Bangla Should Be a UN Official Language

Dr. Rashid Askari

21 February, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Bangla Should Be a UN Official Language

Dr. Rashid Askari

Bangla reached international heights for the first time at the hands of Rabindranath Tagore when he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. That a poet from a far-off land was awarded the world's most prestigious literary accolade helped put his mother tongue on the map. For the second time Bangla caught the attention of the globe in the year 1952 when Bengali people's love of their language gave rise to a historic movement and met with great success. Bangla gained a permanent position of dignity after it was declared the state language of newborn Bangladesh by its Constitution in the wake of the great War of Liberation in 1971.

The architect of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib valued his mother tongue so highly that he addressed the UN General Assembly in Bangla in 1974. In the course of events, the Bangalee's 'Mother Language Day' (21st February) was declared the 'International Mother Language Day' in 1999 by UNESCO in commemoration of the historic Language Movement of 1952. With all these achievements, the people of Bangladesh are looking forward to seeing their beloved mother tongue much further from the present position.  

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had thrice proposed in the UN General Assembly that Bangla should be one of its official languages.  She put forward the proposal during her address to its 64th Session. She argued that Bangla as a language holds a ‘singular place as a symbol of people's faith in the power of languages to sustain cultures, and indeed the identity of nations.’ The Parliament led by her passed a resolution in 2009 endorsing her claim following which the Indian State of West Bengal also passed a similar resolution in its parliament. Apart from these governmental efforts, many private/ personal measures are also being taken in support of this popular cause.

 However, the United Nations has so far shown no sign of cognisance of the importance of the case. Why it is so indifferent to this enormous popular demand is not very clear. It is not as if they have set the seal on the process of inclusion of any more official language(s). As a matter of fact, there is no hard and fast rule as such about the inclusion of languages in the UN. The UN Charter, in its 1945 constituent document, did not categorically provide for any official languages. The Charter was, however, passed in five languages (Chinese, French, Russian, English, and Spanish). In 1946, the first session of the UN General Assembly adopted the above-mentioned five languages as official and two languages (English and French) as working languages. The second session of the General Assembly (1947) adopted permanent rules of procedure relating to UN languages in conformity with the 1946 rules, but with an exception to their application. The 1947 rules did apply only to the General Assembly, not to other UN organs.

The proposal to add Spanish as a third working language was passed on 11 December 1948. Again in 1968, Russian, and in 1973 Chinese were added as the working languages of the General Assembly.  Arabic was made both an official and a working language of the GA in the same year (1973). Thus, all six official languages were also made working languages of the GA.


The six official languages (Chinese, French, Russian, English, Spanish and Arabic) used in the UN are spoken either as  mother tongue or second language by about 3 billion people in the world who are less than half of the current world population which is 7.63 billion). So the UN cannot equally represent the interest of the speakers of the rest of the languages. Language is not merely a means of communication in a people; it also represents their beliefs and disbeliefs, hopes and aspirations, culture and society. So the non-inclusion of other major languages of the world may amount to a disregard for the majority of people. Being the largest human organisation, the UN should not indulge in it. It should rather give all the major languages room for global recognition.   

 In addition, to include a language as an official or a working language of the UN is not as difficult as the inclusion of the members of its security council where the tug of war is very intense. One may clinch the deal based on the simple logic that the UN is the world biggest association of the people, so the language spoken by a larger population should be accepted as one of its official languages.

A number of languages like Portuguese, German, Italian, Japanese, Hindi are waiting in eager anticipation of being included in the UN official language list. The respective countries are strongly laying their claim to it. Bangladesh has also appeared on the scene. Could she be able to outdistance her major rivals for this selection?

Although it is hard to come by, it is not impossible. It is not always the military might that matters. Ban Ki-moon was not selected as the UN Sectary General on the basis of his country's martial power. The UN has internationalised our 'Mother Language Day' recognising the sacrifice of lives made by Bangladeshis for the right to language. The reason why they have dignified the 'Bengali Language Movement' should apply to the case of selecting the historic language as one of its official languages.

For the above reasons, the proposal for making Bangla a UN language has found favour with the people of Bangladesh. But we are not ultra-nationalistic. We do not want to upset the apple cart of others. We want more languages to be the official languages of the UN including our beloved Bangla. It is the sixth largest language in the world in terms of native speakers and language connoisseurs say that it is the second sweetest language in the world with French being the first. About 300 million people across the world speak the language. The number is far larger than the number of the French speakers, and nearly equal to the number of the Arabic speakers. So Bangla has got every right to be selected as one of the UN official languages. The UN can easily increase the number of its languages by taking one or more from among the languages of the claiming countries. Where is the harm in that?


Dr. Rashid Askari is a writer, fictionist, columnist and Vice Chancellor of Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]