International Mother Language Day
How it happened
Syed Muazzem Ali

The fast disappearance of mother languages is a global phenomenon and it should be addressed internationally, regionally and formally. The UN, UNESCO and prominent academic and research institutes in various countries can play leading role in this vital area. Among the regional organizations, EU is already playing an important role in preserving various European languages. Likewise, other regional bodies, such as SAARC, ASEAN, OAU and OAS, can play equally important roles in their respective zones.

This year we are commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of "Amar Ekushey"the immortal 21st February. In our national life, Ekushey February or "Mahan Shaheed Dibash" is the historic starting point of our war for self- emancipation and independence. Our Language Movement, in which our martyrs had laid down their lives for the preservation of our mother tongue, is a unique event in contemporary history


It is a matter of great national pride that on 17 November 1999, UNESCO General Conference had unanimously adopted a resolution tabled by Bangladesh proclaiming our "Shaheed Dibash" as the International Mother Language Day. Earlier, on 12 November 1999, as Bangladesh's Permanent Representative to the UNESCO, I had the privilege to formally introduce the draft resolution at that Conference. This triumph at the UNESCO is a befitting tribute to our Shaheeds and a historic achievement for the nation. Certain quarters are trying to give the impression that this honour was achieved at the UNESCO without any effort on the part of our governmental machinery. This is a distortion of facts and it is necessary to put the entire matter in proper perspective to fully appreciate our national achievement.

Initially, a Canada-based multilingual Group called "Mother Language Lovers of the World" had submitted a proposal for the proclamation of 21st February as the International Mother Language Day to the UN Secretary General whose office, in turn, had directed them to contact the UNESCO -- the most relevant UN organization to deal with the language issue. Accordingly, the Group's President, Mr. Rafiqul Islam, had contacted UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. But UNESCO or UN are both Inter-governmental bodies and cannot accept any proposal from private bodies or individuals, nor do they have any authority to take any decision in this regard. So they asked him to contact any member-country. Rafiqul Islam contacted me, and Mr. Tozammel (Tony) Huq, a senior official at UNESCO Secretariat at the time. Both of us greatly encouraged them and explained to them the procedure to contact our government.

When the proposal was formally processed by our UNESCO National Commission and Education Ministry and placed before former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, she promptly approved it. Thereafter the proposal was officially sent to the UNESCO Secretariat by the end of September 1999. The Secretariat, however, circulated the proposal in the form of a draft resolution on 26 October 1999, just before the General Conference. But in their comments on our draft resolution they made two observations: first, they suggested that there should be a feasibility study of our draft resolution and the recommendations should be submitted to UNESCO Executive Board through the Advisory Committee on Linguistic pluralism and Multilingual Education; secondly, in view of UNESCO's serious budgetary problems, they suggested that the financial implications of the proposal should be clearly spelt out.

I did not accept the Secretariat's position, and consulted with Mr. Tony Huq. Together we met the then UNESCO Deputy Director-General, Mr. Colin Power, and explained to him that the main thrust of our draft resolution was to create greater awareness for the protection and preservation of mother languages which are disappearing fast from the face of the earth. Hence, if we go for feasibility study and the proposal is submitted through the UNESCO Executive Board and the Language Division, as suggested by the Secretariat, then the initiative would be deferred by at least two years and by then many more languages would be lost. As regards budgetary implications, we assured him that implementation of our draft resolution would not require any extra budget for the UNESCO, as each member-country would draw up their own respective programs to commemorate the day. Mr. Power, an Australian national, was fully aware of the importance of the issue and, after our discussions with him, he agreed to withdraw the observations and forwarded our draft resolution to the Second Commission of the General Conference for consideration. I also met the Commission's Chairman, Mr. J Boulmer of Slovakia, and urged him to take up our draft resolution at the Commission.

Our draft resolution, which had highlighted the need for preservation of mother languages, should not apparently pose any problem to any member-country. But in reality, many of the European and other countries, some of which are the main contributors to the UNESCO's budget, have multilingual societies and the issue of mother language is a highly sensitive one in their countries. Their underlying concern was that the proclamation of the Mother Language Day might trigger off new unrest in their own countries. I personally met the Permanent Representatives of those countries and explained to them that the main objective of our effort is to preserve languages. We also highlighted the historic fact that linguistic differences do not cause wars, intolerance does, and that respect for each other's mother languages would only strengthen national and international solidarity.

The former Education Minister of Bangladesh, Mr. A S H K Sadique led Bangladesh delegation to the UNESCO General Conference from 25 October to 2 November 1999. In his general statement, he inter-alia highlighted the importance of the issue of mother languages. We arranged meetings for him with the Education Ministers from other countries to enlist their support. Due to our vigorous efforts we were able to enlist co-sponsorship and support of about 28 countries from different continents, but one could still feel the underlying concern of some countries.

In the meantime, a Cultural Ministers' Conference was held at the UNESCO headquarters on 2 November, attended by about 55 Cultural Ministers from all over the world. I had been asked by the Government to represent Bangladesh at the Conference. I took full advantage of the situation, met many of the Cultural Ministers and personally sought their governments' support to our proposal.

Given the extreme sensitivities on the language issue, representatives of some friendly countries suggested to us that at the time of the introduction of our draft resolution, we should give a broader perspective to enlist maximum support. Our great fear was that if a single delegation asks for a feasibility study or for its submission through the Linguistic Committee and Executive Board, then we would find it extremely difficult to dissuade them.

Finally, on 12 November, I was given the opportunity to introduce the draft resolution at the Second Commission. In our broad-based statement, I underlined the primary role of UNESCO in the preservation of languages, expressed concern at the fast disappearances of mother languages, and emphasized the need to proclaim an International Mother Language Day to create greater awareness. As regards earmarking 21st February as the day, I recalled the supreme sacrifice that our martyrs had made on that day in 1952 for the preservation of our mother language Bangla -- an unprecedented event in contemporary history.

Fortunately, our vigorous behind-the-scene lobbying worked. None of the countries opposed the draft resolution, and the Second Commission unanimously adopted it. To someone who was not directly involved in the lobbying process or familiar with multilateral diplomacy, this might have seemed easy sailing, but for those of us, who had been pursuing the matter tirelessly, this brought a great sense of achievement and relief. Finally, as noted earlier, on 17 November the Plenary of the General Conference formally adopted our draft resolution. It was indeed a historic achievement for our country and nation that 21st February, our Mohan Shaheed Dibash, was proclaimed as the International Mother Language Day. Subsequently, the present Director-General of UNESCO, Mr. Koichiro Matsura on 21 February 2000, formally launched the Day at the UNESCO headquarters, amid speeches, a Bangla musical program and display of books on languages.

The original initiator of the proposalthe "Mother Language Lovers of the World" -- deserve the nation's appreciation and praise. It was indeed most befitting that the immediate past Government selected the Group's President Rafiqul Islam and other member Abdus Salam -- both Bangladeshi nationals -- for the award of Ekushey Padak this year. I personally supported this move and strongly recommended that their initiative should be fully recognized and duly appreciated. It is also necessary to record the valuable contributions made by Tony Huq, Colin Power, J. Boulmar, Consellor Ikthiar Momen Chowdhury, First Secretary Mustafizur Rahman, Professor Kafiluddin Ahmed, Mohammad Moinuddin and others who made the proposal a reality.

The proclamation of the Day is just the beginning and not the end of the matter. Bangladesh, as the pioneer of this draft resolution, has committed herself to not only protecting her own language but also to honouring the 6,000 other mother languages currently spoken in the world. The proclamation of Amar Ekushey as the International Mother Language Day confers on us the sacred responsibility of working towards the preservation of the linguistic heritage of mankind. Experts fear that a great majority of the languages currently spoken might disappear in the foreseeable future. This process has to be halted and a truly globalised world has to be created on the basis of cultural diversity and linguistic pluralism. Communication and information technology has considerably narrowed the linguistic divide, which had separated us in the past. We already have means to translate from one language to another instantly and, with the passage of time, the current techniques will be further perfected. But if we lose languages, we will surely lose a part of the heritage of mankind.

The fast disappearance of mother languages is a global phenomenon and it should be addressed internationally, regionally and formally. The UN, UNESCO and prominent academic and research institutes in various countries can play leading role in this vital area. Among the regional organizations, EU is already playing an important role in preserving various European languages. Likewise, other regional bodies, such as SAARC, ASEAN, OAU and OAS, can play equally important roles in their respective zones.

Last year it was decided to set up an International Mother Language Institute in Dhaka and the foundation stone was laid during the visit of UN Secretary General, Mr. Kofi Annan to Dhaka. We have to proceed in the matter with a sense of commitment and urgency. Otherwise, we would surely lose a good opportunity to enhance our national image internationally.

Muazzem Ali, a retired Foreign Secretary, was Bangladesh Ambassador to France and Permanent Representative to the UNESCO when the International Mother Language Day resolution was adopted.



Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 21, 2002


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