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Language and the Constitution of Bangladesh–In Memory of Professor Anisuzzaman


Emraan Azad, Lecturer, Department of Law, Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)


(1) This Constitution may be cited as the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and shall come into force on the sixteenth day of December, 1972, in this Constitution referred to as the commencement of this Constitution.

(2) There shall be an authentic text of this Constitution in Bengali, and an authentic text of an authorised translation in English, both of which shall be certified as such by the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly.

(3) A text certified in accordance which clause (2) shall be conclusive evidence of the provisions of this Constitution:

Provided that in the event of conflict between the Bengali and the English text, the Bengali text shall prevail.

–Article 153, The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972

In the making of the Bangladesh Constitution, the issue of language – particularly ‘Bangla as a language’ – had been practically very significant to be understood from two historical contexts. Firstly, the constitution makers felt the necessity to produce a Bangla text of the Constitution along with an English one to respect the (Bengali) nationalist spirit relating to the 1952 language movement.[1] Sacrifices made by the people for the mother tongue of Bangla was constitutionally then honoured. Secondly and quite contrary to the spirit of language movement, with the constitutional declaration of ‘Bangla’ – the majority Bangalee population’s mother tongue – as the ‘State language’, the constitution makers simply ignored showing respect to languages of other communities, mainly those of the indigenous ethnicities.[2] The idea of inclusive constitutionalism had then plausibly faced its first blow also.

Despite the fact that whatever accomplishment or pitfalls Bangladesh has made after the national independence concerning the practice of constitutionalism, the name and contribution of Professor Anisuzzaman is historically oft-cited and barely discussed in the constitutional law discourse of the country. Since his student life, Professor Anisuzzaman was associated with language and secular cultural activities in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). He was an active student-participant of 1952’s State Language Movement Council from Jagannath College, Dhaka. Not only this, he participated in mass uprising against Pakistani military rule (1969) and took part in the national liberation war (1971). He was a member of the Planning Commission to the (wartime) Government of Bangladesh and a member of the National Education Commission set up by the Government after liberation war.[3]

Though he was not a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee in the Constituent Assembly, Professor Anisuzzaman with his knowledge of language and literature apolitically contributed by producing a Bangla text of the Constitution. During the making of the Constitution, he used to teach in the Department of Bangla, Chittagong University. He was then requested by Dr. Kamal Hossain, the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, to take the responsibility of drafting the Constitution in Bangla which subsequently adopted as an official version of the Constitution on November 4, 1972.

For writing the Bangla version of the Constitution, Professor Anisuzzaman used to attend the debates of the Constituent Assembly and take help from Dr. Kamal Hossain to understand the meaning and usage of complicated constitutional law jargons. Basically, he used to translate constitutional provisions from English to Bangla. In order to ensure legitimacy of his translation work, he always felt the necessity of official recognition for the translation team. When he raised this issue to the Constitution Drafting Committee, Dr. Kamal Hossain formed the ‘Language Expert Committee’ after receiving approval of the Drafting Committee. Professor Anisuzzaman was the Convener of this Committee, while Poet Syed Ali Ahsan and Director General of Bangla Academy Majharul Islam were appointed as members of the Committee. Their terms of reference included mainly translating the Constitution and ensuring linguistic perfection as well as harmony.

The Draft Constitution in its English form was linguistically improvised by an Irish lawyer named Robert Gathrie. He was a professional legislative draftsman who used to work in the British Parliament to assist the private members draft and prepare bills.

The Language Expert Committee worked at a stretch from 3-20 July in 1972 and during this time it met for eleven times. Finally, on 19 August of the same year, the Committee submitted its suggestions (concerning the linguistic improvisation of the Constitution) to the Constitution Drafting Committee for consideration. Suggestions were submitted before Robert Gathrie who officially completed his work of improvising the English text of the Constitution. Bangla and English texts of the Constitution were finalised respectively in the 4th and the 5th meetings of the Constitution Drafting Committee.

In his memoir titled as Bipula Prithivi,[4] Anisuzzaman recounts his personal experiences of translating the Bangladesh Constitution. As he writes, during the translation work, a debate took place between Anisuzzaman and the then Chief Justice of Bangladesh Mr. Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem regarding the Bangla translation of the words ‘Justice’ and ‘Judge’. Anisuzzaman translated the words ‘Justice’ into ‘Bicharpati’ (meaning as in ‘Lordship/My Lord’) and ‘Judge’ into ‘Bicharak’ (meaning as in ‘Your Honour’). Chief Justice Sayem was in favour of calling all the judges of the Supreme Court (inclusive of both High Court Division and Appellate Division) as ‘Justices’. But Anisuzzaman argued that the terms ‘Justice’ and ‘Judge’ should differently be used in Bangla keeping in mind their linguistic differences. In our Constitution, the word ‘Justice’ has been used only in case of ‘Chief Justice’.[5] Many years later, Chief Justice Sayem once humorously told Professor Anisuzzaman, “I won’t forgive you. Because of you ‘Justices’ are now constitutionally known as ‘Judges’”. Such dispute, though ‘not that much serious’ according to Professor Anissuzaman, could have been avoided, if a specific session-dedicated debate among the Constituent Assembly members would have taken place while adopting the English as well as the Bangla texts of our Constitution. The Language Expert Committee could have then had an opportunity to justify the usages of each word substantially and technically. Unfortunately, such debate did not take place according to our knowledge.

Professor Anisuzzaman had not only made an undeniable effort towards linguistically producing a Bangla text of our Constitution, in post-1972 Constitution period he had also intensively written on constitutional law matters, specially on fundamental principles of our Constitution such as secularism, non-communalism, etc. in connection to our liberation war history.

However, it is so unfortunate to note that, being infected with Covid-19 virus Professor Anisuzzaman has breathed his last on 14 May 2020,[6] leaving the whole nation to mourn for the unexpected departure of an influential intellectual. Through this short essay, hence, we pay our sincere tribute to Professor Anisuzzaman by remembering his unique engagement as a young linguist in the making of the Bangladesh Constitution of 1972. That is how we can present this profound scholar of the third world to the global audience of the comparative constitutional law.

Rest in peace, Professor Anisuzzaman.

Suggested Citation: Emraan Azad, Language and the Constitution of Bangladesh–In Memory of Professor Anisuzzaman, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, June 28, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/06/language-and-the-constitution-of-bangladesh–in-memory-of-professor-anisuzzaman


[1] See the historical background of 1952’s language movement at: http://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Language_Movement.

[2] Bangladesh is the home to more than 54 indigenous communities who speak at least in 35 languages. Prominent indigenous languages are Chakma, Tripura, Marma, Mru, Hajong and so on. Despite their long existence as separate ethnic groups and their cultural uniqueness, the Constitution of Bangladesh has not recognised them as ‘indigenous peoples’. Rather, the 15th amendment to the constitution, adopted in 2011, has referred to them as “tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities” (art. 23A). See at: https://www.iwgia.org/en/bangladesh/3446-iw2019-bangladesh.html?highlight=WyJiYW5nbGFkZXNoIiwiYmFuZ2xhZGVzaCdzIl0=

[3] See the short biography of Professor Anisuzzaman at: https://www.thedailystar.net/supplements/star-lifetime-awardees-2016/prof-anisuzzaman-212803.

[4] The memoir is written in Bangla and the title of the memoir can be translated as Myriad Earth. See for details at: https://www.amazon.in/Bipula-Prithibi-Anisuzzaman/dp/9849120193.

[5] Part VI of the Constitution of Bangladesh spells out the provisions relating to the Judiciary of Bangladesh. This Part clarifies that individuals/adjudicators under oaths sitting in the Hugh Court Division and the Appellate Division are knows as ‘Judges’ (except the Chief Justice of Bangladesh who sits in and presides over the Appellate Division). However, this constitutional differentiation is now practically obsolete as all of them are addressed as ‘Honourable Justices” – the fact of which is a kind of judicial ritual of honouring our higher court judges. For more clarification, see, arts. 94-99, the Constitution of Bangladesh, at: http://bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-367/chapter-688.html.

[6] See the news of demise of Professor Anisuzzaman at: https://www.dhakatribune.com/obituary/2020/05/14/national-professor-anisuzzaman-passes-away.

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Published on June 28, 2020
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One Response

  1. Kishor Dere

    Drafting a piece of legislation in general, and drafting a constitution of the nation in particular, is a Herculean task. Meaningful and contextual translation from one language into another is an equally challenging exercise. Hats off to Prof. Anisuzzaman for his extraordinary hardwork and dedication in this regard.

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