Bangabandhu’s finest hour
It is now 49 years that I, along with millions of others, had that special opportunity to be a part of history by being personally present at the Race Course Maidan (now Suhrawardy Udyan) on 7th March afternoon to hear, what turned out to be one of the most outstanding speeches in recent history.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I got up with inner excitement and rushed to the Dhaka University campus intuitively feeling that something momentous is going to happen today. Ever since Bangabandhu's non-cooperation movement was launched, it became our regular practice to gather around Dhaka University's Teachers Students Centre (TSC) and start a procession around 11 am that would do the rounds of the city and end at Shaheed Minar by afternoon. The purpose was to urge people to join the rally of the 7th, spreading the message of non-cooperation and raising awareness about the continuing and impending struggle.
On March 7, 1971, the procession returned comparatively early and we, fellow workers of Chhatra Union, the most prominent left-leaning student organisation of the day, gathered together at TSC and proceeded across the road and entered the meeting venue. We watched as people gathered and how endless processions of activists and the general public kept pouring in. Placards, posters and miniature "boats" (symbol of Awami League) were to be seen everywhere. We positioned ourselves quite a distance from the dais – places closer were filled up. Within minutes places farther away also got filled up and the gathering was increasing by the minute, so to speak.
The meeting atmosphere became electrified as Bangabandhu entered the ground and I could see from afar as he climbed to the stage with millions chanting slogans – engulfing the whole area.
Then history began to unfold.
Below I reprint what I had written 23 years ago.
It is this writer's view that the 7th March speech was Bangabandhu's finest hour.
He stood far taller than ever before and with him we too stood tall, far taller than we could ever imagine or even dream of till that moment. He was known for being a powerful and spellbinding speaker. But that day he outperformed himself a thousand times over, and a thousand times more empowered we felt that day because of him.
During that crucial March afternoon, and especially through the electrifying moments of the speech, the young Bangabandhu stood towering above the nation, singly shouldering the burden of leading an unprepared people towards an independence struggle that was later to become one of the most brutal.
However bravely we may talk today about those events so long ago, at that time we really did not know how things would unfold. Yes, we all wanted our rights and our freedom and we wanted them right away. But how were they to come? Was freedom to come through negotiations or would it require us to wage an armed struggle? And what did we know or understand about armed struggle? Did we really know what it would entail? We romanticised about it, but knew nothing of it. I myself along with a few went towards Demra and practiced with a .22 gun and fired a few shots. This was the extent of our 'training' till then.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that to realise our legitimate rights we may have to split the existing country and seek independence. But how is one to start an armed independence movement? What would be the consequence of making a declaration for it right now? What is it that we needed to do in case we were to start such an armed struggle soon?
Though we all talked about it, and some may even have said so in public, yet it was for our elected leader, it was that man on the dais who was to speak to and for the nation on this day and who would have to take us through that uncharted path.
Many do not fully appreciate the complexity of those moments. A premature call for action or an unprepared move could precipitate counter moves that would nip all our dreams in the bud. Many a revolution failed because of that.
The man who should be the Prime Minister of whole of Pakistan by dint of his electoral victory had to take the right step at the right time. The critical question was, when would be the right time to make that bold move? That was the burden that was being shouldered by the man who stood tall on that podium.
And this is where the uniqueness and the brilliance of the 7th March speech lie. One must fully understand the very critical nature of the speech and the crucial moment when Bangabandhu was making it. There was no question that the Pakistani government and especially its military were waiting to pounce on us with all their might for any wrong move that Bangabandhu would make.
The master stroke of the speech is that it said everything without giving the enemy elements that could be used to hold us legally responsible under international law for breaking up the formal Pakistan. Although by then we knew that the country had actually broken up in every sense, the nuances of the legal world had to be observed and Bangabandhu did so most dexterously.
To fully appreciate the magnificence of this speech one has to understand the context in which it was delivered. Awami League had fought an election and won the majority of seats in the parliament of Pakistan. Following the results, Gen Yahya had declared that Sheikh Mujib would be the next prime minister. It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and some conniving army generals who did not want to transfer power to someone whose electoral programme was to realise the legitimate rights of the Bangalee people enshrined in the now famous six points. There were many indications about the impending betrayal of the verdict of the December '70 elections, yet it was not till the postponement of the session of the newly elected parliament that Bangabandhu could really give a call for an all-out movement.
When the session of the parliament was postponed on 1st March '71, the fatal shot to the existence of united Pakistan was fired right into its chest. And it was on the night of 25th March, when Pakistani military cracked down on the civilian population of what was till then one country, and started what was later to become a genocide of the Bangalees that Pakistan was killed and buried. It was in the midst of this highly charged transition period – which started from 1st March – when events were unfolding at a breakneck speed that Bangabandhu had to give this speech.
And here lies the beauty and the craftsmanship of this speech, which transforms itself into a classic in the annals of political oratory, which was rightly honoured by UNESCO later.
Rebellion was in the air and Bangabandhu's speech had to capture it in full. It had to live up to the expectations of a frenzied mass that wanted their independence and they wanted it now. Bangabandhu understood, felt and wanted it from the core of his heart. Yet, there should be nothing in the speech that could give an outright excuse to the Pakistan army to start military action against the unarmed people of what was to become independent Bangladesh in 9 months. In fact, Tikka Khan's bands of killers would want nothing better than to be given a publicly announced excuse for an army action which we now know would be genocidal and which had already been decided upon by the army junta.
So Bangabandhu had to say everything, and yet not give the excuse that Pakistan military was looking for. He had to stand steadfast and yet keep open the doors for negotiations which he knew and we understood to be, nothing but a farce.
Under no circumstances could he appear to be the one responsible for the breakdown of the talks. And yet he had to take his people forward and give them the right directions, maintain the militancy, ask them to take all the necessary preparatory steps, and clear people's minds about the final goal. It was a political and intellectual challenge of the highest kind, and it could be tackled only by a speech of the type that Bangabandhu delivered that day.
Take for example the content of the speech. In it he gradually builds up the whole rationale for the movement that has been going on. He argues, cajoles, pleads, demands and finally warns, not to take lightly the demand of a people who have realised their strength through struggle. He talks of peace and yet gives clear signals that peace cannot come at the cost of capitulation. He talks of sacrifice, but not in terms of a helpless people who are weak but in terms of a courageous and bold people who have knowingly taken upon themselves a task which they knew to be arduous and dangerous and for which they were ready to face any consequence.
There was superb cleverness in the construction of the speech in which he said all that needed to be said and yet the enemy could not hold him responsible for having said anything which was not within the legal limits.
The voice in the speech is one of its most magnificent aspects. It was so bold that the whole nation could, and in fact did, take strength from it. His voice was elevating us as if it carried the weight of the whole nation – 75 million at that time. There was the unhesitant enunciation of everything that needed to be said. There was such a magnificent modulation of voice that every word uttered seemed to encapsulate our dreams. Every word seemed necessary and irreplaceable. By the way the words flowed it was apparent that it came from the heart and yet never lost that fine balance that a political speech of such significance had to have, especially at that moment in time.
Throughout it all the strength of the man came out and touched us all who heard him, drawing us all close to him and making us automatically and unquestioningly a part of him. We trusted and reposed our faith in him.
If ever a speech united, strengthened, enthused, inspired a people, and gave courage to them to become bolder and more determined than they usually are, it was Bangabandhu's speech of 7th March 1971.
One single speech became the most effective motivational weapon for a nation soon to be at war.
This speech of our leader became the constant companion for every young freedom fighter (like myself and millions like me) facing an enemy known for their brutality and ferocity. It linked the people in a spellbinding string of words and sounds. For all of us, the freedom fighters, spread throughout the nook and corner of what was then our enslaved motherland, this speech was a constant companion and a never-ending source of inspiration and courage.
The above is an updated version of the article originally published 23 years ago as a commentary in this paper in 1997.