Serajul Islam Choudhury reflects on the essence of the Language Movement
Serajul Islam Choudhury, Professor Emeritus of Dhaka University, is among the most powerful and probably the most widely read voice of dissent in the country. Author of nearly eighty books, the extent of his scholarship on history and politics of this sub-continent is extensive. His views have swept over the fields of literature (both Bengali and English), history, social science and in the departments of Arts and Humanities. His works beyond the ivory tower have influenced and inspired generations of political activists. Recently, Akram Hosen Mamun on behalf of The Daily Star spoke to him about his thoughts on the language movement of ’52, liberation war and the present prospects for a better society. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.
Akram Hosen Mamun: The nation’s journey from 1952 to 1971 was a period of immense political turmoil and transition. How do you evaluate the struggles of that period and how can those movements give us hope for a better society?
Serajul Islam Choudhury, The major characteristic of the language movement of 1952 is its secularism, which was unprecedented compared to any other movement. It was a great advance from the of two-nation theory founded on religion based nationalism. Also important was the revolt against the system of internal colonialism developed by Pakistanis. It was our first uprising against the state which culminated in the birth of a new state in ’71.
AHM: TDS: Was this an anti-capitalist movement or cultural resistance?
SIC: Before going to that I want to consider the extent to which the movement was anti-capitalist. The struggle of the ordinary people, a majority of whom were uneducated, was intrinsically anti-capitalist. The reason why they became engaged in the language movement was that they didn’t know any other language than Bangla. And they were not going to let go of it.
On the other hand, the aspiration of the middle-classand, for that matter, the ruling classwas different. Was it against capitalism? I don’t think it was. If the Pakistanis, for example, had not tried to impose Urdu as the state language, there would, presumably, not be a language movement. The reasons are: we, more or less, took the dominance of English for granted because we, the middle class, knew the language. In that circumstance, if Urdu became the state language, the middle class’s knowledge of English would have become useless and they’d be made redundant in the resulting reformations. Hence, the fight of the middle class was against Urdu, and not against capitalism. An assertion of some facts can be further proof of this argument: Bangla was one of the two state languages before 1971. After that, it was made the only state language. Notwithstanding this phenomenon, Bangla has never had the status that the masses wanted it to have. The fact that we, the middle class, accepted English unquestioningly suggests that we accepted the fundamental ideologies of a capitalist economy.
A similar example can be found a little further back in history: the anti-colonial struggle against the British was not an anti-capitalist struggle. Congress or the League did not take any position against the unfettered exploitation of the prevailing economic system. Rather, what they wanted was a transfer of power. The transfer of power into their hands meant that they could also get hold of the capital.
Similarly, the Pakistani rulers wanted a capitalist form of development and our conflict with them did not arise from that. The army, bureaucracy and business were already dominated by the Panjabis and other west Pakistanis when the question of state language arose. The middle class of our country realised that they lacked the capacity to compete with the Pakistani bourgeoisie with the burden of an additional linguistic hegemony. Analysing the state language movement, we can conclude that the struggle of the masses was intrinsically against economic disparity. Their aspiration was to build a democratic state without exploitation.
Now, language is a crucial factor in building a democratic state. It transcends the distinctions of class. If we could establish the practice of Bangla in every sphere of life, the class distinction would have been reduced to some extent. We failed. And, after the war, power was transferred to a group of people believing in the same ideologies. As a consequence, the anticipated social transformation or revolution did not happen and the question of language remained. Take, for instance, our system of education: the three strands not only remained after ’71 but also considerably deepened after it. Now we have more English medium schools, private universities and madrassas than we had before ’71. As the class cleavage deepened, the aspiring middle class, which is also the ruling class, accepted the dominance of English as a part of their celebration of capitalist ideologies. They also got immense material and intellectual power from it. The intellectual power derives from their use of language.
In building the new state, one of the major challenges for us was to establish our mother tongue in education, bureaucracy, higher courts and other spheres of our lives. We, however, didn’t take the challenge. We failed to implement Bangla in higher education, not enough books have been written, and translations are not available.
On the whole, the nationalism of the common people was (and always is) substantially different from the nationalism of the ruling class. As I have already mentioned, the common people aspired to make a more egalitarian state without linguistic barriers.
AHM: It is understandable that a resistance to this crisis must have been present in the works of contemporary literature.
SIC: The body of critical essays, articles and dissertations on politics and economics has significantly increased in recent years. It is a new development. These critical writings have substantially contributed to creating an awareness that the nationalism of bourgeoisie and that of the common people are inherently different from each other.
In the works of [pure] literature, on the other hand, the issues were virtually absent with a few exceptions. An instructive phenomenon in literature is the growing lack of interest among writers for short stories. Most of the successful short stories (i.e. Maupassant, Rabindranath) shock and disturb the reader. Now, in order to explain why the impressive current of Bangla short stories is dying, we need to look at two defining factors: a) short novels or novellas are taking the place of short stories; b) writers are unwilling to devote their time and energy to short storiesan art form that demands philosophical depth and a quality to shock or disturb the reader within the confines of a brief space.
It suggests that the writers have become alienated from the issues that could be the subject of short stories. A large body of popular novelsusually short and entertainingis the resultant of the writers’ alienation from the social concerns. We, the readers, on the other hand, are preferring entertainment to disturbances or shocks.
AHM: We had some brilliant and powerful short story writers in Bangla. For example: Jyoti Prakash Dutta, Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Hasan Azizul Haque, Shawkat Ali and others. It seems that writers of the same vein are not emerging.
SIC: As I have already mentioned, the writers as well as the readers have become disjointed fragments of society. As a consequence, the kind of literary works that raise uncomfortable questions would not sell much.
AHM: What are the prospects for rekindling the hopes and aspirations that led common people to organise remarkable movements (i.e. state language movement, liberation war) for a better society in the past?
SIC: Our state is bureaucratic and capitalist in principle. Secular and anti-capitalist movements are being organized around the world now. The recent advancement of the Middle Eastern states is remarkable in this regard. Inspiring movements are also being organized in Europe, Latin America and even in the Unites States.
I believe the patriotic and democratic people who believe in social transformation, equality of rights and opportunities, decentralization of power and the rightful representation of people have the responsibility to organise movements against the inherently evil economic system to bring about positive changes in our society. The movement will not be a success if it ignores culture. It should aim to transform the culture as well as the politics of our country.