The then Race Course Ground (today's Sahrawardy Maidan) was filled with millions of anguished people of all classes on 7th March (1971) afternoon. All gathered to hear the supreme leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.The country was then in a cross-road. The massive congregation was buzzing with one word 'freedom'. The mood of the crowd was both somber and angry.
Bangabandhu had to measure his words at a challenging moment when the entire people of Bangladesh (by that time people started to replace 'East Pakistan' with their long-cherished homeland called Bangladesh) were eager to hear from him the final word of independence. He handled the situation very smartly and strategically. He spoke for 19 minutes in that hot and sunny afternoon uttering 1108 significant words. The compact speech reflected the economic, political and socio-cultural deprivations of Bengalees. The audience was simply spell bound by his auratory. Since that historic event this particular speech has been heard millions of times all around the world.
Even today Bengalees rerun this inspiring speech in all occasions of national significance. This speech is the source of democratic aspirations for not only the Bengalees but also for all other struggling millions of the world. This is rated as one of the few best articulated speeches of the great leaders of the world including those of Abraham Lincon, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy and Nelson Mandela.
Let me make a modest attempt to examine the inner truths of this speech of monumental significance for the freedom loving people of the world in general and Bengalees in particular. Bangabandhu and Banglades are indeed two words of same meaning for the Bengalees. These two words are like two sides o the same coin. If you have read his Unfinished Autobiography you may have nation how deeply he was enmeshed with the dreams of his people about an independent homeland of their own right from his boyhood. He was our real hero as he was never afraid of embracing death for freedom of his country. He truly believed in the deeper values of democratic polity, socio-cultural equality and economic freedom. He touched almost every nook and corner of his beloved homeland while selling this dream project of independent Bangladesh. He loved to mingle with the farmers, workers and students while sharing his dreams. He moved in train, bus, boats, steamers, rickshaws and even in bicycles cross-crossing the country and sharing his dreams with the masses. His political meetings would always attract the ordinary people in thousands from all walks of life. And that is how he became a part of a national psyche which was indeed larger than his life. Many call him a poet of politics.
He used to dream of an egalitarian society which will be free from hunger, poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition. Even though he got only a few years as an implementer of his dreams as the head of the government he made great strides. He was uncompromising against vested interests and did not hesitate to by his life in this struggle for a just society and economy.
He was the first political detainee of East Pakistan back in 11 March 1948 he we went to jail for the cause of Bangla, the language of the majority of the population of Pakistan. Bangla was not given its due status as a state language and he and his co-leaders organized the progressive students to protest this heinous move by the civil-military-political elites of newly created Pakistan. And then on he never looked back in leading the students and young politicians for the legitimate share of the Bangalees in relevant spheres of politics and governance. He was always in favor of a favor of a fair share of the farmers, workers and middle class in the society and economy. Pakistan was created in the name of upholding the religious sentiments of the ordinary people. Ordinary people saw in it their hope of fair share. But when it came to the desired share of administration, businesses and socio-cultural upliftment the Bangalees, the majority, were neglected and deprived. Gradually the inequality in economy and society increased and people of the Eastern province of Pakistan started to feel left out. The major part of the foreign aid went to West Pakistan.
Eighty percent of the civil and military bureaucrats were from West Pakistan, Mainly Panjab. Almost all the heads of administration were from West Pakistan. And then came the brutal attack on the students and ordinary people of East Bengal who were making organized movements for making Bangla a state language. A number of students were martyred on 21st February 1952. The Bengali nationalism was in fact, on that day seeded through this tumultuous event. The Pakistani elites were subsequently challenged by emerging Bengalee elites where Sheikh Mujub was a young but very popular leader. The 1954 provincial election witnessed complete vindication of this rising tide of Bengalee nationalism as the pro-Pakistani; political elites were fully wiped out of the scene. Then came a series of movements raising pertinent issues close to the hearts of Bengalees including education, food, economic disparity and lack of participation in the overall governance of the country. Not surprisingly, Sheikh Mujib emerged as the undisputed leader and spokesman of the entire Bengalee population.
He was, of course, aided by his able co-leaders and some of his mentors including Sohrawardy and Moulana Bhashani. At one stage he became the symbol of Bengalee nationalism and hence put to jails off and on by the repressive Pakistani state which always tried to protect the interests of civil-military beaurocracy and the rich. It was, therefore, quite natural that Sheikh Mujib was the most important leader of the opposition and put behind the bar on one or the other pretexts.
The Agartala Conspiracy case was named as Sheikh Mujib vs the state. This aptly speaks about his stronghold among the fighting Bengalees. His aspirations for a free Bangladesh got enmeshed with the same of the entire Bengalee population. The students, workers, intellects, political activists etc united to cause mass uprising in 1969 and got Sheikh Mujib out of the jail. The students and ordinary people welcomed him enmasse and and decorated him with the title of Bangabandhu ('the friend of Bengal'). With a stronger support base he started negotiation with the Pakistani elites and forced them to announce the date of the national election after changing the guards of the State. President Ayub was replaced by General Yahyia who declared holding of national election in late 1970. Bangabandhu accepted the challenge and fought the election vigorously. His party, Awami League, was voted over whelmly to become the largest electoral party of Pakistan.
He was poised to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The Constituent Assembly was also called to be in session from 3rd march 1971. But the military-civil bureaucracy and political elites led by Bhutto foiled the smooth transfer of power. instead, the session was called off on 1st March 1971 leading to mass upsurge in Bangladesh. Bengalees of all ages and classes came out of their offices and housws and started unprecedented agitation. Bangabandhu called for a peaceful non-cooperation movement from 3rd March 1971 and literally started administering the Eastern province of Pakistan almost like the head of the government of an independent country. The public psyche of the time was fully with Bangabandhu and he too responded organically to their aspirations. Amidst such a challenging moment of risks and opportunities came 7th March 1971 when Bangabandhu made this historic speech. He spoke extempore and from his heart. The entire audience was agitated and looking forward to directions for the next moves.
The Pakistani state was threatening to shoot the crowd from helicopters if Bangabandhu gave an open call for independence. Amidst such challenges he kept his cool and gave a speech which was full of emotions and strategic directions for the next moves without pronouncing the word independence. But the people fully understood him and took his words as recipe for a guerilla warfare.
It was 2:30 pm on 7th March 1971. The whole of the Race Course Ground was full of agitated people of all ages. Huge number of women too were present. They were carrying bamboo sticks. Some of these sticks also had flags of 'would be' Bangladesh. They all were pronouncing 'Joy Bangla' in one voice. They were all in fighting mode. What a dramatic scene! They were, as if, waiting for the 'go ahead' signal of their leaders for the ultimate fight.
What a pressure on the leader! He was at the cross road of war and peace. He remained composed and spoke for 19 minutes with full of emotions and aspirations. People heard him without any interruption. The word 'freedom' was in his head. But he alluded to it and never ever pronounced it directly. Instead he left enough hints how to proceed to get it. With a heavy heart he mentioned about how strongly he tried to avoid a direct confrontation with the ruthless Pakistani military backed state. Then he said, "The people of Bengal want freedom, they want to live with rights". Then he talked about the aspirations of the Bengalees for 'economic, political and cultural freedoms.' However, "the 23 years of misrule of Pakistan left no hope except blood for the Bengalees," said Bangabandhu.
Simultaneously he narrated the depth of the exploitation. of the Bengalees by the Pakistani ruling classes. The economic disparity was glaring in Pakistan. He said 'We tried our best to resolve this even by giving lives'. Yet, Pakistani ruling classes were not ready to bring legitimate the parity in economy and society.
He was equally careful about the hardships of the people who were participating in the non-cooperation movement. So he left a number of administrative orders in this historic speech to give some relief to the working classes. He said, "the owners of the factories must pay the workers who participated in the general strikes during the last seven days. The government officials are advised to go by my directions. The taxes will not be paid until this country is freed".
These well articulated words of Bangabandhu sounded like carefully chosen statements of a statesman. People welcomed these pronouncements with applause. He also left enough cautions for the Pakistani state so that the agitated ordinary people are not harassed and attacked. And at the last moment he said, "We have given enough blood, we will give more blood for the emancipation of the people of this country. This is a struggle for freedom, this is a struggle for independence".
He, indeed, chose his words carefully. He was fully aware of the limitation of geographic independence of a country. People wanted more. He, therefore wanted socio-economic and cultural freedoms for his fighting people. So freedom was the key word of his historic speech. Through this very word he raised the expectations of the people of Bangladesh to a new height. The Pakistani elites were also caught from behind. They could not blame Bangabandhu for open call of independence and yet his words were nothing short of it. The whole world watched him playing with the words and at the same time passing the core message of freedom to the masses. What a strategic and visionary statesman!
This speech has indeed been the soul of our war of liberation which followed the mass genocide of 25th March 1971. Bangabandhu made a formal declaration of independence in the early hours of 26th March 1971. And the rest is history. The freedom fighters who came from all classes, particularly from the peasant families, took his message of 7th March as an ammunition for fighting a just war.
His call for freedom echoed in their minds all the time during those difficult days of 1971 when they were involved in guerilla warfare. The thunderous voice of Bangabandhu of 7th March 1971 used to be replayed during the war of liberation from Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro throughout Bangladesh. This added like an energetic tonic to the fighting people of Bangladesh in general and the freedom fighters in particular. The 7th March 1971 speech of Bangabandhu remains to be the soul of our search for freedoms in the spheres of economy, society and polity. The spirit of freedom was fully reflected in the constitution of People's Republic of Bangladesh.
The subsequent five year plans were anchored on this spirit except in those blackened years following the martyrdom of the Father of the Nation in 1975 when the ghosts of the Pakistani elites were back in the arenas of polity, society and economy. After a long and protracted fight Bangladesh is back on its track of freedom as aspired by Bangabandhu. His able daughter Sheikh Hasina is working hard to bring back the spirit of freedom as espoused in Bangabandhu's historic speech of 7th March 1971 in all our policy strategies. She has been successful to a large extent by fighting poverty and deprivation of the masses for whom the 7th March speech of Bangabandhu was dedicated. The progresses made in the amazing macroeconomic transformation along with sharp decline in poverty and rise in life expectancy during her tenures as Prime Minister are indeed eye catching. Yet we have miles to go. Let us all put our hands together to fulfill the dreams of economic and other freedoms as espoused by Bangabandhu on this historic day. *The writer is Professor, Department of Development Studies, Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh.