Perverted by language

Sixty-eight years after the Language Movement of 1952, Bangla is now the language of Bangladeshi majoritarianism.

Perverted by language
Photo: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Zuma Press/Alamy Stock Photo

Mahbub ul Alam Chowdhury’s seminal Kandte Ashini Phashir Dabi Niye Eshecchi (I Have Not Come Where They Laid Down Their Lives, in the late national professor Kabir Chowdhury’s translation), the first piece of literature about the Language Movement of 1952, emanated from the bowels of the deepest melancholy, to be defiant, as an unifying clarion call for justice, self-determination and opposing oppression. At a time when dissent was a criminal offence, this seditious act in the form of a poem distilled the sentiments of a people deprived of their human rights and dignity by an autocrat intent on colonising a section of its own population — the lesser, unwashed masses — with the support of an imperialist.

Bangla and the associated Bengali culture were reaffirmed as a broad church, an inclusionary, tolerant bastion for good. Sixty-eight years on, those ideals of the Language Movement have been adulterated by a heinous linguistic nationalism, weaponising Bangla into a fundamentalist force for majoritarianism sans culture. Generations of Bangladeshis have been unwitting and active participants in this great betrayal.

Bangla is unique in South Asia, but not for the reasons ritualistically parroted by the pseudo-intellectual crooks who comprise Bangladesh’s intelligentsia, their zeal peaking on February 21st every year. In setting the parameters for defining identity positively by culture, the language is no different to Tamil, Telugu, Pashto, Punjabi, or Sindhi. Contrary to the received wisdom of Bangladeshis, it is also not the only language for which blood has been spilled.

While the full extent of the self-determination and freedom — autonomy and independence — inherent to native languages and culture have been realised only once in the Indian subcontinent, through Bangla, what truly set it apart from the hegemonic Hindi and Urdu were that it was the secular, inclusive, socialist tongue of the oppressed indigene. Where the soft power contours of Hindi and Urdu were shaped by rightwing politics and the resurrection of the right’s false God culture war, linking them inextricably to Hindutva and Islamism, to equip them with hard power, independent Bangladesh spoke the language of the oppressed, not the internal oppressor in postcolonial South Asia, determined to establish ruling and elite classes that would reinforce the divisions and hierarchies of the British Raj, thereby allowing the people to, once again, be ruled.

That unique status of Bangla, reiterated and codified by the Language Movement, does not exist in today’s independent Bangladesh. The natural conclusion of any movement is the attainment of its goals. In the brief history of East Pakistan, the Language Movement formed part of and metamorphosed into a larger movement, that for independence. Rather than retiring the tools used to fulfil that objective and, thus, allowing them their deserved anointment, they were reshaped and turned on the new, hopeful populace.

Bangla, one of the most potent artilleries in the struggle for freedom, was caged in contemptuous, logic-defying protectionism that sowed the inevitable seeds of oppression. There was a deliberate attempt to ignore the fact that it was now the language of the majority, that the war had been won and the people freed. The ruling class, however, never lays down arms. In continuing to ascribe a manufactured existential threat to Bangla that demanded a preservationist response, the foundations were laid for a poisonous nationalism that excluded, paraded as a noble patriotism that included. Indigenous peoples, languages and cultures, minorities and dissenters were to be forced to conform, lest they be proven to be anti-state, un-Bangladeshi. Bangla was transformed into the dogma of zealots, deployed by the authoritarian ruling class and abused by the amused elite class. An intelligentsia that bore the scars and trauma of war defended it, eventually giving way to a corrupt, servile intelligentsia who benefit from cronyism and the corporatisation of Bangla.

Bangla has simultaneously been the instrument used to remove critical thinking from Bangladeshi society, conditioning Bangladeshis to answer only to dogma, and become dogma itself. Whereas in 1952 it was the means of expressing dissent by those who took a stand for rights, it now announces and appeases authoritarianism. This has been achieved through the carefully calibrated politicisation of Bangla.

When there was once a distinction between the rightwing BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami and the then centrist Awami League, the coalition of the former two took a pragmatic approach to Bangla over its glorification — especially the more Jamaat’s influence grew, due to its Islamism and past — while the latter glorified Bangladesh solely as the product of 1971 and progeny of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Both approaches had the same desired effect: consigning the ideals of the Language Movement to a footnote in Bangladesh’s identity. Extracted from its principles and philosophy, the language was primed for linguistic fundamentalism and destructive nationalistic fervour, language as religion for a citizenry that prostrates to religion. The unqualified victory of rightwing politics has let the mask of there being differences slip altogether, and this bipartisan underlying oppressive mission has come to the fore.

The erasure of indigenous languages by the militaristic pursuit of a homogeneous Bangla has coincided with the enumeration of new hierarchies. Society is split into the ruling and elite classes, and the ruled and oppressed. Languages are split into the transactional English, the pious Arabic and the everyday majoritarian Bangla. The first was introduced by the arrogance of the elite class and proliferated by the misguided aspirations of the middle class seeking upward mobility. The second was injected by political Islam and Islamism, growing nefarious roots and sprouting sacred saplings. In turn, these imports and accompanying transliterations and calques help keep the narrative of an existential threat to Bangla alive, justifying the canonisation of Bangla and enabling its misdeeds as the language of majoritarianism.

Culture war, historical revisionism and anti-intellectualism have ensured that the promise of the Language Movement is not only broken, but also forgotten. The poetry of the oppressed has become the prose of majoritarianism, the diktat of the oppressor, the propaganda of the sycophant. Insisting on the exceptionalism of Bangla has shorn it of its potential and uniqueness, rendering it wholly unexceptional. That is what Bangladeshis now celebrate annually on International Mother Language Day, numb to the autocrat colonising its own population and oblivious to colluding imperialists, depriving others of the human rights and dignity that they are deprived of themselves.●

Ikhtisad Ahmed (@ikhtisad) is a Stockholm-based writer focusing on sociopolitical issues in his fiction, nonfiction and poetry.