A speech from the heart, not from a script. This piece has been reprinted from the Dhaka Tribune archives
March 7 always brings to my mind a bundle of conflicting emotions. The emotions are both of exhilaration and pride that Bangabandhu’s speech gave us, but also of a deep sense of anxiety that the speech carried with it.
It was a message of courage and hope for a people yearning for greater control over their fate, and show of strength to the power that wanted to keep the people under subjugation.
But the speech also had this sense of an outcome of confrontation and the possibility of a protracted battle with an arrogant junta that sat over the country.
However, no one knew at that time that only two and a half weeks later, all hell would be let loose on a people who were only expecting a positive outcome of the political strife -- a peaceful solution that would never happen.
March 7 came with a sense of disquiet since only a few days before President Yahya had reneged on his pledge to convene the newly elected National Assembly earlier in the month.
The week had started with heavy speculations on a possible show of muscle power by the Pakistan Army should Bangabandhu and his party take to the street with violent protests.
But events would prove otherwise. Instead of a street protest, the day was declared to be of a historic meeting where Bangabandhu would announce to his people his plan of action.
Speculations had been rife well before the meeting regarding Bangabandhu’s speech. Many thought he would announce unilateral declaration of independence, or some such action that would lead the country to a civil war.
Others speculated that Bangabandhu would be prevented by the army from holding such meeting and incite people to violence.
In fact some even suggested that such a strong-arm plan was in the army’s inventory, but it was shelved when millions turned up to attend the meeting from all parts of Bangladesh.
What turned out eventually is history now.
History in the making
Bangabandhu’s speech before millions that day is now in World History archives as one of the most effective, inspirational, and moving oration ever delivered. He did not read from a script, but from his heart. He did not take any dictation from any of his advisors, but only his own guided by a vision, vision of a free Bangladesh.
The most important part of the speech was his cautious approach to the subject of independence. He asked people to be vigilant against attacks, but did not ask them to attack anyone.
He framed his speech as a struggle for independence but not inciting people to take up arms. His approach was to fight for freedom through civil disobedience, by refusing to cooperate with the Pakistan government and its Army, by denying them quarters.
Bangabandhu had given them directions on how to respond to the adamant Pakistan government with civil disobedience and had warned them of reactions of Pakistan Army to the non-cooperation movement, but he probably did not imagine how ruthless and cruel these reactions could be.
On that historic day, I was on my way to Munshiganj where I had just been posted as sub-divisional officer after attending a weekly meeting in Dhaka. Before I boarded my launch, I had listened to the entire speech from one distant corner of the Race Course.
I only heard the voice, but did not see the man who was delivering it from a stage separated from me by millions of eager listeners. I was thrilled, I was overwhelmed, and I was enthused like the millions there.
But I was also afraid, afraid of the unknown. What if the Pakistan Army were to attack in full force? What if the threat did not work? Will we be back to the cruel reality of a more punishing martial law?
All hell broke loose
My anxiety would morph into nightmare only 18 days later when instead of a political settlement that Bangabandhu had dared to hope for, the Pakistan Junta responded in one of the most brutal assaults in human history over civilians.
In the name of preserving the integrity of Pakistan, they decided to attack, murder, and brutalize unarmed civilians in the darkness of night after a week long charade of negotiations with Bangabandhu and his associates. The planner and executor of this infamous assault and his cohorts left Dhaka under the cover of night and probably watched with glee the sights of a burning city from the safety of their aircraft in the sky.
A looming question from that fateful night and days following from some arm chair analysts of the March 7 event is why a call for independence and freedom struggle was made with little preparation to face an angry response from the Pakistan army?
Was Bangabandhu too hopeful that a political negotiation would still be possible given the arrogance and hostility of Pakistan army junta and its political acolytes? Was it not possible to build some amount of armed resistance in the meanwhile should the Pakistan army decide to retaliate?
The questions and people who raised these before (and even now) forget to consider the following.
In his heart and by training, Sheikh Mujib was a politician and not a guerilla leader.
He had spent his entire life negotiating with people and had tried to solve problems by engaging his opponents politically. He was no Che Guevara or Fidel Castro.
He did not come from the army as some political leaders in South America or South east Asia had emerged from. He was out and out a politician who, until his incarceration by the Pakistani army, believed in solving problems through negotiations.
Sheikh Mujib’s call for making “every home a fortress” did not mean he wanted every civilian to turn into a soldier. Rather, he meant figuratively every Bengali to resist the Pakistan government with non-violent non-cooperation. “Do not pay taxes, suspend transactions with the central government, stop supplies to the army.”
These were instructions not to turn to violence, but of passive resistance. Had Bangabandhu planned for raising a militia to resist the Pakistan army, he would have chosen a different route, that of guerilla warfare (which ironically would happen during the Liberation War), and not the path he asked his people to follow on March 7.
There have been umpteen number of analyses of the March 7 speech, and I do not want to add another to the list. But suffice it to say that the historic speech is the genesis of our later liberation movement.
It may not have stopped the Pakistani army from perpetrating the murderous events of March 25 and thereafter, but it was enough to ignite the spirit of Bangladeshi nationalism and quest for independence that we ultimately achieved -- this is the biggest reverberation of March 7 speech.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.