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The Decline of Bangla
Zillur Rahman Siddiqui

A common language has proved to be the strongest unifying force for Bangladesh as a nation. Other factors- a common subjection under a foreign power, for example, has helped but no single factor can be compared to this particular one in point of potency. One can think of other factors that are unifying up to a point, but divisive in the last analysis. Casteism in India, sectarianism in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan often raise their ugly heads and threaten to disrupt the political frame. A national sense in our times is a superior concept, cutting across communal, racial and sectarian differences. In achieving this superior sense, we in Bangladesh have been fortunate in the possession of our language, with its literature, in which we all share a common pride.

Looking back, it may appear that this pride in our language, as far as the Muslim community of Bengal is concerned, lay hidden for quite some time. Political developments in Pakistan brought this latent feeling out to the surface. The Language Movement made it perfectly clear that what flowed as an undercurrent for so many years was a very strong current indeed. Subsequent events have only confirmed this.

Admittedly, our elders, while generally agreeing with the younger generation on the issue of language, still suffered, at least many of them under some backward pulls, mostly emotional. Some remembered the days of Khilafat movement; others found it hard to forget the struggle, for a separate homeland for Muslims. But history had done its work, and the youth of the late forties and early fifties had to face a new challenge which their elders had not anticipated. And they faced it with a clarity of perception and a unity of purpose which must have taken their elders by surprise.

The emergence of Bangladesh was our finest hour in history. It was the vindication of the cause for which the martyrs gave their lives. Naturally, therefore, the vision of Bangladesh was built on our hopes and aspirations for our language which was clearly seen as the strongest sinew of the new nation. Bangla, the mother tongue of the 6th or 7th most numerous group of people on earth, suddenly acquired a new stature as the,state language of a nation of over seventy millions. Long recognised for the richness of its literature, this was the first time an entire state machinery was going to be run with Bangla as its accredited medium. Our neighbours speaking the same tongue envied us, despite their superior achievement in it : for we had put it to a place of honour they had no means of emulating.

This euphoria, however, was short-lived. The fall of the government in August, 1975 put a sudden halt to the main current of our national life. People were stupefied at the suddenness of the crash. Conservative forces within the government came out after a period of hybernation and all the forward movements, including that of the language, slowed down. The cause of Bangla suffered a set-back. Official circulars in English reappeared. English-oriented schools swung back to their former style, and there was a fresh spurt of founding more private schools with high fees and a distinctly foreign flavour. We had eaten our pride, and we spoke in a hushed voice.

The temporary lull in our national life has encouraged the conservative forces. They have started doing things in a manner which has posed a challenge to the spirit of Bangladesh which is essentially the spirit of the Language Movement. The youth is again astir, and the question as to why we have failed to keep our tryst with destiny is agitating the young minds again.

Especially in February, the present status of Bangla has become an issue of some concern. Despite the progress we have made in certain areas in establishing the language to its rightful place, the general decline of Bangla as it is used by us to-day raises a few questions how to explain this decline, and what are the means of halting this trend?

It is easy enough to see that the hesitant, sometimes ambivalent, official attitude to the language is largely responsible for its neglect. There are, it is generally believed, two distinct fields where this attitude has harmed the cause of Bangla: Firstly, the new curriculum for our schools has failed to provide for Bangla the clear and unhindered scope which the Education Commission (1974) provided for it. It was the Commission's perception that for the first five years of a child's education, the mother tongue should receive his undivided attention. The second language was proposed to be introduced only in the sixth year. Even with the introduction of the second language, the scheme ensured for Bangla its position of supremacy till the end of the higher secondary stage.

It is not difficult to see that the early introduction of English, the teaching of which continues to be as inefficient as ever, has claimed a bigger share of the student's time. Though the Commission kept room for both English and a third language for religion, it wisely deferred their introduction till a later stage, allowing time for the mother tongue to receive the attention it deserved in the crucial primary years of a student's life.

Thus, one of the major recommendations of the Commission was set aside. The result was that by the end of the ten or twelve years of schooling the average student failed to achieve the desired proficiency in the mother tongue. Poorely designed text books and inefficient teaching caused further damage. Nothing serious was done to raise the level of text books, nor the quality of teaching.

One remembers the days when both Bangla and English teaching in our schools used to be far more efficient than that of say, Arabic and Persian. Language teaching in our madrassahs used to be notoriously dull and unproductive, their syllabus was hopelessly antique. Generations of madrassah educated men have, as a result, left little mark on our intellectual life. Something close to that situation has apparently started happening generally in our language teaching, affecting both Bangla and English. Emphasis has wrongly been put on the years of learning, not on the quality of books nor on improving the quality of teachers.

The aberration in curriculum planning is only a part of the general neglect of public education which has been quite apparent in recent years. A comparison of the share of education in our national budget with that of our neighbouring countries will show that we have assigned the lowest priority to education, and have failed to recognise its value'as a vital force for development.

The second field where signs of the decline can be related to official attitude is the world of books. The whole publishing trade is gasping for breath. Statistical figures on the number of titles published each year and on actual sales, will confirm this. Add to it the fact that the standard works, the classics of Bangla literature, the essential food for the nourishment of the young mind, have virtually disappeared from the book-shops. There is neither reprints nor import of these books on any significant scale. A whole generation is growing up virtually ignorant of the best works of the Bengalee mind. It is absurd to expect a student to handle his language with skill and perception when he is denied the opportunity of exposure to best literature. The inevitable has happened and a people naturally endowed with a feeling for language hass fallen into a state verging on linguistic barbarism.

Alarm has been raised in the past on the price and paucity of books but as yet no effective measures have been taken to revive the publishing trade and to ensure free flow of books one should read, and not merely of books that happen to be available.

The near absence of the standard works of our literature in our market has not only created a vacuum in our cultural life, more precisely it also has an adverse effect on the quality of education, and on our linguistic competence. Any examiner of the examination scripts, even at the degree and post graduate levels, is appalled by the situation. The signs of a general decline in our ability to handle the language can be seen in every quarter.` 4 The language for which our young men gave their lives, the heritage they longed to possess and to enrich, is slipping through our fingers. The men who are managing our affairs, leaders who are planning our development, teachers who have the responsibility of shaping our future generations, should all wake up to a realisation of this decline and the serious consequences it entails. Nothing less than the destiny of a people is at stake.