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The magic of words

  • Published at 01:14 am August 15th, 2018
Photo: Shilpakala Academy

Bangabandhu’s March 7 speech

I believe it is important to remember Bangabandhu’s historic speech of 7 March 1971 in order to understand what his guiding principles were and what he had fought for all his life. 

On that day at the Race Course ground, in front of a nearly million strong audience, Bangabandhu was not simply speaking, he was writing the prologue of the history of the Bengalees’ revolution that reflected their greatest characteristics -- bravery and resolve, self-esteem and conviction, honesty and courtesy, fire and spirit. Maybe even Bangabandhu himself had never given a speech of such depth and significance before. 

The words of a brave people

At around noon of March 7, 1971, I – at the time a student of Dhaka University – was told that a foreign journalist was looking for someone to interpret Bangabandhu’s speech which he was expected to deliver in the afternoon. So I met him at 2, from where we went to the Race Course ground. 

No one can tell just how many people were there that day. Maybe a million, maybe eight hundred thousand. But I still remember when we reached the ground half an hour before the speech, it felt like the whole of Bangladesh had spilled out onto that field. There was a space for journalists in front of the stage, and my companion pulled me there. I thanked my lucky stars. I never imagined I would be able to hear Bangabandhu’s speech from so up close. Bangabandhu seemed quite disturbed that day. He smoothed down his hair a few times before he started his speech; a helicopter roared overhead. He looked up at it for a second, then his clear gaze fell on the crowd in front of him. The shadow lifted from his face, replaced by an expression of resolve. He began his speech.

The whole speech can now be found on DVD, but what you can’t find is the magic of those 19 to 20 minutes. Only the people who were present felt that magic. The crowd listened to each word with rapt attention and frequently broke out in loud cheers and shouts. The speech broke through their doubts and turned each of them into warriors. Once it ended, no one had any doubts about what they wanted; what they wanted was the freedom of Bangladesh. Bangabandhu told us to be ready with whatever we had, and fight to the last man. 

Ironically, the Pakistanis could also read the speech correctly, but being morally weak, they didn’t want to face Bangabandhu to refute the impeccable logic and facts he had presented. And they did what cowards do -- they bought time in the name of a negotiation and when they were ready, attacked sleeping students, day laboureres and men and women in the darkness of the night. Maybe Bangabandhu himself did not realise the extent of the Pakistani’s cowardice, even though he spoke of their untruthfulness and hypocrisy that day. 

He started his speech sorrowfully, saying “I have come in front of you today with a heart full of sadness.” “Sadness” was a recurrent word in the first few minutes of his speech: “a sad affair”, “I must say with sadness” and “a sad history” he said quite a few times. I quickly interpreted the first few lines but the journalist soon stopped me. He said, “Let me listen to the man. If you can, try and remember what he says and translate them later.” Throughout the speech, the journalist sat straight as he listened to every word intently – as if he understood every word, as if Bangabandhu was speaking in English and not in Bangla. 

And amazingly enough, while I was listening to Bangabandhu and jotting down key words and points in my note pad, I could also relate to everything he said and remembered each word he put an emphasis on. When I was explaining the key points later to the journalist, my voice resonated with the strength and firmness that Bangabandhu’s speech displayed. “So what did the Sheikh say?” he wanted to know. 

Before I could reply he said, “Spare your labour. I know what he said.” Then he recounted his version of the speech which I found very close to the original. I was amazed. The journalist smiled. “It was simply magical,” he said. 

,It was magic indeed. There are some moments in history where magic is necessary; when reality becomes so complex and the situation so extreme that without this magical moment, people cannot stand tall on their own feet. Bangabandhu’s speech created that moment. Look at March of 1971, and think of the days before and after March 7. After March 7, we understood that the history of Bangladesh had changed, and the days of our unholy alliance with Pakistan were over. 

What was in that speech?

When I listen to today’s politicians I feel quite depressed -- there are very few who are able to articulate their thoughts in lucid words. Most politicians do not finish their sentences, and cannot express any idea that tends to be abstract. Their Bangla also lacks grace. I see a lot of followers of Bangabandhu who are incapable of speaking on any topic with half his authority. In his speeches Bangabandhu would finish every sentence, and his transition from one sentence to another was decisive and logical. He understood when and where to speak and with how much emotion; he knew when to use words of inspiration or where to give advice. 

He used a lot of words from the dialect he used in the speech of March 7, like saying “toiyar kora” (get ready), “hukum debar na pari” (If I can’t give orders) etc. At one point he said, “shaat koti manushke dabaya rakhte parba na” (you cannot repress 70 million people) which drew a round of loud applause from the audience. Now if he had used a more formal expression, the fire of his voice would probably not be felt that strongly. His speech peaked when he was saying these words -- he spoke with logic and used examples to establish his point, but he also filled his voice with genuine emotion when he spoke about why we had to fight. It was as if borrowing these words from the dialect of his forefathers was necessary to fully express the emotions that came from the heart and soul of Bangladesh. 

Yet in many other parts of his speech, Bangabandhu used standard Bangla with skill. When he said “the history of these 23 years has been the history of the cries of pain of our people”, or “the history of Bangladesh is the history of a path stained with the blood of its people,” he was addressing his audience in a language that we use to write historical accounts. Reading Bangabandhu’s speech in printed form makes one think -- did he write a draft beforehand? Otherwise, how is his Bangla so beautiful? How did he arrange his words in such well-shaped sentences? 

I have listened to a few of Bangabandhu’s speeches so I can say, he wrote the speech in his head while travelling from Dhanmondi 32 to the Race Course. Only a 20 minute speech, but in this span he gave us a framework of revolution by drawing from Bengali history, told the people what we should do and declared independence. Bangabandhu knew English well, which can be seen from the speeches he gave in the parliament after the 1954 election and in many interviews he gave to foreign journalists, notably the one he gave to David Frost after liberation. But in the speech of March 7, he did not use any English word unnecessarily. He used the terms ‘President’, ‘national assembly’, ‘secretariat’ and ‘Supreme Court’ -- words we use in our daily lives -- but the whole speech records a lively use of Bangla that could be understood by all, from the rural non-literate to the educated, urban population. Everyone who heard it in person understood it, as did all those who heard it on the radio the next day. Even now, whoever from whatever section of society hears the speech, they understand it without any problem. 

A lot of people have compared the March 7 speech to poetry. If poets are those who are experts in using the right words in the right place, then Bangabandhu was indeed a poet. Every word in this speech is infallible and significant. The famous last lines of the speech can definitely count as a two-line poem. Here, it is important to give two separate explanations for 'mukti' (freedom) and 'shadhinota' (independence). Independence is mostly political and geographic, whereas freedom is more economic, cultural and ideological. Even if the people of a nation are independent, it does not mean they are free. A country can follow the ideals of another nation and give their freedom away. Bangabandhu knew the significance of freedom – he spoke of it from the beginning, and he did not hesitate to mention independence either. That day, his audience wanted both. But only four and a half years later, the traitors who re-enacted the cowardice of the Pakistanis decided to renounce both. They had sold their souls to Pakistan. War criminals and radicals are not free either, they are still being ruled by Pakistani ideology. 

Bangabandhu wanted freedom that makes independence meaningful

When I was listening to Bangabandhu's speech, I felt as if he rose above everyone through his conviction, dedication, decency and integrity. He was polite even to his enemies. He said 'Yahya Shaheb' and 'Bhutto Shaheb' many times. Maybe there was a hint of an ultimatum in his voice, but there was a level of courtesy that had never been matched by any Pakistani leader. This is why, despite being such an important landlord and influential politician, Bhutto would keep his bravado under control in the presence of Bangabandhu. In 1966, when Bangabandhu first raised his Six Points demand, Bhutto created a huge ruckus. Bangabandhu challenged him to a debate, but Bhutto did not respond. Nevertheless, he stood at the UN and justified Pakistan's military operations for hours on end. Bangabandhu had logic and truth, Bhutto had hypocrisy and untruth. It was only natural for him to feel insecure in front of Bangabandhu.

During the March 7 speech, Bangabandhu, step-by-step, took people towards a resolution of their long standing crisis. He started with an expression of sadness, then focused on Pakistan's history of deceit. He asked people “What wrong did we commit?” and when people started to express contempt for Pakistan's deception, he asked “What did we get?” 

When people started to contemplate this question, he told them - “The weapons that we bought with our money to defend our nation from outside enemies, those same weapons are now being used on the poor and afflicted people of this country.” At one point he told the audience that after a long meeting with him, Yahya Khan gave a speech blaming him and the people of Bengal. It became absolutely clear to the crowd who were our friends and who were our foes. For the second time he said “brothers of mine”, and told them that he couldn’t join the Assembly by “stepping on the blood of those martyrs.” Then began the part of his speech that focused on actions, where he announced strikes but gave directions so that the poor may not be negatively impacted by them, and called for a non-cooperation movement. When he appealed for “every house to be turned into a fortress”, and to build defenses with “whatever you have”, a path opened up in front of the people. That path took us to independence. 

How can one person, in such simple language, enter into the hearts and minds of a people? Every word uttered by Bangabandhu had a long-lasting resonance at the Race Course. People rose up in response to each of his calls. Even now when I hear the speech, I can close my eyes and see Bangabandhu's expressive face. I hear his words clearly, and I get taken back to that magical afternoon. 

Before the foreign journalist and I parted ways, I asked him what he thought might happen after the speech. He thought for a moment and said, “Get ready.” 

I think all Bengalis knew what we had to be ready for. 

The author teaches at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh