21st February, 1952 was the day when the people of East Pakistan protested against the imposition of Urdu as the sole official language of entire Pakistan. Almost the entire East Pakistan area had a Bengali population, and hence the Bengali people demanded inclusion of Bengali along with Urdu as the official language of Pakistan. This was not going to be, and the Bengalis fought for their independence to protect their mother tongue.

The UN recognized 21st February as the International Mother Language Day, in order to promote multilingualism and linguistic and cultural diversity across the world. Bengali people of East Pakistan ultimately overthrew the oppressive Pakistani rule in 1971 to create an independent country, Bangladesh. It is probably the first country in the world to be born out of protests to protect the mother tongue of her citizens.

The proposal to recognize 21st February as the International Language Day, was put forward by Rafiqul Islam and Abdus Salam, Bengalis living in Vancouver, Canada. The proposal to create International Mother Language Day was passed by the Bangladesh Government, and subsequently by UNESCO on 17th November, 1999. Bangladeshi people gather around Shaheed Minar of Dhaka to commemorate the lives lost due to the language movement that ultimately resulted in the birth of a new country.

Despite its significance in Bangladesh, 21st February failed to gain popular importance in India and other countries. Even the Bengali-speaking regions of India started recognizing the 21st February as the Language Day only recently. However, Language Day is expected to revive the interest for learning native languages, literature, recreational activities, and develop the cultural aspects of various ethnic groups living all around the world.

Written by – Himadri Paul