History of International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day is observed worldwide on 21st February in order to promote awareness of linguistic, multilingualism, and cultural diversity. The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day was the initiative of Bangladesh as 21st February is the anniversary of the day when the people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) fought for recognition for the Bengali language. First announced by UNESCO on 17 November 1999, this day is also celebrated in West Bengal, India.

The sole reason for observing this day is to pay tribute to the Language Movement done by the Bangladeshis, then the East Pakistanis. When Pakistan was established as a separate country in 1947, it had two parts, geographically separated: East Pakistan (currently known as Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (currently known as Pakistan). The two parts stood in sharp contrast with each other in the sense of culture and language. 

In 1948, the then Government of Pakistan declared Urdu to be the sole national language of Pakistan, even though Bengali or Bangla was spoken by the majority of people in East Pakistan who could barely utter Urdu. Therefore, The East Pakistanis protested, and demanded Bangla to be at least one of the national languages, in addition to Urdu. However, the Pakistani Government wasn’t ready to fulfill this demand and to demolish the protest, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. At this moment, the students of the University of Dhaka played a pivotal role to keep their language as well as their culture alive. With the support of the general public, the students arranged massive rallies and meetings all over the capital city, Dhaka. 

Not only the men, the women too fought for their mother language. In a time when boys and girls weren’t allowed to go to the same school, girls were heavily discriminated against in the society. They stood by the men in the front line to fight the battle together. On 21st February 1952, police opened fire on rallies. Many students of the University died and hundreds of others were injured. This was a rare incident in history, where people sacrificed their own lives for their mother tongue.

Since then, Bangladeshis have celebrated the International Mother Language Day as one of their tragic days. On this day, they visit the Shaheed Minar, a monument built in memory of the martyrs to express their deep sorrow, respect and gratitude to the ones who without thinking twice sacrificed their lives for Bangla language, their mother tongue. 

  • Mohor Bhattacharjee 

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