Published:  12:00 AM, 07 March 2017

The historic speech: A preface to Bengali nationhood

The historic speech: A preface to Bengali nationhood

Bangabandhu's speeches were always spontaneous and undrafted. He would never read out the text of a speech written earlier. "While Sheikh Mujib's speeches would not be written beforehand, those could not be put in writing either," said sociologist Sardar Fazlul Karim. Numerous articles and several books have already been written on his March 7 speech that has earned a distinguished place among the world's greatest speeches of all time. This particular speech by Bangabandhu has even made it to "We Shall Fight on the Beaches: The Speeches That Inspired History" -- a compilation of the most impactful speeches between 431 BC and 1987 AD. The title of the book, compiled by Jacob F Field, has been taken from the famous speech by the then British prime minister Winston Churchill during the World War II. The book ends with "Tear down this wall!" speech by the then US president Ronald Reagan in 1987. Bangabandhu's historic speech titled "The struggle this time is the struggle for independence" can be found on Page 201 of the 223-page book.

As much as it is true that the speech in its documented form has now made an indelible mark in the political history of the world, it is also undeniable that by reading the speech or the analyses on it, one may realise its significance but can never grasp the essence of the true Bangabandhu in it. Let's say Bangabandhu's March 7 speech was drafted beforehand. According to her daughter Sheikh Hasina, "Abba [Father] had a cold that day. I rubbed Vicks [anti-cold ointment] on his forehead and chest. He was lying in bed under a sheet." Let's imagine his cold turned worse and he caught fever, so much so that he barely could talk. Bangabandhu had no way to go to the Race Course Ground [now Suhrawardy Udyan] which was already teeming with people. He then had the text of the speech sent to the venue and got someone else to read it out to the people. Had it been so, how would the speech have sounded? Without Bangabandhu, the March 7 speech is unthinkable. "Bhaiyera amar [My dear brothers]" -- could anyone other than Bangabandhu himself articulate these apparently simple words in such an emphatic way? It was Bangabandhu's presence at that very juncture of time and his own voice behind the speech that made the address one of the greatest in the world history.

Lincoln's presence was not a must at the dedication of the unionist soldiers' national cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863. Senator Edward Everett was the main speaker there. Everett's two-hour speech was followed by Lincoln's and it lasted only two minutes. Martin Luther King Jr delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech on August 28, 1963 at a programme addressed by the leaders of 20 more organisations involved in the American Civil Rights Movement. His speech was written. Toward the end of the speech, King, prompted by singer Mahalia Jackson, departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme "I have a dream". It would not have mattered much if someone else, other than Churchill, had delivered the "We shall fight on the beaches" speech on June 4, 1940. Since taking the office of the British prime minister on May 10 in 1940, Churchill in fact had given four speeches on the same issue at the House of Commons of the UK Parliament till June 18 that year.  But that theMarch 7 speech in 1971 would have to be delivered by Bangabandhu was a historical necessity. Bangabandhu is the great man, as described in the book titled "Bhobishshoter Bangalee" by S Wajed Ali, whom the Bengalis were waiting for and who would lead them to a dignified way of life.

It was announced on March 1 that Bangabandhu would address a rally at the Race Course Ground on March 7 and would announce the subsequent programmes. The flag of an independent Bangladesh was hoisted on March 2 and the manifesto of independence was read out a day later. According to Sardar Fazlul Karim, "A man cannot just appear out of nowhere and claim, 'I am your leader'. Nor can others accept it in their hearts and say, 'Yes, you are our leader'. Only an armed man can become a leader by force, something not possible for an unarmed individual." Bangabandhu is both a creator of history and a creation of it. Only he could create history with one sentence -- "The history of the Bengalis is a history of colouring the roads with the Bengali blood." It was only Bangabandhu who could create an epic with a single remark -- "You won't be able to suppress the seven crore people."

Syed Manzoorul Islam, an English literature student of Dhaka University back then, was working as an interpreter for a foreign journalist at the rally venue. He was instantaneously translating what Bangabandhu was saying. After listening to the translation for a while, the journalist asked Manzoorul Islam to stop. Though the pressman had no knowledge about Bengali, he started listening to the speech very carefully. "From his facial expressions, it seemed as if he could understand every word, as if Bangabandhu were delivering the speech in English, not in Bengali," Manzoorul Islam would later say. Before leaving the venue, he asked the journalist what could happen next. "Get ready," the journalist replied.

Bangabandhu did not stop after saying that the struggle was for independence. He rather went on to add, "The struggle this time is the struggle for liberation." Even in the face of an imminent war, he was aware of the need for a struggle for emancipation. The word 'independence' came up in his speech only once but 'liberation' or 'emancipation' was used quite a few times -- "The people of Bengal now wants liberation", "People of this country will taste economic, political and cultural emancipation", "Until my country is liberated", "We will liberate the people of this country, Insha-Allah", and in the end, "The struggle this time is the struggle for liberation; the struggle this time is the struggle for independence."

The struggle for emancipation is much more significant than that for independence. People cannot feel the essence of liberation even after the end of the rule of a foreign country until they achieve economic and social emancipation. Our struggle for independence ended in 1971. The Bengalis for the first time in their millennia-old history got a sovereign country of their own. The newborn country had only started taking its baby-steps towards economic and social emancipation when it suffered a major setback -- the assassination of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on August 15, 1975. The history then started taking a backward course, one that could not be stopped yet, especially in the societal context. We were far more liberal in our views even in the 1940s than we now are. The society, at least a significant part of it, was not so much wrought with fanaticism and intolerance as it is now. It's true that we are sprinting ahead in the economic context. We are likely to become a middle-income country by 2021 and a developed one by 2041. But will we be able to achieve the kind of emancipation Bangabandhu had dreamt of? He had said, "Those who live in this land -- Hindus, Muslims, Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike -- are our brothers. It is your responsibility to protect them. Make sure we uphold our image."

It's time we started thinking how we through our collective efforts can build a multidimensional and pluralistic society. Liberation is more powerful, more significant than freedom. By liberation, Banga­bandhu had meant emancipation from all sorts of deprivation, discrimination, exploitation, meanness, bigotry and spiritual depravity. His daughter Sheikh Hasina is now leading us in the struggle for liberation.  But it is a struggle that never ends, never stops, for people by nature strive relentlessly for furthering their liberation, for solidifying their achievements and for safeguarding their emancipation. The writer is the Vice chancellor of Jagannath University, Dhaka. Email:(

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