By Janet Levy
Every February 21, a little-known observance occurs: International Mother Language Day. Created in 2000 to promote and encourage the diversity of language, this benign and idealistic-sounding commemoration actually marks a bloody day in 1952 when an Islamic minority shot and killed university students protesting the imposition of an Islamic language, Urdu, on a Bengali-speaking majority in Pakistan.
The students who died that day understood that forced reconfiguration of a language can have cataclysmic and devastating effects on a society. Community identification can be shifted, populations and their practices repressed, and the established rhythm of daily life disrupted.
In the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, Muslims have for centuries used Arabic languages as part of their jihad against Christians and Hindus. A blatant example of this phenomenon occurred in 8th century Coptic-speaking Egypt when Muslims conquered the Christian nation and designated Arabic as the sole administrative language. Coptic, which had flourished as a literary and liturgical language, was purposely denigrated by the Muslim conquerors and eventually prohibited in favor of Arabic, the language of Mohammed. Today, Copts continue to be besieged by the Muslim majority in Egypt, and only a few hundred people speak the Coptic language.
A similar struggle occurs with the Bengali language. Although the student deaths of 1952 sparked a successful movement to create an independent Bangladesh, the majority Muslim population in that country persecutes Hindus and is Islamizing the Bengali language itself as a sort of linguistic Muslim jihad which has been going on for centuries.
History - Urdu vs. Bengali
Beginning almost 900 years ago, Urdu, a language associated with Muslims in India and Pakistan, was appropriated from Sanskrit-based Hindi over centuries of conquests by Persian, Arabic, and Turkic Muslims. To create Urdu, the Muslim conquerors took Hindi and Islamicized it by injecting new words, changing existing words, and writing the language in Arabic script. By de-Sanskritizing Hindi to develop Urdu, Muslim rulers de-Hinduized the language as a way of diminishing the infidel faith. As Latin is to Christianity, Sanskrit defines Hinduism and is the language of Hindu clerics and scriptures.
In 1948, shortly after Pakistan gained independence from the British government, the newly installed Islamic government declared Urdu the official language of West and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. At the time, Sanskrit-based Bengali was the language of the vast majority of Bengalis, the inhabitants of East Pakistan, both Hindus and Muslims.
The Urdu language edict created great hardship for Hindus and Bengali-speaking Muslims who were not particularly proficient in Urdu. Although Bengalis were a majority linguistic group, under the Urdu language requirement they faced discrimination and experienced alienation from mainstream Pakistani society. Both Bengali Hindus and Muslims had difficulty finding employment and were discouraged from joining the Army, an important affiliation conferring social standing in Pakistan.
Bengali Language Movement
At the time when the Urdu language mandate was introduced, Muslims in Bangladesh were being pressured to become more Muslim in practice, to Islamicize the region, and to join Urdu Islamic political parties in Pakistan. Bengali Muslims resisted, as they had a cultural affinity to Bengali and felt they were not getting their fair share of power in Pakistani politics relative to their numbers. Out of the six major linguistic groups -- Bengali, Urdu, Sindi, Punjabi, Pastho, and Baloch -- Bengali was the largest in Pakistan. Bengali Muslims came from a distinctly different cultural background from the Muslims in West Pakistan and had little in common with the other groups except Islam. To thwart Bengali domination, the other linguistic groups banded together to reduce the influence of the Muslims of East Pakistan, thus isolating the Bengali Muslims.
After the declaration of Urdu as the official language, extensive protests erupted amongst the Bengali-speaking majority of East Pakistan, both Hindu and Muslim. Due to the rising tensions and demonstrations against the new law, the government outlawed all public meetings and rallies.
On February 21, 1952, students protested the language edict and called for a general strike. Amidst peaceful protests, the police fired on protesters and killed several students. In 1956 following numerous protests over the years, the government relented and granted official status to the Bengali language.
The Bengali Language Movement strengthened the national identity of Bengalis living in Pakistan and eventually led to Bangladesh's war for independence from Pakistan in 1971. Suffering greatly from Muslim persecution, at least 20 million Hindus fled to India from East Pakistan from 1947-1971. About one million Hindus were killed. In the fight for independence in 1971, Muslims killed an additional 2.5 million Hindus. Also during the conflict, the Pakistan Army bulldozed one of the most famous Hindu temples in the Indian subcontinent, believed to be over 1,000 years old.
In 1971, Hindus were declared enemies of the state of Pakistan and the government instituted the Enemy Property Act. False allegations were made by the Muslim government that Hindus were spies for India, and their property was confiscated. Following the independence of Bangladesh, the newly installed Muslim government retained the Pakistani law, merely changing its name to the Vested Property Act. Approximately 75% of Hindu land in the area has been confiscated over time.
The Jihad against Bengali
Today, Hindus in Bangladesh and throughout the Indian subcontinent are reluctant to make demands in a majority Muslim country. They typically remain silent about grievances, as they have little hope of equitable resolutions under Muslim control. Their activities are limited, and they regularly face discrimination. They are accountable to their Muslim masters, have fewer rights, and their movements are restricted. It is not uncommon for a Muslim to stop and question a Hindu in transit, inquire of his travel plans, and demand to see his documents as well as the money he is carrying, which can be extorted with impunity.
Yet, ironically, the Bengali Language Movement is commemorated each year in Bangladesh on February 21 primarily by Bengali Muslims, who hold rallies across the country. This same Muslim majority which allows the oppression of Hindus in Bangladesh is also Islamizing the Bengali language. They have de-Hinduized certain words in their ongoing attempt to eradicate infidel Hindu culture. For example, the Bengali word for "deity" has been replaced by a word that means "Allah" in Farsi, and the word for "water" has been substituted with an Urdu word. An indigenous flowering tree named "Krishnachura," referring to a flower worn in the headdress of the Hindu deity, has been renamed by Muslims to "Mohammed Chura."
For Bengali Hindus, the battle to preserve their language and culture appears to have been a pyrrhic victory, and a temporary one at that. With constant attacks on their businesses, homes, and temples sanctioned by the Vested Property Act, their numbers have diminished from one-third of the population at the time of partition to fewer than 10% today. Ultimately, their language has become less representative of their culture and religious beliefs, they cower to the demands of the Muslim majority, and they continue to face grave threats to their survival. The Bengali jihad may ultimately reduce the Hindus to the fate of the Copts, and the celebration of Mother Language Day may actually finally honor a language far removed from its Hindu and Sanskrit roots and now, instead, symbolic of Muslim expansionism.