The fiery call for freedom
Suhrawardy Udyan, or what was known as Ramna Race Course back in the day, is closely linked with Bangladesh's history. It was where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, with a sense of passion, a vigour for democracy, and an anticipation for change, made the most iconic declaration of his life on March 7, 1971, and subsequently etched his name in the history books unlike any before or after him. He showed his political guile, moved people with his captivating voice, and in a matter of 19 minutes, went from being the leader of the Awami League to the country's greatest national asset.
The idea of Pakistan that Bangabandhu and many of his colleagues had envisioned in 1947 was wholeheartedly unfulfilled. The efforts of the likes of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy or Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Haq in stamping the authority of Bangalee leadership in the national politics of Pakistan culminated in Sheikh Mujib's victory in the 1970 parliamentary elections. The debate on whether this nation wanted independence or autonomy prior to March 7 is one for which historians, not politicians, are required to perform greater research and analysis to resolve. But if one is to analyse Bangabandhu's speech, it becomes clear that the search for autonomy was very much enshrined with a subtle, if not vocal, ultimatum for independence.
Bangabandhu did not encourage a military conflict, nor did he push the country to the brink of war in his speech. His address is surely indicative of his desire to achieve independence through a peaceful, cooperative and dialogical process. He lit a fire in the heart of the average Bangalee. It was President Yahya Khan's actions and Operation Searchlight that resulted in the grievous nine-month war, but Bangabandhu's address motivated the country into defending itself unequivocally.
In his address to the masses, Bangabandhu acted in the most decent and humane way possible. On March 7, 1971, he was still unsure about the path his country was going to take, and the dilly-dallying from the Yahya regime only made the situation more difficult. As such, Bangabandhu tackled the question of independence in the most delicate way possible. He referred to himself as the leader of not only East Pakistan, but of the majority party of Pakistan. He spoke respectfully of his dialogues with President Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bangabandhu's entire argument was based on how, when and why he demanded that the laws and constitutional requirements of the Pakistani state be fulfilled. None of the points he brought forth were utopian or unconstitutional, even in the fragile legal architecture of Pakistan. He demanded the basic democratic rights of lifting martial law, withdrawing military personnel to their barracks, transference of power to elected representatives, and an inquiry into the loss of life during the prevailing conflict.
In order to protest Yahya Khan's severe violations of democratic rights, Bangabandhu gave several non-cooperation directives. He suggested that government officials and East Pakistani institutions should observe strikes while the people should refrain from paying taxes. None of this explicitly mentioned a call to take up arms. He understood how violent and repressive an armed conflict would become.
Henceforth, Bangabandhu's pronouncements on March 7 only go to show the gravity, political acumen and wisdom that made him such a great leader. His method of protest and the content of his address puts light on what Pakistan was lacking in its struggle towards democracy, and he should have been a shining example to the entire country. Yet, Yahya Khan faltered terribly on March 25.
The entire nation of Bangladesh knows the allusive statement, "Our struggle this time is a struggle for our freedom. Our struggle this time is a struggle for our independence. Joy Bangla!" Even then, there are those who question Bangabandhu's personal desire for independence. To suggest that he never wanted an independent Bangladesh is inaccurate. The man had fought his entire life for his beloved countrymen. He had suffered in jail under military autocrats. In the end, his trust towards his own people cost him his life.
There can be debates around the idea of a pre-emptive war versus a defensive war. Debates can arise as to when, rather than if, Sheikh Mujib wanted independence. But in no uncertain terms, Bangabandhu did what was best for his nation. There were young leaders who were willing to jump into the battlefield and initiate the struggle for independence. On the other hand, Bangabandhu wanted a political and non-bloody route towards a settlement.
On March 7, he did a political double. With the last sentence of his address, he gave the de facto green signal to the young student leaders to prepare for armed conflict if needed be, while simultaneously prioritising a non-violent means to end the ensuing crisis. It was a political masterclass from Bangabandhu.
Then again, it is important to reiterate that historical evidence suggests that Bangabandhu did not want mothers to lose their sons in the battlefields; he did not want to leave children as orphans. He did his best to prevent a war. Which great leader would not? Nevertheless, when it came to it on March 25, he remained resolute and confident that he may have done enough to spur the vigour that would allow the country to fight back and achieve independence. Bangabandhu remained in jail under military supervision throughout the entirety of the nine-month war. But his vision, aims, personality, and influence directly guided Bangladesh to victory. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a patriot. He was undoubtedly the only person capable enough to vociferously inspire the country towards independence. His March 7 speech speaks volumes of the magnanimity and skill he had as a politician. People from all walks of life should not think twice in respecting the man for who he was – a visionary, an icon, a leader.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a columnist and policy analyst.