Bangladesh is commemorating 51 years since Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took to the stage at the Ramna Racecourse and made a speech that laid out the path to the nation’s independence.
On Mar 7, 1971, Bangabandhu addressed tens of thousands gathered at the location, now known as the Suhrawardy Udyan. In a rousing speech, he proclaimed:
“This time, our struggle is for freedom. This time, our struggle is for independence!”
As poet Nirmalendu Goon put it: “Since that day, the word ‘independence’ has been ours.”
Eighteen days later, the Pakistan military launched a brutal crackdown, leading to the nine bloody months of the Liberation War. But, at the end of that struggle, Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation.
UNESCO has added Bangabandhu’s speech to the Memory of the World Register, recognising its importance as part of the documentary heritage of the world.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid tribute to her father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the historic occasion by placing at his mural in Dhanmondi’s Road 32 on Monday.
She later attended a ceremony commemorating the historic day via video link from Ganabhaban, her official residence.
CORNERSTONE OF INDEPENDENCE STRUGGLE
Mar 7, 1971 is an extremely significant date for the Bengalis’ struggle for independence, the prime minister said.”
The speech inspired Bengalis and stirred a nation to snatch liberation from their oppressors. People were being shot and killed for speaking about their rights, which was highlighted by Bangabandhu.”
In his speech, Bangabandhu also laid out the blueprint for the path to Bangladesh’s independence, she said.
“He also gave directions on what needed to be done. Every Bengali followed his instructions to the letter. They stopped paying land tax while money stopped flowing out of Bengal.”
“He also called on Bengali households to prepare for guerrilla warfare and spread the word of the upcoming struggle to the grassroots.”
The ‘unscripted’ nature of the speech also distinguishes it from some other prominent addresses throughout history, according to Hasina.
“Many leaders from many countries have given memorable speeches. All of them were prepared and they read them out. But this speech was delivered in the moment. There wasn’t a piece of paper or anything written in front of him.
“It was a leader speaking about the struggles he endured throughout his life as he worked for the betterment of his people and what he wanted to do for his nation while highlighting the torture and oppression they’d faced.”
While the speech is now subject to worldwide acclaim, Hasina lamented the fact that for years after 1975, any broadcast of the address was effectively banned in Bangladesh.
“Nowadays, you can hear the speech ringing out at the state level. We are also commemorating the anniversary of the speech. Unfortunately, after the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975, the historic speech, which was a cornerstone of our independence struggle, was banned in Bangladesh.”
“When the leaders and activists of Chattra League would play the speech on Mar 7, they would face all kinds of abuse. For 21 years, this nation had to live with a distorted version of history. While it has received international recognition, the speech could only be played freely in Bangladesh after the Awami League came into power.
“There was an attempt to erase everything from history, be it the spirit of our Liberation War or the sacrifices of our martyrs. ”
But the truth can never be erased, said Hasina. “In the speech itself, Bangabandhu said no one can suppress us and no one has been able to.”
Few speeches in history have had as lasting an effect as the Mar 7 speech, according to the Awami League chief.
Apart from being recognised by UNESCO, Bangabandhu’s speech also features in British historian Robert F Field’s book ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches: The Speeches That Inspired History’, she pointed out.
“Throughout world history, none of the speeches that were given as a call for independence have been played as repeatedly as this one. This speech continues to endure even 50 years after our independence and continues to motivate us. No one can track how many times it has been played and millions upon millions of people have heard it.”
The more obstacles that were placed in its way, the more prominence the speech gained, according to Hasina.
“Each line feels like it is from a poem and it pierces into the heart of the people. ‘This time, our struggle is for freedom,’ – our freedom fighters would always find motivation in this line as they fought to liberate the country.”
The nation of Pakistan was formed in 1947 during the Partition of India. But, due to the distribution of Muslims across the subcontinent, the territory of the new country was split in two – East Pakistan and West Pakistan.
Though East Pakistan was the more populous part of the country, much of the military and political power was concentrated in West Pakistan. East Pakistan was also exploited economically, giving rise to a groundswell of discontent among the people.
In 1970, the Awami League, the East Pakistan party led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a landslide victory in the national elections – taking 167 of the 169 seats in East Pakistan and winning a majority in the 313-seat National Assembly. Though this gave Sheikh Mujib the right to form a government, the West Pakistan establishment refused to cede power, leading to a series of talks.
As negotiations with the military junta appeared to go nowhere, Sheikh Mujib came to the Racecourse around 3:20 pm on Mar 7, 1971, wearing his trademark white pyjama-panjabi combination and a sleeveless black coat that would become iconic.
To a milling crowd of nearly a million people, he said: “Today, I come to you with a heavy heart. You know everything that has happened and understand all that has been going on. We have tried our best.”
“But every time we have talked, the streets of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Rajshahi and Rangpur have run red with the blood of our brothers. Today, the people of Bangladesh want freedom. They want to live. They want to secure their rights.”
Speaking extempore, he spoke the words that would be immortalised by the people.
The speech cut across the social divide and struck a chord with the 70 million Bengalis of East Pakistan.
And from the stage their towering leader, a powerful orator, called for a civil uprising and declared war against the Pakistani junta.
“We have given so much blood, but we are ready to give more. But this time, we will definitely liberate the country In Sha’a Allah… Turn every house into a fort and face the enemy with whatever you have.”
He called on the Bengali people to prepare for an armed struggle against the Pakistani military junta