Upcoming Events

South Asia Seminar: The Politics of Language: Popular Sovereignty and the Language Movement in East Pakistan

May 20, 2021 - 5pm

Virtual Event

Ahona Panda, Humanities Teaching Fellow, the University of Chicago

The question of the state language of East Pakistan was debated at length in parliament and in civil society between 1948 and 1956. While West Pakistan tried to impose Urdu as the sole state language of Pakistan, Bengali Pakistanis agitated for the adoption of Bengali as either the provincial and official language of East Pakistan, or one of the state languages. On February 21 1952, the Pakistani police fatally opened fire on protesting students. This singular event has come to determine the retrospective understanding of language as the foremost axis of political identity in East Pakistan, signifying the linguistic nationalism that would eventually lead to the formation of sovereign Bangladesh in 1971. In this talk, I explore the language movement as a series of political events and expressions in East Pakistan between 1947 and 1956. I examine how language emerges as a metonym for other economic and social discontent within East Pakistan after 1947 and argue that the politics of language cannot be understood within a straightforward problematic of ‘linguistic nationalism’ in these turbulent years. Instead, my reading foregrounds different negotiations of popular sovereignty through claims on language and linguistic identity. Arguing that language was caught between two irreconcilable forms of political community; jātī (the people) and rāṣṭra (the nation-state), this paper foregrounds the potential for language’s inherent transgressions and ambiguities that enabled it to escape the institutions––and people–– that tried to control its narrative.

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