International Mother Language Day

The United Nations has devised a way for the peoples of the world to make observances about certain pertinent issues on particular days of the year. Thus, we have family day, women’s day, environment day and so on. On 21 February, we are celebrating the International Mother Language Day.

It is interesting to know how this observance came to be given recognition. It was proclaimed by the General Conference of the UNESCO on 17 November 1999, and observed every year since 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The United Nations further declared 2008 as the International Year of Languages. Every year the celebration is observed by the UNESCO which enjoins member states to do so in their respective countries.

The United Nations observes that “languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”

Here, the government has given due recognition to all languages spoken and written in Mauritius. This is a laudable initiative and successive governments have added their own lot towards the fulfillment of the United Nations observance on Mother Languages. But certainly, as we observed last week, we should be careful not to damage acquired rights in our zeal to curb budgets.

Shaheed Minar- 21 February 1952

How was the date 21 February chosen by UNESCO to celebrate Mother Language Day? This date represents a very sad occasion when 4 Bangladeshi University students were killed in Dhaka on 21 February 1952, while demonstrating in favour of Bangla as one of the two national languages of the then one Pakistan. There was a controversy around the Bengali and Urdu languages. Because of this unfortunate incident, an International Mother Language Day monument was constructed in Dhaka by the name of Shaheed Minar or the Martyr’s Monument: To pay respect to those four protestors killed for the sake of their mother language, 21 February is thus declared a public holiday in Bangladesh. Those students were from Dhaka University, Jagannath University and Dhaka Medical College.

Every year, the theme of the International Mother Language Day celebration varies. For example in 2002, it focused on linguistic diversity. It is noted that 3,000 languages of the world are in danger of disappearance. It is good in multilingual Mauritius to take note of the UNESCO slogan: “In the galaxy of languages every word is a star.”

In Mauritius the fight for recognition of languages has indeed been very tough, humiliating and gruelling. With the establishment of the Mahatma Gandhi Institute in 1976 by the government with the support of the Government of India, and the initiatives of voluntary organisations with scant and meagre resources several languages and their inherent cultural heritage on the verge of disappearance have been saved from extinction.

The loss over several generations, though, is a noticeable gap. In Trinidad and Tobago, which I visited last year, a temple guardian who spoke in English told me that he would have loved to “converse in Hindi,” but his language was “stolen”, “was taken away” from him. This represented the pang and anguish of language loss, in its bare cry from the heart.

Great efforts are being made by the different socio-cultural organisations to promote, preserve and protect languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Urdu, Gujarati, Mandarin, Hindi and Bhojpuri since decades.

When Shri Narasimha Rao, the then Minister of Education of the Government of India came to Mauritius in 1984 he was surprised and delighted to listen to Telugu songs preserved here which he had heard in his childhood in his native village in Andhra Pradesh. How many of these elements of all linguistic groups are still preserved and if not why have they been allowed to die a miserable death?

Bhojpuri songs brought some 180 years ago are preserved to a certain extent, though some elements have disappeared and others are on the verge of disappearing if we are not quick, and equipped scientifically to take care of them. This year the government is sending the Bhojpuri Geet Gawai Nomination Dossier to be inscribed on the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list of World Patrimony of Humanity after the successful inscription of Sega Tipik last year.

Voluntary NGOs’ Efforts

The stand taken by different governments of Mauritius have established good mechanisms for the preparation of curriculum and pedagogical materials, training of teachers and encouragement of the teaching of these languages at the primary and secondary levels. Succeeding governments have also created Speaking Unions to consolidate the UNESCO’s language promotion policy/mandate. I am particularly impressed by the work done by the several Sabhas such as the Hindi Pracharini Sabha which has without fear and favour and without government subsidy championed the cause of Hindi since 1925.

Likewise, the work of Professor Jeevendiren Chemen, Chairperson of the Tamil Speaking Union as one example of the several Speaking Unions has established several Tamil Language schools both for adults and youngsters. Many adults who “lost” the language over several decades are eager to learn their mother tongue again. He has gone out of his way to preprare textbooks for the Speaking Union: “Spoken Tamil-The Easy Way” with CD and transliteration in Roman and translation in English.

On the other hand, the MBC has diversified its television air space by creating several linguistic channels to give visibility and exposure to these languages of Mauritius in line with the United Nations resolution “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by the peoples of the world.” (Resolution A/RES/61/266- 16 May 2009). We expect the MBC to devise ways and means to preserve these acquired rights and enhance the quality of productions through the provision of adequate means and tools, and putting to use the best brains and talents instead of merely scrapping them off! Let us not behave like an elephant in a porcelain shop!

World Hindi Secretariat

In this context, I am happy to note that the World Hindi Secretariat which was mooted as a proposal by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam at the First World Hindi Conference in Nagpur, India in 1975 has finally come into being and is “operational” since the past seven years. It was in 1996 that I made the proposal to the then government to activate this dossier lying dormant for practically 21 years! In 2001 when I had completed the first phase of the setting up and worked on the draft bill of the WHS, I was brutally removed from the project.

Hindi is on the verge of becoming an official language of the United Nations. It has taken a long time because of the lack of fervour on the part of concerned parties or Party States. With the force given to Hindi by Shri Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India who leaves no stone unturned to use it in his public and international addresses, there is no doubt that Hindi will enter the United Nations during his reign. Let us strike while the iron is hot.

But it is regrettable and disheartening to observe that the World Hindi Secretariat is still functioning in rented buildings. In 2001 when Shri Murli Manohar Joshi, the then Minister of Education and Human Resources of the Government of India came to Mauritius, a signboard of WHS was hurriedly put on a plot of land adjacent to the Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture (IGCIC) in Phoenix.

Since then that signboard is no longer visible. The foundation stone was laid, but no foundation has sprung up in fourteen years. We hope it does not suffer the fate of Jin Fei or Neo Town! With the imminent presence of Shri Narendra Modi on our soil in a couple of weeks, it is desirable that serious consideration be given so that the World Hindi Secretariat has its due and proper functional space. The building can be a state-of-the-art Jewel of Architecture, like the beautiful Conference Halls I have seen in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. That should be a reality at least during Narendra Modi’s reign. Abhi Nahin To Kabhi Nahin (Now or never!)


* Published in print edition on 20 February  2015

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