The tradition of exploiting language in order to avail undue privileges can be traced back to the Vedic period (approximately 1500 BCE- 500 BCE). Four-tiered caste system was introduced around that time, and the Brahmins, the highest ranking group of this hierarchical structure, were considered the guardians of sacred Vedic knowledge. They were regarded with utter respect in the society because of their mastery over Sanskrit, and the people of the lower three rungs had hardly any grasp over the language.
Be it the coronation of a King or a wedding ceremony of a commoner, Brahmins took the center stage, and their knowledge of Sanskrit and Vedic scriptures were the means that gave them the upper hand. The predominance of the elite Brahmins prevailed for thousand of years until an opposing trend to counter the hegemony of Sanskrit language began with the emergence of Muslim rule.
The Muslim rulers from Afghanistan, Turkey, Mongolia, etc., gradually spread their dominance all over the Indian subcontinent, and they started to carve a strong foothold in Bengal from early 13th century. During their reign, the Muslim rulers noticed the existing disparity in the Bengal society as the Sanskrit-known people enjoyed a lot of privileges that the majority of the populace were deprived of.
This observation prompted them to nurture the Bengali language to facilitate the inclusion of lower-caste Hindus as well as the local Muslims in the mainstream economic activities. The overwhelming number of important Bengali literary pieces that were produced in the Middle age is also a testament to the patronization of Bangla language by the ruling authority of the time.
When the British came to power putting an end to the long running Mughal Rule, Muslims of this region kept distance from them out of resentment as they detested the removal of Muslim rulers from the throne. On the contrary, most Hindus did not hold any such grudge, and they stepped forward to build a rapport with the colonizers. They readily and rightly realized the importance of learning English to ingratiate themselves with the British authority, and they took up the task without delay. Hindus started to fill in the important positions of the new British administration, where the Muslims continued to lose their social standing because of their detachment from the British rulers.
Assessing the gravity of the situation, many educationalists and social reformers like Syed Ahmed Khan, Sir Amir Ali, Nawab Abdul Latif, and some others took initiatives to popularize English education among the backward Muslim populace. They established different institutions, and published books and newspapers with an aim to encourage the Muslim populace to learn English and to bridge the increasing gap between the Muslims and the British. These initiatives also suggest how a language functioned as a decisive factor in molding the societal structure of that period.
Now let us turn our attention to the Pakistan period when we experienced the most significant movement on the issue of language in our history. Analyzing the events that led up to the language movement in 1952 would reveal that the demand for Bangla's status as a state language was brewing right after or even before the India-Pakistan partition.
Sensing some local politicians' complete disregard for Bangla, and West Pakistan's condescending attitude towards the language, many had guessed an immediate attack on Bangla. Their apprehension was proven justified when Muhammad Ali Jinnah unwaveringly declared that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan in his first and only visit to East Pakistan in 1948. He professed the lame argument that Pakistan cannot be kept one and undivided if any other language other than Urdu is made a state language.
The unfaltering desire of West Pakistani rulers and their East Pakistani allies to install Urdu as the sole official language has been analyzed from different perspectives. Unfortunately for most of the textbooks, 'popular' historical accounts, different programs broadcast on the occasion of the International Mother Language Day have failed to underline some key factors behind the language movement.
Majority of these sources highlight the emotional attachment of the East Pakistanis to their mother tongue, and try to invoke patriotic zeal by unduly focusing on this sentimental dimension. In doing so, these have sidelined many other important factors. The protesters did not take to the streets, faced the barrel of the gun, and laid down their lives just to protect the 'honor' of their Bengali identity, there were some crucial political-economic dynamics behind the movement that did not get due attention in the public discourses.
Some historians have pointed out that the tenacious stand of the West Pakistanis to discard the possibility of Bangla even as one of the official languages of the new state was driven by their long-term plan to deny the Bengalis' any chance to stand on an equal footing with their Western counterparts. For example, the East Pakistani candidates of the public service commission exam of 1949 were dumbfounded when they found that many questions were asked in Urdu. The Bengali examinees could not understand the questions let alone answer those.
On top of that, the authority circulated a new directive announcing that Bangla would not be included as a subject in the public service commission's exam in the future. These steps indicated the authority's intention to suppress the East Pakistanis by making it harder for them to get government jobs. By setting questions in Urdu, and dropping Bangla as a topic, Bengalis were thrown to a serious problematic position so that they could not compete with the Urdu-speaking candidates. With this shrewd strategy, West Pakistanis wanted to shrink down the possibility of Bengalis to avail a prestigious government job.
Many intellectuals of the time urged the government to consider English as the official language since the authority was so adamant on strengthening the ties between two wings by using only one common language. In response to this demand, the West Pakistani rulers mentioned that Urdu is a language that deeply resonates the Islamic value and essence, and since Pakistan was born on the basis of this very religious ground, so only Urdu had the rightful claim to be considered as the sole state language.
Dr Muhammad Shahidullah came up with a befitting response to this argument. He posited that since it is so essential to uphold the spirit of Islam by using a common language in both domains of Pakistan, then why don't we opt for Arabic? Urdu simply cannot be considered better suited than Arabic if reinforcing the true essence of Islam is our main concern! The proponents of the Urdu could not come up with a satisfactory reply to this proposition. Famous writer-thinker Ahmed Sofa explained this West Pakistani conspiracy in very plain and simple terms in one of his write-ups.
Ahmed Sofa argued that the West Pakistanis would not consider any other language than Urdu to protect their vested interest. The questions of religious purity of a language or its potential to retain national integrity were merely pretensions. In case of English, West and East Pakistanis were on par with each other and that would not give West Pakistanis any undue leverage. Therefore making Arabic the new state language would then force the West Pakistanis as well as the Bengalis to start learning the language from scratch, and that would again fail to give the West Pakistanis any edge.
West Pakistanis can ensure unfair advantage by only enacting Urdu as the sole state language as it would take a lot of time for the Bengalis to learn the language by heart, and by the time they do so, the West Pakistanis would be able to secure a very strong position in all sorts of government as well as private jobs (since most of the big business entities were owned by West Pakistanis and their headquarters were on West Pakistan). That is why they were so uncompromising to make Urdu the only state language of the entire nation.
The trajectory of these events suggests how elites have used language as a political tool to wield power over the weaker and poorer lot. Interestingly a similar trend is still in practice in our country, though the pattern has changed somewhat. A close look at the obsession with the English language in academia and the corporate world in the present-day Bangladesh would certainly generate a lot more intriguing anecdotes. Inequitable access to English learning opportunities has enabled the privileged section of the society to cash in on the linguistic capital, leaving the majority of the general population behind, and creating a lot more complications in the process.
Mohammed Foysal Chowdhury is an Assistant Professor of the Department of Media and Mass Communication at American International University-Bangladesh
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