The Pitfalls of Language Politics in Bangladesh

The High Court of Bangladesh issued a rather strange ruling on February 16th, 2012, seeking to prevent any distortion of the Bangla language in Bangladesh.  The ruling directed the radio and television authorities in Bangladesh not to use distorted Bangla or foreign languages in their Bangla programs.  The court ordered the formation of a high-level committee to recommend measures to prevent distortion of Bangla on radio and television.  In addition, the government was asked to explain why it should not be directed to take necessary actions to stop distortion of Bangla or take legal action against those responsible for distorting the language.  

The ruling followed  a petition to the court submitted by the Secretary General of the Alumni Association of Dhaka University.  The petition cited an article titled "Bhasha dushon nodi dushoner motoi biddhongshi (language distortion is as devastating as river pollution)," written by an influential university professor and published by the largest circulating Bangla daily, Prothom Alo, just a day before. The river pollution analogy was in reference to a ruling issued last year where the government was directed to take action to stop river pollution and encroachment of rivers by real-estate developers. 

The article and the petition made explicit references to the earlier ruling on river pollution and urged the court to take action.  The court obliged by treating river pollution and “language pollution” as analogous and explicitly or implicitly arguing that 1) languages can be and should be kept pure; 2) some culprits are distorting or polluting the Bangla language out of ignorance or to serve their selfish ends, if not some evil design; and 3) the government has the authority and responsibility to prevent such distortions or pollutions to the language.  

The language and logic of this ruling is both absurd and dangerous.  It is absurd because languages cannot be static or frozen; languages cannot be kept “pure.”  What may be considered as distortions can easily also be considered as evolutionary changes in language. In fact, it is not at all clear what “distortion” really means.  Are local dialects distortions?  Are some accents and pronunciations distortions, while others are standard?  It seems to me that it would be impossible to set general criteria for defining or detecting distortions.  And in any case, it will be impossible to purge them out of use.  

Similarly, the task of keeping Bangla authentic or purely indigenous would also be impossible given that the majority of the words used in modern Bangla are borrowed from Sanskrit, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, English, Dutch, Portuguese, and myriad other languages.  Over the centuries, words from these foreign languages have become so thoroughly integrated in the Bangla language that it is impossible to speak or write Bangla without any “foreign” words.  It seems to me that the directive that the court ruling issued would be impossible to carry out.  So what purpose does it serve?  Why issue such an order?  

I can speculate a two-fold answer.  Firstly, the court and the government are trying to find pretexts for imposing control on popular media.  Secondly, with this ruling the court and government are trying to appeal to nationalist sentiments and shore up support for the regime.  The court order explicitly asks television and radio channels to take steps to stop language pollution in their programs.  This potentially opens up spaces where the government can decide what kind of programs can and cannot be broadcast.  This is an obvious and open attack on freedom of expression, freedom of press, and artistic freedom.  But the order can be used even more perniciously.  Since the directive issued by the court would be impossible to follow, television and radio channels, despite their best efforts, will always inevitably be guilty of violating court order.  Thus, any television or radio channel can be sanctioned at any given time for no other reason than failing to do the impossible.  This is surreal and absurd and very dangerous.  Anyone familiar with the dynamics of Bangladeshi politics will concur that every government will use such a vague, open, and impossible to follow directive to their maximum advantage by sanctioning against or shutting down television and radio channels that dare to take a critical or oppositional stance against the government.  

Making way for such abuse of power, this ruling has dealt a potentially fatal blow to a fledgling democracy in Bangladesh.  The liberal democratic project in Bangladesh remains unrealized and weak in many respects.  However, the press and popular media have been relatively free and vibrant.  The press has often asked questions that proved uncomfortable for ruling parties and forced governments to take up difficult challenges.  One good example is the campaign against river pollution and encroachment, which forced the government to challenge the power of industrial and real-estate groups.  It is ironic that the same campaign was invoked to issue an order that can potentially end freedom of press and democratic expression in Bangladesh. 

What is more distressing is the fact that apart from a handful of columns in online magazines, there has been no serious discussion, let alone criticism, of the ruling.  Political parties, even those in opposition, have either kept quite or expressed active support for the ruling.  In the blogosphere and on social network sites there have been many sympathetic and supportive posts.  It seems to me that there is widespread support for or at least acquiescence to the ruling.  And I think the sympathy for the ruling stems from the centrality of language in Bangladeshi national identity.  

In addition to creating potential for excessive government intervention into the popular media, the ruling dangerously plays on nationalist sentiments. Language is an important constitutive element of any national identity.  However, the importance of language for Bangladeshi national identity is perhaps more pronounced than most other cases.  It is often argued that the struggles in the 1950s to establish Bangla as one of the official languages of Pakistan led to the emergence of Bangladeshi nationalism and the independence of Bangladesh.  

In post-independence Bangladesh, language continues to play a significant role in constructing and projecting the national identity.  The importance of language in Bangladeshi identity and politics is illustrated by the way the Language Movement is remembered and celebrated in contemporary Bangladesh. The 21st February, which commemorates the martyrs of the language movement, is one of the most celebrated national holidays in Bangladesh.  (Incidentally, the U.N. has been celebrating 21st February as the International Mother Language Day since 1999 in recognition of the Language Movement.)  The celebrations stretch throughout the month of February, which has been dubbed the Language Month, with book fairs, concerts, theatre performances, film festivals, discussions, seminars and such.  The High Court ruling came during this month of language.  The author of the article, the petitioner, and the court are all trying to make a great show of their love for Bangla.  Many in Bangladesh have supported the ruling or kept quiet because they too want to show their love for the language.  

But perhaps, many have sympathized with the ruling because of some real anxieties that Bangla is losing ground in Bangladesh.    There are occurrences of contrived and English accented pronunciations of Bangla on radio and television channels.  Many find revolting the khichuri of a language - the mush of various dialects of Bangla, English, and Hindi - that passes for “hip” or “cool” in Bangladeshi popular media now a days.  Many resent the injustice of the better opportunities that English-medium schooling avails in Bangladesh.  

Though there are many reasons for wanting to restore the honor and glory of Bangla in Bangladesh, this ruling is not the path to do it.  

 

 

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