Politicians, civil society leaders, statesmen and army generals make speeches in public forums. Most speeches fail to find any place in history.
Some do. In contemporary history one such speech was made by the US President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War, on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvanian, four and a half months after the US Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a carefully crafted address and one of the greatest and most influential statements in US history. In just two minutes, Lincoln reiterated the principles of human equality espoused by the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union sundered by the secession crisis, with ‘a new birth of freedom’ that would bring equality to all citizens.
Whether Lincoln’s speech was written or impromptu is still debated but at least five versions of the ‘manuscript’ are available.
Another great speech considered all time great is the one delivered by the American Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King on August 28, 1963 in front of 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. King’s speech is considered as a defining moment of the US civil rights movement and perhaps no other speech is read or heard regularly over the world till now. King’s speech popularly known as ‘I have a dream’ begins with the mention of the plight of the American Blacks, then commonly known as ‘niggers,’ and discriminated extensively in the society. King described his dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred. King’s speech was ranked the top American speech of the 20th century in a 1999 poll of scholars of public address.
At one stage during the Second World War the Allied army could not stop the onslaught of the Hitler’s German army. The Germans proved too powerful and the Allied armies were forced back to the port of Dunkirk in France. The British managed to organise one of the massive evacuations in modern history of the Allied troops from Dunkirk to Britain. Once the evacuation was over British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the parliament about the future, and the possibility of an invasion of Europe to regain what the Allied troops lost. In a confident voice Churchill said, ‘We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a larger part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the old.’ Churchill’s speech inspired his people and the Allied troops. Soon the invasion took place and Europe re-taken and the dream of Hitler ruling the entire Europe came to an end.
In the Indian Sub-continent politicians and scholars made speeches over last hundred years, which included speeches by Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and others. Temporary they did make a mark in people’s memory but with the passage of time were lost as they lacked any eternal message or failed to focus on any national purpose. One person filled that gap on March 7, 1971 and he was none other than the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in whom was embedded the key to freedom and emancipation of this nation. Till March 7, 1975 Mujib was the President of Awami League whose party won the landslide victory in the general election of 1970 to form a Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. After the nineteen minute March 7 speech delivered at Ramna race course (Suhrawardy Uddyan) he became the undisputed leader of the Bengali nation. He was no longer considered as the President of Awami League but the only hope of the nation. Many term him as the pied piper of 1970-71 and after the speech US weekly Time named him as the ‘Poet of Politics.’
After the Pakistan’s general election held in 1970 it was expected that the Awami League will be asked to form the government as it commands the majority in the parliament. General Yahya Khan announced that the first sitting of the Parliament will take place on March 3, 1971. On March 1 to everyone’s astonishment Yahya Khan postponed the sitting of the national parliament through a radio announcement. Instantly the people of East Bengal took to the streets protesting the postponement. They felt betrayed and wanted Mujib to take control and lead them to the path of freedom and emancipation. From March 1 Pakistan’s central and provincial government gradually lost control of East Bengal and Sk. Mujib was the person calling the shots. The total civil administration took instructions from him while the world watched in astonishment how the ‘Poet of Politics’ was gradually moulding a subjugated nation into an independent nation. The country completely came to standstill and only one man, Bangabandhu Sk. Mujib gave orders to the civil administration as how to run their everyday affairs. Mujib was just a parliament member elect, yet to take oath. Suddenly he became a larger than life size leader. Many world leaders were dwarfed by Mujib’s charisma, personality and command over his people. He announced he will announce his next course of action at Ramna race course on March 7. There was an eerie nervousness inside Dhaka Cantonment and even in the then West Pakistan. Media personalities from all over the world thronged Dhaka to be witnesses to unfolding events. They wanted to listen to the Poet of Politics.
The previous day and before Bangabandhu started for the race course his political colleagues crowded his Dhanmondi residence with suggestions as to what he should say in the afternoon. Begum Mujib who always stood beside her husband during hours of need whispered in his ears, ‘I am not sure what you will say but remember in front of you there will be your people and at your back will be guns of Pakistani military junta.’ Mujib’s old friend Haji Ghulam Murshed drove Mujib to the race course venue on that day. Seated in the car was Awami League leader Gazi Ghulam Mustafa and Mohiuddin Ahmed. Couple of year’s back I managed to talk to Haji Murshed about this day. He said, ‘When we were driving through the Elephant Road I asked Mujib bhai what he will say today. He thought for a moment and said whatever Allah wants him to speak he will say that.’
By the time Mujib got up on the stage at least half a million people filled the huge Ramna race course. It was a tense moment. A history was in the making.
Mujib was the only speaker on that late afternoon. He had no notes no prepared speech. He spoke from his heart and soul. In his nineteen minute speech (1086 words) he slowly and accurately narrated the long twenty three years history of discrimination of the Bengalis by the West Pakistan rulers, how they were betrayed in all aspects of economic and political life and how the people of East Bengal became a colony of West Pakistan. He reiterated the backdrop that led to the current situation and asked the people to prepare for the upcoming days and reminded them that the movement this time will be for emancipation and freedom of the people. His voice was deep and hypnotic that instilled a sense of confidence amongst the people of the entire country.
Many pundits naively argue why Mujib did not declare independence on the March 7. Mujib was not a romantic revolutionary and he did not want to appear as a secessionist leader. A leader whose party had won the majority seats in the parliament cannot be a secessionist. He waited and continued discussion with General Yahya to show to the world that he wanted a peaceful solution to the problem, knowing very well that Pakistan’s military junta will never hand over the rule of Pakistan to Sk. Mujib. Bangabandhu was a leader of vision and courage and he knew when to make his move.
On the fateful night of March 26, 1971 the Pakistani military junta made the fatal move by launching ‘Operation Search Light,’ thus sealing the coffin of Jinnah’s Pakistan. Throughout the nine month War of Liberation the Speech of March 7 was the guiding light and source of inspiration. According to the British author Jacob F Field Sk. Mujib’s speech of March 7, 1971 is amongst the speeches of statesmen, generals, kings that inspired history. Mujib’s speech not only inspired history but became a history by itself and inspired an entire nation of seven and half a million. His speech will live eternally and shall inspire generations after generations, even beyond boundaries of Bangladesh. The recognition of UNESCO is just reinforcement of what the people of this country have always known. Long live the memories of Bangabandhu Sk. Mujib and long live the memories of March 7, 1971.
The writer is a commentator and an analyst