February 21 is International Mother Language Day (IMLD) and every year since 2000, UNESCO has led the world in celebrating the occasion. IMLD was first proposed by Bangladesh, a UN Member State, in 1998 and its observance was approved by the UNESCO General Conference in 1999. February 21 represents much more for Bangladeshis, however, than a desire to promote linguistic diversity. Known as Language Movement Day in Bangladesh, February 21 represents the culmination of years of institutional racism and police brutality.
In 1947, the British ceded control of India and the country was partitioned into two sovereign nations: the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. Subsequently, a dispute arose among Pakistanis as to what the country’s official language should be. Western Pakistanis, who numbered approximately 25 million, argued that Urdu should be the sole national language. Eastern Pakistanis, who numbered approximately 44 million, argued that both Urdu and Bengali should be Pakistan’s official languages.
From 1947 to 1952, tensions were high between western and eastern Pakistanis. The government of Pakistan, largely comprised of western Pakistanis, omitted Bengali from the country’s stamps, currency, and navy recruitment tests. Eastern Pakistanis, particularly college students and professors, staged protests and demanded that Bengali be given official status as a national language. Police attempted to clamp down on public demonstrations by attacking and arresting protesters.
On February 21, 1952, tensions came to a head. Student protesters gathered at the University of Dhaka and armed police surrounded the campus. Students attempted to break the police line at the university gate and police began firing tear gas shells toward the gate. Some students attempted to leave the premises but were arrested as they fled.
Outraged by the arrests of some of their peers, students congregated outside the East Bengal Legislative Assembly. They attempted to storm the building and police opened fire on them, killing several people. As news of the shootings spread, shops closed, public transportation came to a halt, and a general strike ensued. In 1954, after a lengthy period of violence and unrest, the Pakistani government granted Bengali official status as a national language.
Unfortunately, that didn’t completely extinguish the flames of unrest. From 1956 to 1959, the Pakistani military attempted to reestablish Urdu as the sole national language. Though it failed to do so, eastern Pakistanis continued to struggle under the weight of discriminatory policies. They were under-represented in civil and military services and received far less state funding than their western counterparts.
In 1971, the Pakistani military carried out Operation Searchlight. One of the stated goals of the operation was to arrest eastern Pakistanis in favor of independence from western Pakistan. In actuality, the operation claimed the lives of tens of thousands of eastern Pakistanis. Though eastern Pakistanis declared independence that same year, they have never forgotten all those who lost their lives during the Bengali Language Movement.