The language question

Internationalism in the context of globalisation

Serajul Islam Choudhury


The state language movement signified the beginning of a process which was destined to liberate East Bengal from the new colonialists. Compromise was impossible because the language question had made it clear that the goal of achieving economic emancipation, which was the real objective behind their voting for the establishment of a new state, was not likely to be reached within the framework of Pakistan.

Internationalism and Globalisation are not identical; they cannot be. For they are very different in both substance and appearance. Whereas Internationalism is based on mutual tolerance, indeed respect, among nations; Globalisation is an imposition of the powerful on the weak. The one believes in the freedom of the people; the other in the freedom of capital; the two objectives being not only contradictory, but indeed opposed to, each other.

Language, apparently, belongs to both Internationalism and Globalisation. But there is a fundamental difference between the two in respect of their attitude toward language. Globalisation has no faith in variety, despite its pretense. Its basis and values are essentially those of capitalism and capitalism is a relentless promoter of uniformity. The varieties it allows are variations on a theme, the theme being profit-making. Capitalist uniformity is that of the market and not of the garden, it does not nurture plants, it only produces commodities. Both as a system and an ideology, capitalism encourages the making of profit and personal pleasure, and in doing so alienates the individual not only from the community but also from his own self. For all these Globalisation, which is the new guise of capitalism, is undemocratic precisely in the same sense in which Internationalism is democratic. Globalisation would be happy to have only one language, that of the market-place, and by extension that of the dominant country ruling over the globe. The supremacy that the English language enjoys at the moment is in no way owing to the numerical strength of its native speakers. Demographic estimates tell us that the Chinese language is more widely spoken in the world than the English language; but the English language gets precedence over others. The Bengali-speaking population occupies the sixth position, numerically, and yet they are, in reality, a marginalised people. The reasons are obvious: language is subservient to Globalisation and is, in no way, its master. The English language rules not because of England but because of America, which is the leader of the global coalition not so much against terrorism as for the protection of capitalism.

Language is more than a medium, it is also a bond. It brings people together and, at the same time, distinguishes them from others, creating variety for the world at large. What we call nationalism and culture are rooted in several elements, the most important of which is language. Globalisation, let us state again, is subversive of variety and promotive of deracination. Its trade and commerce instigate uniformity of taste and manners, and its advertisements stifle what is local. This context makes the local language a very useful space where a people can stand, confront the world, defend itself and, at the same time, receive influences which are positive and healthy. The mother tongue, moreover, is like the mother's milk, it nourishes the native speakers. And no education is better than the one given through the mother tongue.

Capitalism, today, is no longer the progressive social and economic force it once was; but that does not signify that feudalism is better; in fact it is worse. When George Bush declares war against Bin Laden he uses language very similar to that of his declared enemy, but the way of life Bin Laden recommends has no leg to stand upon. Globalisation is not particularly enamoured of fundamentalism; it has no reason to be. But its real enemy are not the fundamentalists, they are the democrats who believe in tolerance, variety and rights of culture to exist and flourish. The first pre-requisite of the democratic socio-political dispensation is secularism, and language is essentially secular, in spite of the religious uses to which it has been put, from time to time.

The state language movement of Bangladesh was, as it began, a local phenomenon. Its significance was, of course, great. For it was the first popular upsurge against the newly-established state of Pakistan by the very same people who had made it possible for that state to come into being. Fifty-six per cent of the population of Pakistan lived in East Bengal, and it was their vote that had decided that a separate state should be born to bring about a change in their insufferable economic fate. That they should raise their voice against the imposition of Urdu as the only state language was not unnatural; but it was unexpected by those who were in control of the state. That the movement did not augur the state well was not realised by those who had become masters. They did not take long to concede to the demand; and in the first constitution of Pakistan Bengali was accepted as one of the state languages along with Urdu. But that did not satisfy the people, who continued to struggle for their emancipation along the line envisaged by the language movement and ultimately established Bangladesh based on linguistic nationalism as opposed to the religious nationalism on which Pakistan was based.

In substance, the state language movement of the Bengalis was both anti-imperialist and anti-feudal. That was how it began. The non-Bengali wielders of power were bent upon treating East Bengal much in the same manner as the British had treated India in the near past. They had imposed their language on the helpless local population; the new authority of the new supposedly independent state wanted to impose theirs on the people of East Bengal. The intention was to perpetuate internal colonialism. East Bengal reacted to the new rulers in a manner not very different from what they had done in respect of the British rulers. The state language movement signified the beginning of a process which was destined to liberate East Bengal from the new colonialists. Compromise was impossible because the language question had made it clear that the goal of achieving economic emancipation, which was the real objective behind their voting for the establishment of a new state, was not likely to be reached within the framework of Pakistan.

The state in British India was bureaucratic in organisation and capitalist in economic policy. The independent state of Pakistan continued to be of the same character, despite apparent changes. It was a conglomeration of civil and army bureaucracy that ruled, and the developments in the economy persisted in the same capitalist line as before. That the independence had brought nothing more substantial than the transfer of power from the British to the local rulers was becoming increasingly evident. The attempt to impose Urdu on the Bengalis worked as an eye-opener.

In the area of culture feudal values and attitudes prevailed, in East Bengal too. The rules encouraged them. They had declared the state to be an Islamic Republic, and would have liked it to be autocratic although personally most of them lived a way of life which was particularly characterised by its distance from religion. They were capitalist in indulgence as well as aspiration.

Communalism has been the source of much social and political misery for the Bengalis. The two communities, the Hindus and the Muslims, had lived together for countries without fighting each other. It was after the British came that religious difference degenerated into sociopolitical communalism, leading, ultimately, to the disastrous partition of Bengal. Communalism, in reality, was nothing more than a competition between the more advanced Hindu middle class and the fledgling Muslims middle class in matters of job opportunities and political position. The competition was delightfully encouraged by the British. The nationalist movement in Bengal was initiated by the Hindu middle class for the simple reason that they were more advanced than their Muslim compeers; but instead of identifying the British as the enemy, despite their knowledge as to who the real enemy was, they put up conveniently for themselves and dangerously for history, the Muslims as their enemy, who were, in reality, no more than newly grown-up competitors. Nationalist movement was, in consequence, split into two and both became, in inclination, revivalist rather than democratic. The economic ideology that the leadership of both communities believed in was, ironically but not unexpectedly in view of their class interests, identical; inasmuch as they were firm believers in capitalism, despite deceptions.

Communalism had entered the languages as well. The Hindu middle class had tried to Sanskritize Bengali; in reaction the Muslim middle class wanted to persianize it, if possible. The attempts often took on an absurd character. For example, over-enthusiastic believers in the religion-based nationalism of Pakistan tried to introduce the Arabic script for Bengali on the plea that the existing script was of Sanskrit origin. Their efforts included editing even the works of Kazi Nazrul Islam, who they had declared to be very dear to their hearts, in the light of Pakistani nationalism. They would have loved to introduce a division in the cultural history of Bengal on the religious line.

It was in this context of the capitalist-feudal amalgam that the state language movement was more than a rebellion against the state. For it had a positive vision in front, which was to establish a state and a society which would be at once, secular, anti-capitalist and anti-feudal. The freedom movement in British India was not anti-feudal even when it was fiercely anti-imperialist. The so-called extremists who believed in armed insurgency swore in the name of religion and did not allow the Muslims to join their ranks.

The left movement was, of course, both anti-imperialist and anti-feudal. But it had not succeeded in mass-mobilisation. In fact, its activists were drawn mostly from the educated middle class and did not really know the language which would bring people to their fold. Moreover, the state repression on them was severe. And what had also happened after 1947 was that most of the members of the Communist party including that of the leadership had migrated to West Bengal, finding East Bengal a very difficult place to work in.

The state language movement was therefore of great historical importance. It filled in a vacuum and indicated a way to move ahead towards the goal of economic emancipation, for which the people had agitated for decades, indeed centuries.

Fifty years have passed since that fateful day in 1952. Much has been gained. We have a new state, of which the state language is Bengali. People have the right to choose their own government. Bangladesh is known all over the world.

But the dream of emancipation remains unachieved. We are still a marginalised people and an unwilling victim of globalisation. Our dependence on capitalist lenders and donors is increasing by the day, rather than decreasing. Within the state itself Bengali has not won the place it was expected to do. The ideals of a democratic state as envisioned by the state language movement and envisaged in the original constitution of the state are no longer effective, to say the least. Three different systems of education prevail, indicating the widening class-cleavage. Ideally, language seeks to ignore the divisions of class and religion. But in Bengal there has always been the difference even between those who speak Bengali, in respect of both choice of words and pronunciation. The English-educated elite, moreover, considered itself superior to those who did not know the use of that language. And the English language in Bangladesh today enjoys a prestige not inferior to the one it enjoyed in colonial days. In learning English in the days gone by there was both interest and a sense of dishonour, working simultaneously. That sense of shame no longer exists. At higher levels of education as also in higher judiciary English is still the official language.

Why has this happened? The most potent cause has been globalisation, within the frame of which capitalism -- both as a system and an ideology -- is functioning unabated.

And yet 21 February has been accepted internationally as the Mother Language Day. This has happened not because the world at large has grown a sudden interest in the Bengali language. No, the world does not care for Bengali, which is not at all surprising when we ourselves do not care for it as much as we do for English. The fact of the matter is that nationalities and cultures want a space to stand upon; and the mother language is more qualified than anything else to provide them with that space. Patriotism, most certainly, is not enough; and is, indeed, the last refuge of imperialists and the like, but not of those who believe in, and seek to promote, internationalism, without which internationalism, the future of the world is likely to be bleaker than it is new.

Profesor Choudhury is former head of English Deptt, DU


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


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