There is a song that every Bangladeshi knows. It is a song that defines us as a people. It is a song about love and loss.
The song in Bengali is called Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano and it means "Painted with my brother’s blood". The refrain from the song is "Painted with my brother’s blood is February 21st. How can I forget." The song commemorates the events of February 21, 1952.
The struggle that coalesced into Bangladesh’s struggle for independence began as a struggle for cultural and national identity. After India was partitioned to form the country of Pakistan on August 14, 1947, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) and its Bengali speaking population came under the control of the West Pakistani government. The West Pakistan government ordained that Urdu would be the national language – ignoring its Bengali speaking majority in the East.
Facing suppression of Bengali language and culture, protests against the West Pakistani government began in Bangladesh. Leading the protests were students from Dhaka University with support from Bengali political parties. The students demanded that Bengali be recognized as an official language of Pakistan. After the students and political parties called for a general strike on February 21, 1952 and the government responded by banning public meetings, the stage was set for a confrontation.
On February 21st, as students gathered for a rally at Dhaka University the police responded with tear gas. As students dispersed to nearby Dhaka Medical College the police fired into the crowd killing at least four and wounding many more. Thus began a chain of events that would eventually lead to Bangladesh’s independence.
News of the killings began to filter out of Bangladesh. The New York Times reported on the violence the next day:
News of the first Dacca incident filtered through to Karachi late yesterday. In a press note received early in the morning the Government of East Pakistan acknowledged that one person had been killed on the spot and that two others had died of injuries following a club and revolver charge on 7000 persons, mostly students.
Coudry Mohazzan Hussain, Chancellor of Dacca University, said today that the students had been peaceful and had remained on grounds of Dacca Medical College near where the incident occurred.
On February 21st, 1952 at least four Bengalis became martyrs of what became known as the Language Movement. They were Abdus Salam, Rafiquddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat, and Abdul Jabbar. The next day at least two others lost their lives to Pakistani bullets. Each February 21st, Bangladeshis mourn the loss of those young lives and celebrate the language and culture they gave their lives defending.
In November 1999, the United Nations proclaimed February 21st to be International Mother Language Day in order to safeguard and preserve the world’s cultural and linguistic diversity:
Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.
In commemoration of the Bengali Language Movement and in celebration of International Mother Language Day I invite the reader to listen to the song of Bengali national identity sung in the language of poets.