Mother Language Day in Bangladesh, Interview with Asad Chowdhury

March 2007 -

Every year on February 21, Bangladesh celebrates Ekushey, Mother Language Day, in remembrance of the victims of February 21, 1952. In Dhaka (then East Pakistan) police opened fire at students marching, demanding Bangla to become one of the official national languages. In 1999 UNESCO proclaimed February 21 International Mother Language Day.

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Asad Chowdhury, photo: Shahjahan Siraj

"What is the history of the mother language movement?"
"During the division of Bengal in 1905, a number of patriotic heroes sacrificed their lives to save the country; but in 1948, during the separation from India, people did not say anything in the street. This was greeted by the Muslim majority. Nevertheless, after the independence of Pakistan a national conflict started again, because of Mohammed Ali Jinnah's declaration, "Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the national language of Pakistan". It was an autocratic measure imposed upon 58.6 percent of the Bangla speaking majority. The young students did not welcome Jinnah's declaration, fought on the barricades, organized the language movement and made it a political issue by sacrificing their lives. Eventually this nationalism, which focused strongly on language, finally gave birth to a new country in 1971, called Bangladesh."

"What is the influence of the language movement on culture?"
"Three thousand local languages out of six thousand are now struggling for survival. If you look at India, Hindi absorbed seventeen local languages already. Languages such as Vojpuri and Mithali have disappeared or merged. I feel empowered though; February 21 is now recognized globally as International Mother Language Day. This can influence local languages and culture in a positive way. But in my opinion Ekushey is not just a language movement, but foremost a socio-cultural movement. In Bangladesh the language movement has of course been very successful, but I get very sad when I look at the massive poverty in my country, and corrupt politicians who's only concern it is to get rich at the expense of someone else. Bangladesh is on its way to become the world champion of corruption! The spirit of the language movement can help to fight this kind of abuse. Nobel Price winner Muhammad Yunus' decision to enter the coming elections is a hopeful sign in that respect."

"What is the background of the Ekushey Book Fair?"
"Since the Pakistan period it became a tradition in schools, colleges and youth clubs to publish a yearly shahitto shonkolon (literature collection) that was for sale in front of the Bangla Academy and the Shahid Minar (monument for the Bengal language, erected in honor of the victims of the 1952 linguistic conflict, ed.). From this emerged the Ekushey Bookfair. During the liberation war Chittoronjon Saha, owner of the Muktodara publishing house, published some books in Calcutta on Bangladesh. In 1973 he displayed and sold his books in front of the Bangla Academy. He was joined by Khan Brothers and some Bangla bazar publishers. At the time the fair lasted two days. In 1974 the book stalls developed into an official fair that lasted seven days under the patronization of the Bangla Academy. Day by day, the publishers became more organized and the government also helped; nowadays the Ekushey Book Fair even lasts a month. So many visitors come to the fair that the administration cannot manage anymore. Prominent publishers and writers publish books on the eve of the fair."

"How does the language moment influence your writing?"
"I cannot say it has a direct effect on my work, but the movement encourages me to be non-sectarian, worldly, inter-religious as well as liberal. I am the last to hate other ideologies and religions; that would not be in the spirit of Ekushey."

Asad Chowdhury is a prominent poet and writer from Bangladesh. He is a former director of the Bangla Academy. At the 2007 Ekushey Book fair he published two books: Sonar Kharam and a collection of poems Ghare Fera Soja Noy.