Bangla reached international heights for the first time at the hands of Rabindranath Tagore when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. That a poet from a far-off land was awarded the world’s most prestigious literary accolade helped put his language on the map.
For the second time Bangla caught the attention of the world in the year 1952 when Bengali people’s love of their language gave rise to a historic movement. Bangla gains a permanent position of dignity when it was declared the state language of newborn Bangladesh by its Constitution. The proud people of the independent soil valued it so highly that their leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman addressed the UN General Assembly in Bangla on 25 September 1974. In the course of events, the Bangalee’s ‘Mother Language Day’ (21st February) was declared the ‘International Mother Language Day’ in 1999 by UNESCO in commemoration of the historic Language Movement of 1952. With all these achievements, the people of Bangladesh are looking forward to seeing their beloved mother tongue much further from the present position.
Our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is a staunch advocate of Bangla’s right to being an official language of the UN. She tries to vindicate her claim as and when the occasion arises. She has formally proposed thrice in the UN General Assembly that Bangla be one of its official languages. She put forward the proposal during her address to its 64th Session. She argued that Bengali as a language holds a “singular place as a symbol of people’s faith in the power of languages to sustain cultures, and indeed the identity of nations”. The Parliament led by her passed a resolution in 2009 endorsing her claim following which the Indian State of West Bengal also passed a similar resolution in its parliament. Apart from these governmental efforts, many private/ personal measures are also being taken in support of this popular cause.
However, the United Nations has so far shown no sign of cognisance of the importance of the case. Why it is so indifferent to this enormous public demand is not very clear. It is not as if they have set the seal on the process of inclusion of any more official language(s). As a matter of fact, there is no hard and fast rule as such about the inclusion of languages in the UN. The UN Charter, in its 1945 constituent document, did not categorically provide for any official languages. The Charter was, however, passed in five languages (Chinese, French, Russian, English, and Spanish). In 1946, the first session of the UN General Assembly adopted the above-mentioned five languages as official and two languages (English and French) as working languages. The second session of the General Assembly (1947) adopted permanent rules of procedure relating to UN languages in conformity with the 1946 rules, but with an exception to their application. The 1947 rules did apply only to the General Assembly, not to other UN organs.
The proposal to add Spanish as a third working language was passed on 11 December 1948. Again in 1968, Russian, and in 1973 Chinese were added as the working languages of the General Assembly. Arabic was made both an official and a working language of the GA in the same year (1973). Thus, all six official languages were also made working languages of the GA.
The six official languages used in the UN are spoken either as mother tongue or second language by 2.8 billion people in the world who are less than half of the world population (the world population now is 7 billion). So the UN cannot equally represent the interest of the speakers of the rest of the languages. Language is not merely a means of communication in a people; it also represents their beliefs and disbeliefs, hopes and aspirations, culture and society. So the non-inclusion of other major languages of the world may amount to a disregard for the majority of people. Being the largest human organisation, the UN should not indulge in it. It should rather give all the major languages room for global recognition.
In addition, to include a language as an official or a working language of the UN is not as difficult as the inclusion of the members of its security council where the tug of war is very intense. One may clinch the deal based on the simple logic that the UN is the world biggest association of the people, so the language spoken by a larger population should be accepted as one of its official languages.
A number of languages like Portuguese, German, Italian, Japanese, Hindi and Urdu are waiting in eager anticipation of being included in the UN official language list. The respective countries are strongly laying their claim to it. Bangladesh has recently appeared on the scene. Could she be able to outdistance her major rivals for this selection?
Although it is hard to come by, it is not impossible. It is not always the military might that matters. Ban Ki-moon was not selected as the UN Sectary General on the basis of his country’s martial power. The UN has internationalised our ‘Mother Language Day’ recognising the sacrifice of lives made by Bangladeshis for the right to language. The reason why they have dignified the ‘Bengali Language Movement’ should apply to the case of selecting the historic language as one of its official languages.
For the above reasons, the proposal for making Bangla a UN language has found favour with the people of Bangladesh. But we are not ultra-nationalistic. We do not want to upset the apple cart of others. We want more languages to be the official language of the UN including our Bangla. It is the sixth largest language in the world in terms of native speakers. About 300 million people across the world speak the language. The number is far larger than that of the French speakers, and nearly equal to that of the Arabic speakers. So it has got every right to be selected as one of the UN official languages. The UN can easily increase the number of its languages by taking one or more from among the languages of the claiming countries. Where is the harm in that?
Dr. Rashid Askari is a writer, columnist, fictionist and the vice chancellor of Islamic University Bangladesh.