Right to Language in Bangladesh: Statutes vs. Status
Emdadul Haque banglanews24.com
Language is not only a way of communication but also a part and parcel of identity and culture of people. American poet and teacher Oliver Wendell Holmes calls language the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow. Linguist Edward Sapir reflects language as the vehicle for expression of thoughts, perceptions, sentiments and values of the characteristics of a community as well as the representation of fundamental expression of social identity. It hears farcical but indeed the right to language is recognized in Bangladesh but not well protected.
Despite clear constitutional mandate backed up by a subsequent law the dignity of Bangla language in the country is in shambles expressing poor shape of its cultural identity.
Language has been a thriving stone for many countries stupendous success. The countries like France, Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia have flourished tremendously across the world have shown profound respect towards their own cultures and languages.
In these countries most of the people with higher educational background do not hesitate to learn English because their infrastructure is strong enough to thrive with their own language attuning with psycholinguist Frank Smith that one language sets you in a corridor for life and two languages open every door along the way.
With the help of the British, English entered the field of education in India in 1792. English became the official language in the colonized India around 1830. In 1991 Census, 1576 mother tongues were recognized and grouped into 114 languages in the country. Indian constitution, 1950 declares official languages of India will be Hindi and English. As per schedule VIII of the Indian constitution there are 22 languages recognized in the country apart from English. The constitution of South Africa has recognized 11 state languages.
Linguistic rights were first included as an international human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. Later on, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966 coupled with other human rights documents recognize and promote the concept of non discrimination on the grounds of language. The adoption of the UNCRC in 1989, with the provisions for linguistic rights of Children is a good addition to this end. The Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (UDLR) in 1996 was drawn up in response to calls for linguistic rights as a fundamental human right.
There are around 6,500 spoken languages in the world today and out of which 5,000 are of indigenous languages heading towards the verge of danger. There are six official languages of the United Nations. Bangla turned as state language of the then East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh) after a sacrifice of many valuable lives in the language movement in 1952.
As part of the recognition of the sacrifice of the martyrs 21st February is declared as the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in November, 1999. In fact, Bangla is in number 6th position among the world’s top 20 languages.
Now, Bangla is in the verge of losing its glory among the youth and many of them cannot tell what happened during the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. In our country history changes every five years with the change of political government replicating winners write history. Students in English medium educational system including private universities, colleges and schools are busy to discuss historical chronicles of Europe, America, Australia and Africa. They even focus seriously what took place during Henry VIII’s reign in UK.
A good nation is supposed to be guided by knowledge and inspired by emotion whereas Bangladeshi people are mostly adverse. Every year in 21st February on the spur of moment people of this country are showing sudden emotional respect and utmost love demanding Bangla as the seventh language of the UN but forget everything as the day goes by like the night dream. New generation is more curious about Valentine’s Day than the 21st of February.
University Grants Commission (UGC) in its report of 2010 revealed that out of 54 private universities only four universities have opened departments for the Bangla language and literature in the 20 years of the history of private university in Bangladesh.
Dhaka University Professor Emeritus Anisuzzaman in an interview said that studies of Bangla were hampered in private universities underscoring the need for courses on the Bangla language in all private universities. According to UGC chairman Professor AK Azad the commission encourages private universities to offer courses on the Bangla language and literature adding private universities should not be limited to two or three faculties rather should offer courses on all subjects to make them full-fledged universities.
Language rights are grossly ignored in the Supreme Court which is the court of last port of justice. In Bangladesh right to Bangla is also ignored in the government, semi government, autonomous offices and also media houses. In a press conference or public discussion or dialogue some speakers are mixing some English words with Bangla language creating obnoxious irritation for the counterpart speakers.
Undergraduate and postgraduate students in the department of Law of Dhaka University can write in the exam either Bangla or English whereas the students of law departments of all private universities are bound to write in English whether they like or not. Children in the three Hill Tracts areas in Chittagong are deprived to use mother tongues and leaving schools due to absence of education in their mother tongue despite the state obligation under the Parbatya Zilla Parishod Act, 1989 and the National Education Policy, 2010.
The government of Bangladesh enacted the Bangla Language Application Act, 1987 to implement the spirit of the Article 3 of Bangladesh Constitution which is clearly stating that the state language of the republic is Bangla. As per section 3 of the Act of 1987 everywhere including courts, government offices, semi-government and autonomous institutions except in case of foreign relations, Bangla shall be used. The subordinate judiciary follows this Act substantially but the superior judiciary disregards this. The main hindrance of the judiciary to apply Bangla language is the English written statutes. Under section 137 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 and section 558 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 Bangladesh government can declare two orders making use of Bangla mandatory in superior and subordinate judiciary.
The window of making rules under section 4 of the Bangla Language Application Act, 1987 can also be option for the government to compel all authorities of the state. During the military ruler HM Ershad on June 7, 1988 the Eighth Amendment Act was passed substituting the spelling `Bengali` with `Bangla`, and `Dacca` with `Dhaka`. But still the previous practice is continuing among the educationists, media men and in the web pages both at home and abroad.
In Eldridge v. British Columbia, (1997) 3 S.C.R. 624, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that sign language interpreters must be provided by doctors and other health care providers in the delivery of medical services to those having hearing impairments and doing so is necessary to ensure effective communication to avoid the risk of misdiagnosis and ineffective treatment.
The High Court Division in Hasmat Ullah (Md.) vs. Azmiri Bibi and Others (44 DLR 332-338) held that as the government did not declare any order under section 137(2) of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 and so in spite of enactment of the Bangla Language Application Act, 1987 the proceedings of the subordinate court could be continued in English.
A writ petition filed in 2008 in the High Court Division by Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) concerning the Bangla language is pending. Bangladesh Law Commission recommended the government in 2011 to use of Bangla in all tiers of the judiciary.
In 1936, Rabindranath Tagore had a conversation with the British writer and thinker H. G. Wells regarding a common probable language. Tagore asked him whether a trend of a common language for the entire human being seemed to be evolved. In reply Wells answered whether we liked or not a language would be imposed upon the human being. Tagore agreed with Wells but said this common language as much as possible would not dismantle national language.
A deceased Bangladeshi poet in a discussion long ago shared that many French people will only utter English with people of other languages if they understand that people with other languages can speak French. Tradition loving and conservationist French believe in line with Geoffrey Willans that one can never understand one language until you understand at least two.
Debate and controversies about learning in mother tongue and in language one understands is an age old issue. Nelson Mandela, once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head and if you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.” Judith Croll, a psychologist at Penn State University in a research study recently revealed that speaking more than one language keeps brain in shape and bolsters mental function.
Major Italian universities are now switching to mainly English language believing that if these institutions remain Italian-speaking then these will be isolated and will be unable to compete as international institutions due to rise of the wind and waters of globalization in higher level of education. Italy might have been the cradle of the last great global language - Latin - but now the universities of this country are planning to adopt English as the new common language terming English as the language of global business and predicting that in five to 10 years other Italian universities with global ambitions will also switch to English. Sensing English is rapidly expanding as a language of instruction worldwide private universities in Bangladesh are sticking to English language.
Language rights and language justice are recognized all over the world. Linguistic human right overcoming linguistic discrimination is a due demand of time. The government of Bangladesh should implement the existing laws and adopt a right language policy avoiding one sided emphasis of learning English or Bangla only. The birth control policy of Bangladesh is erroneous because parents having capability to rear more issues have only one or two offspring while parents without capacity produce four to six children.
The writer is a faculty at the department of Law & Justice, Southeast University
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