In a couple of days from now, the country will commemorate the day lives were lost in 1952 to preserve the Bengali language and, more significantly, to not let the specific cultural fabric of Bengal be lost to the Urdu-imperialism of West Pakistan. 21st February is always surrounded by a discourse of success- we succeeded in our demands to have Bengali instated as an official language of the state.
Perhaps, more importantly for this nation, we managed to unify the dissenting voices under the rubric of a Bengali nationalism. Flowers will be laid at the Shaheed Minar and the Ekushey Granthamela will be packed to the rafters.
But what happens when languages die? Or perhaps a better way of phrasing it would be what marks the process of a linguistic death? 1952 was a moment of historic galvanization, but it was also a moment of historic fear. We were afraid, not because of the literal language being pushed to the sidelines, but for the fact that we would be forced to speak of ourselves and think of ourselves in a language that was foreign to us. In short, we would have been surrendering our personhood, had we not resisted. We did not suffer from the ignominy of a linguistic assimilation. To kill a language is to kill its speakers, to drive them away from their homes, to force them to assimilate to the dominant discourse, to look them brazenly in the face and deny them personhood unless there is acquiescence. Yes, we might have saved one language, but we are complicit in the killing of several others.
There is no objective existence of a language without its speakers. The road to linguistic death is not as apolitical as some would like us to think. The road is littered with land grabbing, ethnic cleansing forceful removal of the language from media (Mor Thengari, a Chakma language film blocked by the censor board) and the ever present imperative to assimilate into the mainstream Bengali doctrine. This path is paved with ridiculously apolitical proclamations by the world’s biggest institutions (UN) who say with much gusto, languages must be preserved and cultures must be nurtured while with their next breath they go on to deny the Israeli apartheid, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the painful existence of indigenous populations in the subcontinent. And the list goes on. What exactly do we mean when we say languages must be preserved? Do we speak of languages as divorced from their speaker, as some parlour trick to be stored in glass displays? To ask for the preservation of a language is to ask for the preservation of its speakers, to not exploit their labour and their resources under capitalism and to not impose external rules of governance.
Ethnologue, the web-based publication, estimates that there are around 41 languages in Bangladesh and all of them are living.
However, 8 of them are in danger of extinction. These include Khiang, Murong, Bawm, Pangkhua among others. It is ironic to think that a nation that fought for the right to speak a language, the first recorded instance of this in history, is the same nation that internally follows an agenda of Bengali supremacy. If anything, it should have been the citizens of Bangladesh (not only Bangalis) who would acutely feel the dread that comes from the prospect of having your personhood and your conceptual scheme yanked from you. Instead, over the years, we have conveniently forgotten what it really means to fight for your language. The fight for land, livelihood and language are inextricably linked. And if we are today to pay respect to those who martyred themselves for the Bengali language in 1952, then we should also pay tribute to the Kalpana Chakmas of the world, those of us who are fighting an impossible battle but fighting nonetheless. This February, let our vision be political. Let us not hope for the magical preservation of indigenous languages and cultures while they continue to be systematically dismantled. Let us, instead, truly honour the memories of our language martyrs by aiding the indigenous, the tea worker, the hijra and the ‘Bihari’, in their struggle for personhood.