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9 February, 2020 11:25:05 AM

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The struggle for mother-tongue continues

In Britain, Bangla is the mother tongue of almost four lakhs Bengalis
Abdul Gaffar choudhury

In Britain among all the community languages Bangla is one of the leading ones. There are now many institutions to teach Bangla and it has spread throughout Europe very quickly.

So many Bengali people live in eastern London that The Guardian newspaper first called it the Bengali district in London. The Tower Hamlets Borough is now known as the Bangla town. No other community languages, though some of them have numerically more people than the Bengali community, is as powerful and influential as Bangla in the British society. In the British parliament there are three Bangladeshi female MPs, and one is in the House of Lords. Half a dozen Bangla newspapers are published from London and there are three or four television channels who broadcast programs in Bangla. The population of Bengali people in Britain is more than 5 lakhs. In business, commerce and politics everywhere Bengalis are in prominent positions. Some observers predict that in near future a British-Bengali may become the Prime Minister of Britain, just like a British-Pakistani is currently holding the top position in the British cabinet.
Bangla is a 'fighting' language. To establish its identity and the rights of Bangla-speaking people it had to fight everywhere— in its own country and in the outside world. In 1952 to establish Bangla as a state language dozens of people sacrificed their lives in Dhaka and within four years Bangla was declared as state language. Before this historic movement Bangla had to fight for its existence in Silchar (Assam), Patna and in other places of the British India. Still the fighting is going on in Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand of India. Even in West Bengal Bengali people are fighting the dominance of Hindi language. Allover the world Bangla is now an important language and it has achieved this through struggle. Very soon Bangla will be one of the official languages of the United Nations. The national anthem in both Bangladesh and India is written by the Bengali poet— Tagore.

In Britain, Bangla is the mother tongue of almost four lakhs of Bengali people. The language has made them a strong community among other communities. Bangla is now so much developed that English language is also borrowing words and sentences from it e.g. hartal, pundit etc. Some British MPs can speak Bangla and a statue of Rabindranath, a Bengali poet was erected in Shakespeare's village in Stratford upon Avon. For a long time Bengali community was neglected in Britain and their large and strong hold in East London was not recognized by the British authority. Though they were not rich, they did not live on the charity of the British government. They established thousands of curry restaurants and employed hundreds of Bengali employees in their business. Their contribution in the British economy is recognised by the British authority also. Prince Charles said, "We are proud of the Bengali community. They are not a burden on the British economy but has helped it by creating thousands of jobs among themselves and helped develop British economy tremendously".

During1982 the new generation of the Bengali community or British-Bengalis had to fight with racist organizations like the National Front and the BNP. There was a strong movement against racism under the leadership of Blair Peach, the leader of the anti-Fascist League who gave his life fighting racist thugs. A Bengali youth, Altab Ali also gave his life at the attack of some racists. The Bengali community was united then demanding the punishment of the murderers and a park in White Chapel was named after him. Later on, a Shaheed Minar was erected at the Altab Ali Park in the memory of the martyrs of the state language movement in 1952. Along with this an anti-racist movement inspired by Blair Peach and Altab Ali spread all over Britain. Its main head quarter was in East London and a new leadership emerged from the new generation of the British Bengalis. This new leadership realized that without their mother tongue and language education they will be a rootless community and lose their existence very soon.

That time Ken Livingstone, known as Red Ken was the mayor of Greater London Council (GLC). He was a progressive leader of the Labour Party and came forward to help all the ethnic minorities in East London to have proper social services including education. The young generation organized an association named the Bangladeshi Community's Educational Need in Tower Hamlets (BENTH). Under BENTH many British Bangladeshi educational organizations were established to teach mother tongue and develop the Bengali culture of their community. In a similar way other ethnic minorities in East London like Somalian and Chinese communities also got support from BENTH and ILEA (Inner London Educational Authority), both of which are now defunct. In business and commerce educated and solvent Bangladeshi middle class rose also with other ethnic minorities. Some of them are so rich that they transferred their business headquarters to other parts of Britain and are listed among the top Asian richest men. Especially the development of British Bengali culture and learning their mother tongue alongside proper British education has also made them a political power.

After the fall of Ken Livingstone from the Mayoral position and the reconstruction of ILEA, the Tory government started a big cut in aids and help to the ethnic minorities including the British Bengalis. But as the councillors from British Bengali communities were elected in large numbers and started dominating the Tower Hamlets council the teaching of mother tongues of ethnic minorities including the British Bengalis did not stop. The British authority could not stop the community language service in Tower Hamlets because a British-Bengali Mayor was elected along with many Bangladeshi councillors. Unfortunately, the British-Bengali Mayor lost his job because of the financial dishonesty. After him a Labour nominee John Biggs was elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets council getting largest number of votes from the Bangladeshi community. At first he appeared to be a well-wisher of the British-Bengalis and other ethnic minority communities. But very soon he removed his mask and showed his real face. He wanted to totally close community service in Tower Hamlets council from next March. It was alleged that he divided the councillors from ethnic minorities especially the Bangladeshis and got support of some of them in doing this.

Now there is huge protest from the organizations of Bangladeshis and other ethnic minorities under the banner Alliance of Tower Hamlets Community Organizations. Last 26 January in Hason Raja centre in East London a huge public meeting was held and demanded the stopping of this 'cultural murder' of several community languages. John Biggs is giving excuse of cutting down this grants for lack of funding. But elsewhere he is hugely funding not so important projects. Already some people are accusing him for his anti-Bengali and anti-ethnic mentality. If his plan is successful 11 languages will be affected. They are- Arabic, Bangla, Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, Lithunian, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Urdu and Vietnamese. In 1982 the free teaching of these 11 languages to the ethnic community children was introduced. 100 teachers were involved in teaching these languages. Half of them are Bengalis. 1500 children are studying their mother tongue in these institutions. 43 community organizations are conducting this education. This education based on their mother tongue has made the children self-conscious and proud of their identity and cultural heritage. This education has prevented them from getting involved in different types of crimes including the present knife crimes which the police has been unable to control so far.

43 organizations are now united to fight the racist programme of the Tower Hamlets mayor. A community leader Dr. Abdul Hannan on behalf of the communities has already filed a case against John Biggs’ council in the High Court. He got support from the Alliance of Community Organizations consisting of 43 ethnic groups including Bangladeshis. It is a fight for the existence of many ethnic communities including Bangladeshis to save their language and culture. History may repeat, following the example of Bangladesh. My belief is that this fight for the mother tongue will win and the international struggle to save the mother tongues of neglected communities and nations will be victorious in near future.

(To be continued) 

London, Thursday 06 February, 2020

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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