a year ago

Language movements across the globe and understanding language as a political instrument

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In Bangladesh, often amidst the observation of February 21 as Martyr's Day, we forget its significance as ‘International Mother’s Language Day.’

But if we look at history, we can find numerous instances of nations fighting for their language. In neighboring countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal as well as far-off countries like Spain and Czech Republic, language has been used as a tool for oppression and nations revolted for their rightful claim.

The memories of Sri Lankan civil war are still alive. The war lasted for 26 years and cost untold human sufferings.

The conflict erupted when the Tamil ethnic minority were subjugated by the majority Sinhalese. As their language, culture and viable economic opportunities were under threat, the Tamils took up arms. What unfolded was a series of sacrifices and manifested political aspirations, all rooted in mother language.

The Kurdish fight for their language has recently gained a lot of attention worldwide. They have been subjected to discrimination and oppression in several countries of the middle east.  

Events took a horrific turn in Iraq in 1988, when the Kurds faced massacre and had to give up their lives for their language and territory. In southeast Turkey, the restriction on Kurdish language has created a series of conflicts.

Similar events can be seen in Europe. In what was formerly called Czechoslovakia, conflicts rose between Czechs and Slovaks over linguistic differences.

The recent plight of the Catalonians to gain independence from Spain has evoked much sympathy. Here, too, distinct linguistic and cultural identity can be observed. Spain also witnessed violent separatist attempts from the Basque nationalists, the roots of which can be traced back to the problem of perceived linguistic discrimination.

“Language is a powerful medium,” says Dr Rafiqul Islam, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Dhaka, “for expressing, teaching, and learning.”

“A community dies when a language dies.”

“Often, in heterogeneous societies, the ruling majority aims to assimilate different groups for stability. They can pick any instrument, like economic opportunity, political ideology etc. in order to equate everyone,” explains prof Rafiqul Islam.

People from various religions and ethnic backgrounds can live in peace if this assimilation is done through democracy, equality and rule of law.

“However,” he continues with regret, “that is often not the case. If the majority chooses to systematically impose their language on the minorities, by making it essential for education, jobs etc., then the minorities are subjugated and subordinated. Hence, historically, it has been a powerful tool for oppression.”

Professor Rafiqul Islam thinks that the motivations behind language movements were love for mother tongue, as well as aspiration to emancipate from subordination. Since linguistic abilities translate into economic opportunities, these movements had a lot to do with economic freedom.

Moreover, it is through one’s language that one expresses political beliefs and sentiments. Hence, these movements were often closely tied to political will and right of self-determination.

As Bangladesh has come a long way of 70 years from its great language movement, many nations across the globe still strive for the right to speak in their mother language.

And that signifies the February 21, much bigger and beyond the boundary of a ‘Martyr's Day’.

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