International Mother Language Day

The 21st of February is of special significance to the people of Bangladesh. Each year, on this date, the country commemorates International Mother Language Day in recognition of the preservation of Bangla as the official language of Bangladesh. At the request of the people of Bangladesh and after investigating the matter, UNESCO declared the 21st of February each year to be International Mother Language Day on a world-wide scale among United Nations member countries. What makes the 21st of February so special?

The events leading up to the adoption of the 21st of February as International Mother Language Day started when the Governor General of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, declared at a public meeting on 21 March 1948 that Urdu would be the only official language for both east and west Pakistan. The majority of the people living in eastern Pakistan were Bangla-speaking and therefore protested against this declaration. A student meeting called for a strike on 21 February, a move which the Pakistani government would not tolerate. Five of the students who were campaigning for Bangla to be recognized as one of the state languages of Pakistan were shot and killed by police. The slain students are seen as martyrs for their cause, which turned out to be the beginning of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence.

Each year the 21st of February was commemorated as Language Martyrs Day in Bangladesh and other parts of the world that have sizeable groups of Bangla-speaking people. In 1999 the proposal was made to UNESCO to create International Mother Language Day in the belief that a culture of peace can only really flourish where each individual enjoys the right to communicate freely in their mother language in all aspects of their lives. UNESCO supports this conviction, as well as the belief that there should be cultural and linguistic diversity in education and the preservation of languages in danger of dying out. So at the 30th session of the General Conference of UNESCO in 1999 the decision was taken to launch International Mother Language Day throughout the world.

In Bangladesh, International Mother Language Day is commemorated with events taking place primarily around the Language Martyr’s Monument in Dhaka. Many people bring flowers, mainly in red and yellow, which are spread out in front of the monument. It is a solemn day as respect is paid to the martyrs who brought to the world’s attention the necessity of keeping marginalized languages alive.