It is this writer’s view that the March 7th speech was Bangabandhu’s finest hour. He stood far taller than ever before and with him we too stood taller. He was always known for being a powerful speaker. But that day, 26 years ago, he outperformed himself a thousand times over, and a thousand times more empowered we felt that day. During that crucial March afternoon, and especially through the electrifying moments of the speech he stood towering above the nation, singly shouldering the burden of leading an unprepared people towards sell assertion.
However bravely we may talk today about those events so long ago, at that time we really did not know how things were to unfold. Yes, we all wanted our rights, and we wanted them right away. But how they were to come? Was freedom to come through negotiations or would it require us to wage an armed struggle? And what did we understand by armed struggle? We romanticised about it, but knew nothing of it.
Things were becoming increasingly obvious that to realise our legitimate demands we may have to seek independence. But how is one to start an independence movement? What would be the consequence of making a declaration for it? Though we all talked about it, and some may have even said so in public, yet it was for our elected leader to take us through that uncharted path. 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 the right time strike.
And this is where the specialty of the March 7th speech lies. It says everything without the elements that could be used to hold responsible for breaking up the legal Pakistan. For by then, the country had actually broken up in all other sense. To really 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 of the parliament of Pakistan. Following the results, Gen Yahya had declared that Sheikh Mujib would be the Prime Minister of Pakistan. 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 Bengali people enshrined in the now famous six points. There were lots of 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 March 1st, ’71, the fatal shot to the existence of united Pakistan was fired right into its chest. And it was on the night of March 25th, when Pakistani military cracked down on the civilian population of what was till then one country, that Pakistan was killed and buried. It was in the midst of this highly charged transition period — from the 1st to the 25th — when events were unfolding at a break-neck speed that Bangabandhu had to give this speech.
And here lies the beauty and the craftsmanship of this speech, which transforms it as a classic in political oratory.
The speech had to live up to the high expectation of the people who wanted their independence and yet there should be nothing in it that could give an outright excuse to the Pakistan army to start military action against the unarmed Bengali people. In fact, Tikka Khan’s band of killers would want nothing better than to be given a publicly announced excuse for a genocidal action. 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. 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 suffering because they are weak, but in terms of a courageous and bold people who have knowingly taking upon a task which they know to be a arduous, and for which they are ready to face any consequence. There was superb cleverness in the construction of the speech by which he said all that he needed to and yet the enemy could not hold him responsible for having said anything which was illegal.
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. There was an unhesitant enunciation of everything that needed to be said. There was such appropriate modulation of voice that every word uttered seemed irreplaceable. Throughout it all the strength of the man came out and touched all those who heard him, drawing all close to him and making all trust and repose 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 March 7th, 1971. If ever one single speech became the most effective motivational weapon for a nation at war then this was it. If ever a speech of a leader became the constant companion for young freedom fighters facing an enemy known for their proficiency and ferocity and which acted to link us all in a spellbinding string of words and sounds, then this speech was so for all of us, the freedom fighters, spread throughout the nook and corner of what was then our enslaved motherland.
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.
The above is a reprint of the article published earlier