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Dhaka Tribune

March 7, 1971: When Bangabandhu mapped our future

Under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladeshis found direction

Update : 07 Mar 2024, 10:46 AM

It was his finest hour. For his people, it was a rebirth of culture, of heritage. His oratory was a call to the nation to reassert history and reiterate its demand for secular democracy.  March 7 remains a day engraved in our cultural and political consciousness, for on this day the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave us the guidelines to our future. It is, therefore, in our interest as well as in the interest of generations to come that we need to keep aloft the banner of freedom which fluttered on our rooftops in the heady days of March 1971.

March 7 was a day of decision for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. There were those who thought, quite rightly as it turned out, that he would offer the regime in West Pakistan one last opportunity for a settlement of the crisis in East Pakistan. Similarly, millions of Bengalis expected him to declare Bangladesh’s independence at his Race Course public meeting on the day. He chose a course where his wisdom and his vision of the future confronted the challenge before him.

And he triumphed.

Up until his appearance at the Race Course, Mujib and his party colleagues had carefully assessed the situation, with hardly any details of the deliberations trickling out into the public domain. In effect, the people of Bangladesh, by and large, did not quite know what Bangabandhu, on whose undisputed authority the eastern province of Pakistan was being administered, would be saying at the public meeting in the afternoon. Solemn and reflective, Bangabandhu ascended the dais to inform us of the path we would be taking in our struggle for freedom and democratic expression.

Bangabandhu’s address at the Race Course has gone down in history as his finest hour. It was oratory reminiscent of the great men who had come before him, to provide leadership to their nations, to inspire them through their poignant messages, their soaring declamations. There was Abraham Lincoln with his Gettysburg Address; and we had before us the blood, toil, and tears speech of Winston Churchill as the Second World War pulverized the world. Jawaharlal Nehru’s independence speech, with his emphasis on India’s tryst with destiny, was in our consciousness as we heard Bangabandhu on March 7. There were the memories of John Kennedy’s inspirational inaugural speech as president. There was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s ringing call for freedom. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech reshaped American politics.

And yet there was a difference, for Bangabandhu’s words flowed, in the manner of the rivers of pristine Bengal, as he called the Bengali nation to struggle. It was poetry which pulsated in his politics on March 7.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman launched into an address which rose to a crescendo of ideas coming one after the other, the central point of which was to reassure his people that their interests were safe in his hands. The essential points Bangabandhu raised were: a) Martial law must be withdrawn; b) a full inquiry into the killings by the army would have to be instituted; c) all personnel of the Pakistan army would have to return to their barracks; d) power would have to be transferred to the elected representatives of the people.

It was his final lines that clinched the argument, solidifying his moment in history. “The struggle this time,” declared Bangabandhu,”‘is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle this time is the struggle for independence.”

For the Bengali nation there was no looking back after that. We had taken the road to freedom. It was our moment of self-assertion. Recall the sheer electric energy which coursed through the country as the Father of the Nation spoke to us, to the wider world out there, of the destiny he envisaged for us.

At an intellectual level, the speech was a masterpiece. Within its parameters, Mujib deftly negotiated his way out of a bind, one in which he had found himself since President Yahya Khan had injudiciously deferred the scheduled March 3 meeting of the new national assembly in a broadcast on the first day of the month. 

Those who observed the way Bangabandhu handled the situation in those tumultuous times knew of the difficulties he had been pushed into. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he needed to find an acceptable, dignified way out of the crisis. 

On the one hand, a Unilateral Declaration of Independence would leave him facing the charge of secessionism not only from the Pakistan authorities but also from nations around the world. He knew that as the leader of the majority party, he could not have his reputation sullied in such cavalier fashion. 

There were before him the not-so-enlightening instances of the UDI resorted to by Rhodesia’s Ian Smith and Biafra’s Odumegwu Ojukwu, images he was not enthused by. Besides, any UDI would swiftly invite the swift retribution of the Pakistan military, at that point steadily reinforcing itself in East Pakistan. 

On the other hand, Mujib realized that as undisputed spokesman of the Bengalis he was expected to provide his people with a clear sense of direction, one that would reassure them about the future. His oratory was to prove once more the reality of why he had over the years scaled the heights in the politics of Bengal, of Pakistan. In that one speech he painted the entire history of why Pakistan had failed as a state. Even as he did so, he laid out his arguments in defense of what the Bengali nation needed to do. 

With prescience, he told his people that even if he were not around, not amidst them, they should move on to protect the land, its history, from those who would trifle with it. Every moment bubbled with excitement. Bangabandhu mapped our path to the future. 

His peroration of nineteen minutes was a lesson in history. Bangabandhu succinctly and yet powerfully spelt out the history of the twenty-three years since the creation of Pakistan. He moved effortlessly and firmly from one critical point to another -- the 1952 Language Movement, the 1954 election in East Bengal and the dismissal of the United Front ministry, the imposition of martial law in 1958 and Ayub Khan’s decade-long dictatorship, the promises made by Yahya Khan, the general election of December 1970, the conspiracies beginning to be hatched anew in Rawalpindi. 

We cheered. We knew that he had not declared independence, but we were made aware that he had set us on the path to freedom. He had refused to be a secessionist; and he had abjured all ideas of a UDI. He had told us, in precise, unambiguous terms, that liberation was down the road, that it was a mere matter of time. We were content. As we went back home, with loud refrains of Joi Bangla around us and in our souls, we told ourselves that life for us had changed forever. 

Leadership, in the purposeful manner it was meant to assert itself, was the idea reinforced on March 7. That the struggle for freedom would entail sacrifices, indeed a long struggle with all the sacrifices that would come with it, was the message conveyed to us by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman fifty three years ago. 

On March 7, 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led us to the peaks of glory. And on those heights he pointed out to us our Promised Land. It shone bright and glorious.

We would not look back after that. There was the future which beckoned. That was the clarion call coming from our leader on that day. He was reaching out to the world on his own terms. 

And we, his people, were on top of the world. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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