Today is International Mother Language Day, which according to Wikipedia “is a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism”.
Wikipedia adds: “International Mother Language Day has been being observed since 2000 to promote peace and multilingualism. The date corresponds to the day in 1952 when students from the University of Dhaka, Jagannath University and Dhaka Medical College, demonstrating for the recognition of Bengali as one of the two national languages of East Pakistan, were shot dead by police near the Dhaka High Court in the capital of present-day Bangladesh.”
So in Tower Hamlets in particular in the UK it is a significant day, one that is celebrated by several events such as the laying of flowers in Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel.
I’m only into my third lesson learning Bengali and all I can do so far is offer a few basic greetings, say ‘I don’t understand’, and count to 30…which at my pace is long enough to utter the kind of sigh we all thought was disappearing from Tower Hamlets.
One of the songs people sing on this day is…well, instead of me explaining, let’s refer to the council’s own ‘cultural walk’ leaflet for ‘Banglatown and the Bengali East End‘, which states:
In February 1999 the United Nations declared February 21 World Mother Language Day. At midnight on 20 February (Shahid Dibosh) the Language Movement is remembered in a solemn ceremony in the Park – to which the Bengali community comes to lay wreaths. Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, journalist and freeman of Tower Hamlets, wrote the well-known Martyr’s Day song Amar bhaier rokte rangano Ekushe February which is sung at the ceremony.
Abdul Gaffar Choudhury, 81, as might be expected of someone honoured as a Freeman of the Borough, is famous and highly respected.
He also has a Wikipedia entry, which outlines his long career as a journalist and columnist, the last 41 years of which have been based here in the UK.
Today, he was due to appear at the Whitechapel Idea Store for a panel discussion on the Language Movement alongside a couple of academics and Mayor John Biggs.
This was the advert put out by the council ahead of the event:
But when we arrived, visitors were met by this:
The extremely courteous Idea Store manager told me that council bosses had cancelled the event after a “reassessment”. He explained that senior managers had at the last minute decided Choudhury’s presence on council property for such an event was not consistent with council booking policies and procedures.
People could sing his song but not hear his words.
Why? Because a complaint had been made by some in the Tower Hamlets community that he had made “defamatory remarks” about Sylhetis (who form by far the vast majority of Bangladeshis in the East End), including Lutfur Rahman and twice convicted insurance fraudster Mahee Jalil Ferdous. And that were the Idea Store event to go ahead there would be “violence”.
Seriously. A threat of violence was made and the council kowtowed.
At this point, I declare an interest. My brother-in-law, Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a man I respect deeply, had been one of the people organising another event in honour of Gaffar Choudhury, for yesterday at the council owned Brady Centre. That was also cancelled. I would normally stay clear of the often problematic politics of Bangladesh on this blog but this episode has broader implications and lessons for everyone to digest.
The row centres on an interview Gaffar Choudhury gave during a chat show on the British Bengali television station Channel i some weeks ago.
According to his enemies, Choudhury, regarded as a Dhaka intellectual, is supposed to have deeply insulted Sylhetis in London by implying they were illiterate and uneducated. He is supposed to have used the phrase “from langol to London”.
One councillor who had no axe to grind on either side told me: “A langol is what farmers use to cut the rice harvest, a knife-like object. So people interpreted his comments as him trying to say Sylhetis are uneducated rural peasant farmers who have suddenly been lifted from their rice fields and dropped into civilised London and don’t know how to behave.”
Gaffar Choudhury and his allies insist he meant no such thing. They say that throughout his life he’s been supportive of Sylhetis and they have always been there for him in times of trouble. They say he was actually praising Sylhetis by saying it was they who have been upholding the traditions and heritage of Bangladeshis in Britain, and not the educated classes who should have done so.
I understand he was particularly critical of Lutfur (guilty electoral offences) and Mahee Jalil (twice convicted of insurance fraud and founder of Channel S TV) and one or two other self-described unelected “community leaders”. Which is possibly why a great fuss then made.
Even hardened Tower Hamlets politicos have been taken aback by the reaction. They have told me there is politics at play, not just the usual Swami League/Bangladesh National Party spats, but also among those seeking a mayoral power play in Tower Hamlets.
So out came the Tower Hamlets Activist Handbook and a long and angry rally was booked last month at the Water Lily to whip up the masses in Mile End. Former Labour councillor Motin Uz-Zaman was there, as was Ohid Ahmed, Oli Rahman, the latter two apparently appealing for a reasonable response. Others demanded boycotts of Gaffar Choudhury.
Then word got out that the council had invited their Freeman to the Whitechapel Idea Store for Language Day.
So the Greater Sylhet Council UK, one of Lutfur’s favourite rabble rousers, decided to tell Tower Hamlets council what a mistake they were making.
Here’s an email they sent to the council to warn of a violent reaction if the event went ahead.
I got an information from the authentic sources that you have organised a programme for the International Mother Language Day at the White Chapel Idea Store on Sunday 21st February.
You have invited Abdul Gaffar Choudhury as a panel member for this event. I would like to inform you that Mr Abdul Gaffar choudhury made a defamatory remarks about our Sylheti Bangladeshi community, founder of chanel S & other community leaders on live TV talk shaw on 12th December.
He also made anti religion remarks in Newyork. Few weeks ago 700 people attended to a protest meeting at the Water Lily,Mile End Road,London E1 against Abdul Gaffar Choudhury.
In this meeting Journalists,community leaders,religious leaders including ex councillor Matinuzzaman,Cllr oliur Rahman,cllr Ohid Ahmed delivered the speeches.
They have called to boycott Abdul Gaffar Choudhury from all events of the community.
we are going to take a legal action against him. Our community are so upset and furious against him. If you allow him to come at the Idea Store, there will be a public disorder, protest and could violence.
so our humble request to you please do not allow him to come at the Idea Store.
please let me know your decision regarding this matter.
Nurul Islam Mahbub,Chairperson,Greater Sylhet Council UK
Kalam M A T Choudhury,Secretary,Voice For Justice UK
I’m not quite clear what Gaffar Choudhury is supposed to have said in New York but apparently it was something scholarly to do with the literal derivation of the word Allah.
However, some people allowed themselves to get upset by it. The Jamaat-e-Islami party, which has links to Tower Hamlets of course, put out a press release at the time saying this.
..his comments and remarks have emanated question whether he is a Muslim or not. It is the duty and obligation of every Muslim to raise voice against his derogatory statement about Islam and religious features.
According to the Daily New Nation paper in Bangladesh, another fundamentalist organisation there went further by calling for his execution. Here:
The Secretary General of Hefazat-e-Islam Allama Zunaid Babunagari in a statement said: “Gaffar Chowdhury has turned out to be an atheist. He can’t bear the identity of Muslim anymore if he does not repent and accept Islam again.”
He also demanded capital punishment of the expatriate Bangladeshi writer. He warned that a tougher movement would be launched against the government if it does not take punitive action against the atheists like ex-Minister Abdul Latif Siddique and columnist Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury.
I’m not sure if Tower Hamlets council was aware of these death threats hanging over him when it originally invited him to speak at the Idea Store for today’s event. I’d like to think they were: it would show they were championing free speech in the face of religious fascism.
But instead, after they received another threat of violence, they kicked their Freeman into touch. They told his supporters that his presence on a council property would not be conducive to community cohesion.
Here’s an email sent by new chief executive Will Tuckley to Ansar Ahmed Ullah, the organiser of yesterday’s cancelled Brady Centre event:
Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your request to book the Brady Centre on 20th February. I am writing to inform you that the council will not accept the booking for the proposed event.
The decision has been taken after careful consideration, and was guided by our terms and conditions of hire. This document makes clear that the council has complete discretion to determine whether to accept a booking and includes a criterion that, “as a general rule, premises will not be available for public meetings with political, religious or any other content where the matters for discussion are…..controversial or sensitive in anyway or which may breach community cohesion”.
In making its decision, the council does not make a judgement on any individual. The decision was informed by an assessment of risk that the proposed event, taking place in a council building, may have become controversial or impacted on community cohesion.
I would like to apologise for the way this matter has been managed. In particular, I am aware that a staff member at the Brady Centre incorrectly advised you, prior to this booking request being considered in accordance with the council’s procedures.
I think Will Tuckley, who I’m told has been impressing everyone he deals with, was in more than a tricky position on this. But I don’t think he was well-advised or fully informed.
And once he’d taken that decision, it would have been difficult for Biggs (even if he had been so inclined) to overrule his new chief exec.
It’s quite likely they were advised by people with vested interests, politically and/or religiously. Perhaps the standing and credibility of those who whispered in their ears might now be lower as a result.
No chief exec or mayor wants to be known for banning free speech, especially after threats of violence.
Meanwhile, here’s Abdul Gaffar Choudhury’s song for Language Day.