International Mother Language Day- History, Recognition and Legacy


21st February is celebrated as the International Mother Language day. But does everyone know the history behind it? would you give your life to protect the right of speaking your native language? This is exactly what Bangladeshis did in 1952 when it used be part of Pakistan, known as East Pakistan


After the British left India in 11947, it ended almost 200 years of colonial rule and broke into two nations, India, for the Hindu majority of the population and Pakistan, for the Muslim majority of the population. East Pakistan, the region that is thousands of kilometer away from west Pakistan, was a Bengali Speaking country but the West Pakistanis wanted to oppress them by declaring Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan. Bengalis, who have long history of revolting against oppression, protested against the decision by taking on the street demanding their right to speak Bangla as it was the mother tongue of majority of the population. West Pakistan reacted by imposing curfew on the street and arresting student leaders leading the protest including Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who later lead Bangladesh to independence in1971 liberation war.

on 21th February of 1952, students all over the country decided to break the curfew and go on a all out protest against this unfair decision and demanded that Bangla must be added as a state language beside Urdu. Their rightful protest was met with violence from the government. In Dhaka, police open fired on un-armed protesters killing dozens of students in the process. This killing in the capital triggered nationwide unrest and West Pakistan was forced to acknowledge the demand of the Bengalis. The people killed on 21st February are called the “Language Movement Martyrs and Bangladesh celebrates both Martyrs Day and International Mother Language Day on 21st February.

Language Movement Martyrs


According to Wikipedia: The resolution was suggested by Rafiqul Islam and Abdus Salam, Bengalis living in Vancouver, Canada. They wrote a letter to Kofi Annan on 9 January 1998 asking him to take a step for saving the world’s languages from extinction by declaring an International Mother Language Day. Rafiq proposed the date as 21 February to commemorate the 1952 killings in Dhaka during the Language Movement.”21st February – The International Mother Language Day”.

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

— From the United Nations International Mother Language Day microsite
Rafiqul Islam’s proposal was introduced in the Bangladesh parliament and in due course (at the behest of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina) a formal proposal was submitted to UNESCO by the Government of Bangladesh. The process of shepherding the proposal through UNESCO’s regulatory system was undertaken by Syed Muazzem Ali, then Bangladesh ambassador to France and Permanent Representative to UNESCO, and Tozammel Tony Huq, his predecessor, who was then a Special Adviser to UNESCO Secretary General Federico Mayor. Finally on 17 November 1999, the 30th General Assembly of UNESCO unanimously resolved that “21st February be proclaimed International Mother Language Day throughout the world to commemorate the martyrs who sacrificed their lives on this very day in 1952.”

Legacy: The language movement of 1952 is a very important chapter of Bangladesh’s road to independence. Historians believe, after the events of 21st February it became clear that East and West Pakistan had significant cultural and political difference and sooner or later the countries would have to part their ways. Later, the language movement inspired other protests including the 6 point movement of 1966, the uprising of 1969 and eventually liberation war of 1971.

At present, the day is celebrated all over the world as international mother language day, a day to pay tribute to those who gave their life for their mother tongue. A day to appreciate our own mother tongue and respect all the language in the world.

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