“While those on the Right use resort to divisive politics, I will always stand with my communities – diverse, dynamic, multicultural, multi-racial & with people of different faiths & none, & from all around the world.”Apsana Begum MP.
This weekend, it was an honour to attend the virtual event hosted by the High Commissioner for Bangladesh to mark Language Martyrs Day and UNESCO International Mother Languages Day – a source of inspiration for the protection of indigenous languages and cultures of people all around the world.
The date itself is a tribute to the Bangladeshi university students killed in a protest rally fighting for the Bangla language in 1952, against the imposition of Urdu as a national Language by West Pakistan.
As the MP for a diverse and dynamic constituency, I understand the need to celebrate our various cultural heritages, protect linguistic diversity, learn from different traditions of living together and interacting with each other, and nurture the importance of the language and the culture that grows out of those experiences.
We are so lucky that Tower Hamlets is one of the most linguistically diverse area in the UK – with at least 90 identified different languages being used in the borough. I have people in my community who tell me, at the ages of 17 and 18, that there are things they can say in their mother’s language that they can’t say in English and there are things they can say in English that they can’t say in their parents’ language.
There is no doubt that we are richer for the range of people who call Britain home but carry in their hearts the language of another land. It’s an incredibly special gift that people who preserve and grow the language of their grandparents bring to this country. I was therefore also delighted to attend this week a virtual event hosted by the Queen Mary University of London and Mile End Community Project exploring intergenerational storytelling through community languages.
I know that I owe so much personally as a British Bangladeshi to those who came before me who far too often had to struggle to keep our culture and language alive – facing prejudice and discrimination.
Yet right wing populism has, in the recent period, attempted to (re)ignite the so called culture wars – flag waving patriotism, “concerns” about “social cohesion” and anti-immigration rhetoric being used as smoke screens to hide the brutal years of austerity and the Government’s absolute failure to protect both lives and livelihoods during this pandemic. The shroud of aggressive jingoism is an age-old cover for politicians wanting to avoid the reality of the need for radical change and a society attempting to cover up its fundamental flaws – invariably legitimising racist attitudes and ignoring social marginalisation.
Meanwhile, the far right present a real and daily threat as hate speech and hate crimes are again on the rise internationally – in particular across Europe and America. The same old tired but dangerous tropes are used to scapegoat, and blame.
Actually, the truth is that structural racism and social inequality has not only increased the risk of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority communities catching and dying from Covid-19 but have meant that they are impacted disproportionately by every aspect of the pandemic. Migrants are being held in unsafe and inhumane conditions inside camps like Napier Barracks in Kent and an estimated 1.4 million people categorised by the Government as having “No Recourse to Public Funds” are at very high risk of exploitation as undocumented workers and are excluded from accessing almost all Government support.
Language has too often been used as a tool to construct certain people as the “other” and force them to acculturate or assimilate. Throughout history, states have often restricted official use of minority languages due to the idea that it is ‘necessary’ to use only specified languages.
Yet, the opportunity to use one’s own language can be of crucial importance for individual and collective identity and culture, as well as participation in public life. The pandemic has highlighted that many minority language speakers continue to be excluded from learning and accessing crucial information – which has significant implications for the roll out of the vaccine and beyond. Just last year, local Community Language Services, which were a huge part of my life and the life of people around me growing up, were outsourced and cut – another casualty to the program of public sector cuts which has been devastating for ethnic minorities.
Of course, austerity has been catastrophic for most people. Growing marginalisation and economic exploitation has shaped how many people look upon themselves and are looked upon by those in authority. It is important to see our commonality. The working class, in all its diversity and rich traditions, have much more to gain by standing together than being divided. But we don’t have to be alike, to have the same interests and shared solidarity. In fact, difference makes us stronger as a collective.
The Black Lives Matter protests last year recognised the importance of the inclusion of diverse cultural storytelling with the demand to ensure that school curriculums include educating young people about racism and imperialism – along with rebalancing historical and social narratives that currently exclude certain experiences and perspectives.
While those on the right use resort to divisive politics, I will always stand with my communities – diverse, dynamic, multicultural, multi-racial and with people of different faiths and none, and from all around the world.
International Mother Languages Day emerged from a history of jostling powers and political struggles. It is an opportunity to see the rich tapestry of our linguistic diversity as something to be cherished – not another problem to be solved but rather a joyful kaleidoscope of possibilities and potential to be revelled in.
- Apsana Begum MP is one of a number of Socialist Campaign Group Labour MPs who write a regular column for Labour Outlook alongside Richard Burgon, Ian Lavery, John McDonnell, Kate Osborne, Jon Trickett and Claudia Webbe.