What makes the 7th March speech one of the best?
In 2017, UNESCO announced Bangabandhu's March 7 speech as one of the most historic speeches in the world, worthy of being enlisted in the "Memory of the World Register". The significance of the speech could not be clearer -- as a nation, Bangalees received a united purpose, a call-to-arms for self-determination, and a pledge to never surrender. In this piece, however, we will try to decipher the mechanics of the speech, delivered by a man who was poised to become Pakistan's next Prime Minister yet simultaneously personifying a nation's popular rebellion against the rulers. Fifty years on, the March 7 speech remains one of the most honest political speeches that provided an overarching narrative of self-determination, and found a common ground for all.
THE CENTRAL IDEA
Written statements are allowed to be complex. As readers, we enjoy -- rather vigorously exercise -- the liberty to re-read certain sections of a written statement for clarity. Speeches divulge from the written prose in that the live audience cannot press rewind and listen to certain parts again. The purpose of political speeches has always been to serve one central idea for the audience to take home, and the March 7 speech delivered its purpose of creating an acute feeling of unity in the most tumultuous of times in erstwhile East Pakistan.
"We accepted that, agreed to join the deliberations. I even went to the extent of saying that we, despite our majority, would still listen to any sound ideas from the minority, even if it were a lone voice. I committed myself to the support of anything to bolster the restoration of a constitutional government."
The speech revealed its key elements very early: East Pakistan does not have self-determination, every attempt to seek proper governance has been thwarted by authoritarian and military violence, and it needs to stop. Bangabandhu effortlessly simplified the complex political back-and-forth exchanges with West Pakistan. There was a build-up full of tense conjuncture, illustrating instances where Yahya Khan refused to negotiate with Awami League at the national assembly.
The Father of the Nation was effectively able to illustrate that East Pakistan tried everything at their disposal to negotiate its self-determination, but the West was adamant to run never-ending circles, siding with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto instead of ceding power to the rightful winner of the 1970 general elections. Without being overly didactic, the speech provided an overarching narrative that this is the last call to come discuss federalist statecraft in Awami League's favorable terms, or else East Pakistan will have to respond to the bullets shot at them, and the response "will not be good". It also helps that the central idea was summed up in one of the most iconic sentences: "The struggle this time is for emancipation! The struggle this time is for independence!"
THE SACRED NARRATIVE
Speechwriters, for long, have focused on perfecting overarching narratives in speeches. The reason is intuitive -- overarching narratives evoke a rite of passage within a political culture, raising and directing unique emotions using symbols that correspond to the present and the future. Bangabandhu, quite fluently, was able to use suffering and oppression as powerful symbols to galvanise the population; it was our "blood on the streets", our "history of suffering" and "the laps of our mothers and sisters robbed and left empty".
The poeticism of great political speeches lies in the proper correspondence of simplicity and complexity. Bangabandhu deconstructed the chain of events, reiterated the 6-point demand for establishing federalism, and acknowledged the scope of peaceful resolution -- no matter how feeble it may be -- all the while crafting an enduring spirit of self-determination and independence that lives on even today.
THE COMMON GOAL
Speeches with bullet-point policies are almost always powerful because the audience easily deciphers the difference between information and direction, and connect better to the prose when deliverables are listed. However, generating full commitment and compliance to the directions requires a lot more than simplicity and structure.
The March 7 speech successfully put a face to the Bangalee struggle in East Pakistan. At the very beginning of the speech, Bangabandhu reminded the audience that East Pakistan is being deprived of their rights and that all politics stop when the streets are spattered with "our" brothers' blood. The history spoke of 23-year-old endurance to political and military suffering, and not ruling the country despite receiving majority votes. Whenever the East wanted to pursue its governance, "we" were "stopped", and "shot at". West Pakistan used "our money" to buy weapons to defend from external threats, yet used the same weapons to shoot at us, and "blame us" for it -- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with determination and accurately-timed pauses, was able to articulate that the denial of constitutional statecraft in 1970, and the continuous refusal to negotiate was the start of othering East Pakistan.
The speech, then, briefly distinguishes the dual nature of the struggle -- one in the national assembly, and the other on the streets -- but Sheikh Mujibur Rahman quickly bridges by affirming that he does not seek Prime Ministership, rather is ready to fight for the rights of and justice for his people. The following excerpt is pivotal:
"They tempted me with the Prime Ministership. They couldn't succeed in hanging me on the gallows, for you rescued me with your blood from the so-called conspiracy case. That day, right here at this race course, I had pledged to you that I would pay for this debt with my blood. Do you remember? I am ready today to fulfill that promise!"
Bangabandhu addressed the divide between political gains and social rights, and prioritised his responsibility towards fighting for justice by connecting the favour he owes to the people, effectively assimilating himself with the common struggle of all Bangalees. From that point on, the speech threaded all parties involved as one people -- what impacts the Awami League, impacts the entirety of East Pakistan; shooting innocent Bangalees is equivalent to shooting at "our heart".
Good political speeches have long been a mystifying subject and an art form. While there have been lots of research on the tenets of great political speeches, most focus on the importance of writing down the speech framework beforehand. Bangabandhu arrived at the then race course, stood amidst a sea of people, and delivered an impromptu speech that forever changed the fate of Bangalees.