dr M Zahir, an eminent jurist and the country’s leading company law expert, visited London a few years ago, I discussed this with him and drew some issues to his kind attention. One of them was the possibility of introducing “Bangla” in the Supreme Court. He straightaway replied, “Nazir, look, three things you cannot do in Bangla: Namaj (prayer) cannot be done in Bangla, company law cannot be done in Bangla and Supreme Court proceedings cannot done in Bangla.” There is a strong logic for this assertion. One of those is perhaps that the Supreme Court judgements of a country are often referred to throughout the world. For example, House of Lords’ judgments and the judgments of the Indian Supreme Court are frequently referred to the proceedings and hearings of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. Likewise, in order for the judgments of our Apex Court to be referred to the proceedings of the Apex Court abroad, the judgments would have to be of that standard. Thus, if the judgement is written in Bangla, can it have international force and be referred to from abroad?
How could “Bangla” be an official language of the UN?
Six languages are currently official languages of the UN. These are: English French, Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Spanish. A proposal has been made to include “Bangla” as one of the official languages of the UN. Besides Bangla, Esparento, Hindi, Portuguese and Turkish have also been proposed. There have been some campaigns, albeit of a very limited scale, for recognising Bangla as one of the UN’s official languages. Despite all these, the UN has not recognised it yet.
The mere wish or desire to have Bangla recognised by the UN, or a limited campaign to achieve this, would not bring any fruitful result. In order for Bangla to be recognised by the UN, the value and importance of the country would have to be raised. Our image would have to be positive throughout the world. The presence of a proper democracy in the country, having a record of upholding human rights and the rule of law, being known outside the country as a civilised and desirable nation, less dependence on foreign aid, having an excellent and cordial relationship with the major and powerful nations and having competent diplomacy are all relevant key factors in order for this demand – that Bangla be recognised by the highest international body, the UN – to be pursued. If anyone compares and assesses our country against the barometer of the above components, he or she can easily ascertain where our country is at the moment. Empty rhetoric, emotional outcry and making demands without being able to show support for them are one thing – and marching ahead with a solid demand backed by sustainable and appreciable records and tangible and concrete evidence is completely another thing. The latter is the most important thing needed for our country. The sooner our highest authorities realise this, the better for our country.