Historic March 7: Setting a nation on the march

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Published on March 8, 2022
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Dr Shamsad Mortuza:

It is common for modern-day leaders to use teleprompters, in which words are projected onto transparent beam-splitter mirrors, making their speeches appear impromptu and spontaneous. Bangabandhu, too, had a teleprompter, but his was made not of characters in pixels, but of the real-life characters sitting in front of him. His people in the audience were the words and the world of his speech. They appeared in millions on March 7, 1971, on the grounds of what is now known as Suhrawardy Udyan, like the words on a page waiting with a collective aspiration for freedom and for the talismanic touch that would set words into action. Theirs was the energy and passion that got articulated through the voice of one leader. The historic speech of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 7, 1971 set a nation on the march.

In 18 minutes, Bangabandhu prepared his countrymen for the ultimate struggle that they would have to endure for their freedom. He chose each of his words carefully, knowing that one wrong word would present him as a secessionist before the world, giving the scheming Pakistani rulers the opportunity to ignore the faint hope of democratic process altogether. The landslide victory in the 1970 general election that gave Bangabandhu the endorsement of his people to form the government in Pakistan would mean nothing, and his opponents could present him as (what Bhutto called) a "rebel rouser," invoking immediate military action. He chose each of his words carefully, knowing that the one million people sitting in front of him had had enough of the oppression in the hands of West Pakistan rulers. Frustrated by the machination of the leaders of West Pakistan and angered by their colonialism, they were ready to erupt in action. Bangabandhu could read the words and the world before him as if he was the only one who could see the invisible teleprompter.

Before the rally, his associates told him of the mob sentiment that would not be pacified by anything short of the unilateral declaration of independence. The Awami League had won an absolute majority of 160 seats, while its opponent Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had won only 81 seats in the first general elections since the independence of Pakistan in 1947. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was set to be the prime minister of Pakistan. The National Assembly, however, was not inaugurated as the military dictator Gen Yahya Khan and the PPP Chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not want a party from East Pakistan heading the federal government. Not to mention, the affluent aristocratic class of Pakistan had little to no respect for a man of the people as their leader. It was up to Bangabandhu to expose the hypocrisy of Pakistani rulers who had started acting like a colonial power to subjugate its own people. The stakes were really high at the height of the Cold War, when the world was divided into two camps. The strategic interest of the US and China in Pakistan and the strong tie between the Soviet Union and India made the unrest in East Pakistan a global affair. The speech drew attention of the international media, who speculated that Sheikh Mujib would make a unilateral declaration of independence from Pakistan. Bangabandhu, however, was aware of the failures of such declarations in Rhodesia and Nigeria.

Thus, on March 7, 1971, Bangabandhu stood on the juncture of history. His plight was similar to Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr and Nelson Mandela, who are all known for delivering path-breaking speeches. Such great speeches are rooted in history as they carry the memory of human experiences. They are not located at any given time, but to the entire humanity. No wonder, Unesco recognised and recorded the speech as a world documentary heritage in 2017. In a video message congratulating the people of Bangladesh for their first ever inscription on the register of Unesco's Memory of the World, the then Unesco chief Irina Bokova explained why Bangabandhu's speech merited the honour. She referred to the first sentence of the speech, in which he stated the "heavy heart" with which he appeared before his people. Bokova observed that Bangabandhu was "conscious of the weight of his call. He stood before history with a deeply emotional summons for justice, emancipation, freedom and human dignity."

A close reading of the text shows the tonal rise and fall that Bangabandhu used as well as the mixture of formal and informal registers that he applied to coax, cajole, and convince his intended audience. He empowered his audience by saying that "you know it all. You understand it all." In doing so, he instantly created a bond of familiarity between him and the people. He appears like a healer with empathy as he carries out the diagnosis of the social illness that affects his people, before making a prognosis. The demands that he made showed his keenness to keep the democratic process alive. He mentioned four conditions for joining the National Assembly: i) The immediate lifting of martial law; ii) The immediate withdrawal of all military personnel to their barracks; iii) The immediate transfer of power to the elected representatives; and iv) A proper inquiry into the loss of life during the conflict.

He also warned his opponents of the consequences if his demands were not met. More importantly, he announced a civil disobedience movement in the province, calling for "every house to turn into a fortress." He ended his speech famously proclaiming, "The struggle this time, is a struggle for our liberty. The struggle this time, is a struggle for our independence."

The Pakistan secret service, covering the event, reported to the headquarters, "The clever Sheikh Mujib got away with declaring independence, we kept looking." Many have raised questions as to why Bangabandhu did not declare a unilateral declaration of independence on March 7. Major Siddiq Salik, posted in charge of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in Dhaka in 1971, offered three reasons: i) Yahya requested Sheikh Mujib not to carry on with the dialogue over the National Assembly; ii) the then US ambassador to Pakistan visited him a day before, underscoring that he would not get any of their support; and iii) The threat from a certain Pakistani GOC that he would muster up all his military might to "kill the traitors and raze Dhaka to the ground." Bangabandhu did not yield to the pressure. He concentrated on his own convictions to decide on his course of actions.

People close to Bangabandhu have all confirmed how uncharacteristically quiet he was before the delivery of the speech. He was calm and reflective. His wife comforted him saying, "You say what you believe in." When driving to the venue, he told his driver to avoid the usual route to the Race Course field from his Dhanmondi residence. The driver asked him, "Do you know what you will be saying today?" Bangabandhu answered, "I will say whatever Allah makes me say."

And he went on to say, "I shall free the people of the land, InshaAllah."

The rest is history.

Writer: Pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).

Courtesy: The Daily Star