‘21 February each year was International Mother Language Day. PEN International joins worldwide observations of International Mother Language Day, which celebrates the importance of linguistic diversity around world’
The idea for such a day originated from Bangladesh, which won its independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a long struggle in which the linguistic rights of the Bengali language speakers had become emblematic.
To the 300 Million native speakers of Bengali, mostly born in Bangladesh or In the West Bengal Province of India (myself included) 21 Feb has a special significance. On this day in 1952, university students in Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh) led a massive peaceful demonstration against the Pakistan government’s efforts to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the nation. The army opened fire killing six students.
The struggle for an Independent Bangladesh grew out of the fight to get recognition for the Mother Language of the Bengalis. And yet, ironically, even in Bangladesh, there are 36 recognised minority ethnic spoken languages, 30 of them not taught at any level of schooling in any part of the country.
The issue of minority languages is complex. Nowhere more so than in India. The constitution recognises 22 regional languages other than Hindi and English. But the 2011 Census recorded thousands of spoken languages with at least 121 languages with more than 10,000 speakers each!
This year, in celebrating Mother Language Day, PEN International has called on the Government of India to release Hany Babu, a Delhi University Linguistics scholar who has been a tireless advocate for the linguistic rights of minorities in India. Babu’s work as a scholar and public intellectual grapples with the ways in which language policies and priorities of the Indian government discriminates against minorities and continues to reproduce old structures of privilege and exclusion.
As a long-standing democratic nation, India often escapes the kind of Western scrutiny that is afforded to the overtly undemocratic countries like China or Burma. But on every global index which seeks to measure the health of national democracies, India appears to be on an inexorable slide down. In 2021 the World Press Freedom Index ranked India at 142nd out of 180 nations , behind Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Sri Lanka, amongst its regional neighbours.
The Report said ‘With four journalists killed in connection with their work in 2020, India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.’
No less dangerous, it seems to academics! The arbitrary detention of Dr Hany Babu demonstrates how academic freedoms are waning in India, a country that was once regarded as a beacon of democracy in the Indo-Pacific region.
Please take action.
(Thank you to Krishna Sen for writing this article on Hany Babu and shining a focus on India’s human rights issues.)