FIFTY-four years ago a number of young people of what was then the eastern part of Pakistan, led by the valiant students of the University of Dhaka, wrote a new chapter in the history of mankind. With their valour and blood they asserted that it is an inalienable right of a people to speak in their mother tongue.
From that initial protest against myopic attempts to subjugate our people linguistically, culturally, politically and economically, originated the unrelenting struggle that ultimately triumphed with the birth of
Bangladesh, a struggle which in its final stages turned into an armed fight by an essentially peaceful nation.
In spite of the passage of so many years even now from the first second of February 21 hundreds of thousands of our people all across Bangladesh begin expressing their unremitting respect for those who had made the supreme sacrifice for a people to be counted as a free nation.
Languages are conveyor of heritage and identity and nation through all these are sources of inspiration for building. That is why language is an emotive issue, as it is central to the existence of a people with its culture and to their definition of who they are, who they want to be, how they wish to be identified.
Language can also be used to strengthen subjugation and divide a country as was done in the then Pakistan and South Africa, through the imposition of Urdu and Afrikaans that led to initially students' and finally people's revolt in then East Pakistan in 1952 and youth uprising in South Africa in 1976. The fires stoked then ultimately resulted in the independence of Bangladesh and in the demolition of apartheid in South Africa.
In order to preserve the cultural heritage of humanity and in recognition of the sacrifices of the students for their mother language Bangla in 1952, the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1999 declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day. In a globalised world, where a few languages take priority, the UN and the UNESCO sought to protect and promote linguistic diversity and multilingual education.
Fifty-four years later as the direct consequence of what happened on that fateful February day in our Dhaka city, the International Mother Language Day is now a universally observed occasion for peoples around the world. It is a day which reaffirms that every culture has the right to nurture, promote and preserve itself in all its manifestations.
It is the immense diversity of the human race that makes the world so wonderfully colourful. Because of this diversity mankind has been able to enrich their civilisations with unique blends of songs and poetry, dance and music, paintings and sculptures throughout ages---a veritable tapestry of the individual aspirations and history.
Certainly, human history is one of constant changes. As has been said long ago, the only constant is change. This is, of course, both a boon and a bane. Consequently, over the years many languages have been lost and some are petering out of existence. At one time, there were between seven and eight thousand distinct languages. Now, it's estimated, very few speak most of the six thousand known languages around the globe.
Therefore, wouldn't it be a shame and a tragedy if nearly 3000 of these mother languages become extinct as Prof. Stephen Wurn who spoke some 50 languages himself, has described in his compilation "Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Extinction." It falls upon us, as heirs to the collective wisdom of our ancestors to preserve this heritage. And positive initiatives can bring results as one such example has shown.
Cornish, the mother language of England which is said to have become extinct in 1777 has been revived through recent efforts and now over 1000 persons speak the language.
Linguists therefore have a frenetic task on their hands as they try to document the remaining languages especially because half of today's languages have fewer than ten thousand speakers and, more alarmingly, a quarter have less than one thousand only. The loss, to put it simply and factually, would be irreparable.
While John Stuart Mills said, "Language is the light of the mind," and the poet Ezra Pound declared, "Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost degree," George Orwell underscored the other reality: "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."
I put these facts in relief essentially to state that while language can be ennobling, it can with almost equal felicity become a tool to bring harm to others. Hence, language can be made to serve the goals of information just as easily as it is abused purposes of misinformation and disinformation. In the world right now there are instances galore of languages being made to serve destructive objectives wrecking havoc where, instead, harmony and peace ought to have reigned.
Bangladesh is not the most successful land on the earth and has, perhaps, more than its fair share of natural calamities. If you live outside Bangladesh you're very likely hold with the notion that's all it is good for. The reality is rather different.
Bangladesh is one of the few countries which has already attained three of the Millennium Development Goals, which are to be met by 2015. It has by this year reached the goals of primary school enrollment, gender parity in education and access to safe drinking water.
Repeated surveys, conducted by international organisations, revealed that Bangladeshis are the happiest people in the world.
The most recent study, carried out by the BBC World Service Trust, showed that seventy-four per cent of Bangladeshis said they were happy with their current life and ninety-six per cent stated they were proud to be Bangladeshis. Surely, this must open up a new debate on what makes a people feel satisfied and proud. It is probable that in Bangladesh the meaning of life is being rewritten as a quiet social transformation speeds ahead.
A recent report by the United Nations Development Programme said, inter alia, that Bangladesh demonstrated it is possible not only to sustain strong human development across a broad front even with relatively modest levels of income growth but also to graduate into the medium developed countries category from the point of view of Human Development Index.
The UNDP representative went on to declare:
"Over the past decade Bangladesh has been a leading light in improving human development and should seek to lead the way for other countries as the world looks to achieving the Millennium Development Goals." No mean achievement for a land that is host to over 140 million people in an area of merely 154,000 square kilometers. Since 1975, the report further said, Bangladesh has steadily improved life expectancy, education and the standard of living. And for the first time, it continued, Bangladesh has overtaken India in reducing infant mortality, one of the key indicators of the Human Development Report. Evidently, scoring victories over adversities, defying the odds and proving the prophets of doom wrong are the very Bangladeshi characteristics. So it has been for eons and so it will be for ages to come.
The World Economic Forum, last year for the first time, made an attempt to assess the current size of the gender gap by measuring the extent to which women in fifty-eight countries have attained equality with the other gender in five critical areas, namely, economic participation, economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being.
And the finding? Bangladesh emerged ahead of such countries as Italy, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand, and on the top of all Muslim-majority nations surveyed. On a scale of seven, where Sweden scored the highest with 5.53, Bangladesh scored 3.75 trailing mighty Japan by only 0.01 point while other countries in South Asia, including Pakistan and India were distant followers. Definitely something to shout about even at the risk of sounding immodest!
Given the extent of confrontational attitudes in today's world the importance of respecting various cultural identities assumes more urgency than, may be, ever before.
And what's equally important to remember, as all right-thinking people certainly do, the right to expression in any language comes with obvious responsibilities. This includes the reality of being sensitive to the rights of others and evading it is another definite way of engendering despair, anguish and disruption in civilised coexistence, the manner of collective living that has permitted the flowering of so many varied ways of living in so many different cultures which in turn has allowed the growth of so much great literature and art.
It is obvious and essential as well that all attempts to preserve and promote mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity but it will also create a fuller understanding of linguistic and cultural traditions. This will result, without doubt, in generating better solidarity among different peoples based on understanding, tolerance and continuous dialogue---an imperative in the present-day world for making it peaceful.
The University of Ulster which, for the third year has successfully marked the International Mother Language Day making admirable contributions towards better understanding among peoples for a better and safer world built on the strength that comes from diversity and mutual respect.
Prof. John Hume of the University, a Nobel Laureate, deserves our thanks for it.
Mr. Sabiuddin Ahmed is High Commissioner for Bangladesh to the United Kingdom. This is an edited version of his speech at the Ulster University on the International Mother Language Day on February 21, '06