International Mother Language Day: A tragic day that guided a nation to freedom and justice

Human beings attach themselves to any number of identities. We are where we live, we are what we like, we are what we believe in, we are who we interact with, we are what we wear, we are what we eat. But most profoundly, we are the language that we speak. The test is very simple — our core identity is where we seek refuge when the sky falls on us. For centuries, the identity of Bangladesh — or Bengal, as it was historically called before political borders were drawn — has been its language and culture. The name of the country literally translates to “The land of Bangla/Bengali”. This deep bond between land, people, and language is what has helped Bangladesh prevail through extreme struggles. UNESCO’s declaration of February 21 as the “International Mother Language Day” recognizes the day that embodies this spirit unlike few other.

On this day in 1952, a group of protesting students and civilians were brutally gunned down by the police while they were demanding equal right for their mother tongue. Bangladesh at the time was known as East Pakistan, having recently gained independence from the British empire. The newly-formed country of Pakistan was a peculiar one — they had vast India between the East and West provinces. This partition was done in 1947 as per the plans of Lord Mountbatten, who famously touted never being to India as his unique qualification. Not surprisingly, the plan failed to take into account that these two carved-out provinces have only one thing in common — religion. Aside from that, the two provinces were a thousand miles away and did not share any of the cultural identities. The ruling West Pakistan (current-day Pakistan) immediately moved to assert its dominance by proclaiming that Urdu alone will be the state language. Despite being the language spoken by majority of the population, Bengali will have no recognition as an official language. Some plans went as far as suggesting Bengali should be written like Urdu, using the Arabic alphabet.

Protests broke out almost immediately, and Bangladesh’s decades-long struggle had just begun. The news of student martyrs spread across the nation quickly, and nation-wide protests forced the ruling government to eventually accept Bengali as an official language. Yet the struggle continued. The liberal culture of Bengal — one that celebrated music and festivities — was seen as subversive by West Pakistan’s conservative, Arab-influenced rulers. They banned the music of Tagore, restricted literature from Hindu authors, and so on. Alongside the cultural suppression, political and economic marginalization was going on too. The rift reached a tipping point when the ruling West Pakistan and the military refused to hand over governing power to East Pakistan after winning the 1970 election in a landslide. Instead of rightfully transferring power to the democratic winner, Martial Law was imposed.

On March 26, 1971, Bangladesh declared its freedom from Pakistan after the military cracked down on civilian population on the night of March 25, 1971. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands were killed on that night alone as tanks rolled into cities and unleashed hell on a sleeping population. The liberation war lasted 9 months, costing approximately 3 million lives. The Pakistani military and their local collaborators also used rape as a weapon of war. This was a unique and horrific chapter in modern-day war history. Approximately 400,000 women, irrespective of whether they were 6 or 65 years, were kept in rape camps across the country. The leaders from West Pakistan had openly proclaimed that they meant to “cleanse” the population of “weak gene” by putting a “strong Muslim child” inside every woman, so that the next generation grew up free from subversive ideas.

To this day, the genocide has gone unrecognized. Bangladesh stood alone in the most brutal of times, because the world order at the time had created global alliances that were unwilling to engage and help. The brutality inflicted immense pain, but it could not break the spirit — because in the years between 1952 and 1971, the entire country became aware of their identity. To the point that when it came to naming the newly-founded nation, language was at the heart of it. Language was how everyone identified themselves, it is what they held dearest to their heart — and maximum sacrifice was already made to preserve its dignity.

It is this undying spirit that the UNESCO declaration celebrates — no matter how small or insignificant you are, you will always have your language as your core identity; and nothing can take it away. Once a person has identified that core, no power in the world can defeat them. This day recognizes Bangladesh for the sacrifice, celebrates every language in the world, commemorates the many nations in Africa and the colonized world who lost their language due to colonial rule.

In the years since, Bangladesh had to suffer many counter-revolutions and military coups. It took over four decades, but Bangladesh has extended the fight for freedom to the fight for justice successfully. The war criminals and collaborators have been brought to justice, despite no help from the international community. To many, this tenacity seemed surprising, some went so far as to call it stupid to be seeking justice for crimes so far in the past. But here we see the power of knowing one’s identity. A fight for justice is pure and absolute, no amount of convenient calculation can deter a victim from seeking justice.

This generation has become more aware of genocide and ethnic cleansing; efforts have been taken to ensure that war criminals are brought to justice. However, the statutes in place are limited to atrocities that have taken place in recent times. Moreover, much of the western world was complicit in the genocide, so there was never any hope to get support from them. Bangladesh hasn’t let that deter them. They have been a pioneer for other countries by setting a legal precedent of how to approach such crimes against humanity. As per international directive, Bangladesh set up domestic tribunals to try these heinous acts — officially termed “international crimes”.

Bangladesh was set to try war criminals who were leaders and organizers for militia groups that raped and killed entire communities. Some collaborated with the military to plan the genocide, some were leaders of hit squads, some were in charge of slaughter houses, some rounded up the intelligentsia to kill professors and journalists before the final surrender, some ran torture cells, some engaged in individual brutality to the extent of killing toddlers by smashing their heads against the wall. The full list of atrocities will send shivers down any reader’s spine. Yet, a glimpse of the crimes is necessary to appreciate the remarkable patience and fairness Bangladesh has exercised through the trial process.

The accused were given access to full legal representation, they were allowed regular visitation to ensure nobody was harmed during detention, the trials were held in open court, and the bench comprised of judges from Supreme Court of Bangladesh. The entire process went through the High Court and the Supreme Court, with multiple rounds of review. Justice has not been rushed through a summary court, with each case taking over 4 years to complete. Every legal procedure was passed in the parliament after open discussion. As per opinion polling, a country in deep political divide across the middle has almost 90% approval of the tribunals.

The international community has conveniently left behind many countries in times of need, Bangladesh has shown them that even the smallest of us can seek and find justice. Intense lobbying from other Muslim countries like Pakistan, Turkey, and the Arab world could not stopped the pursuit, nor could global super-powers like USA, UK, and UN. Eventually, they have all come around and approved the tribunals.

Looking back after 65 years, a few lives sacrificed in a spontaneous protest does not seem like much. But it was the moment that snowballed into an avalanche. That day has infused a tenacity in Bangladesh that drives it till today.