By Anwar A. Khan
Throughout the course of history there have been many famous speeches that have shaped the future of a country. For Bangladesh – that is set to observe Victory Day on December 16 – that defining speech was on March 7, 1971, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation’s founding father, articulated his vision for the yet to be born nation.
Rahman delivered the most celebrated speech of his life in a ringing voice before one million people, largely extempore.
The best orators are masters of the spoken word, and use words to create texts that are beautiful to both hear and read. Rahman, popularly known as ‘Bangabandhu’ (friend of Bengal) was a master statesman and orator, whose charisma, rhetorical skills and passion place him in a league of his own
Listening to that address on March 7, people of the erstwhile East Pakistan felt a new era and a new frontier was being ushered in. His rousing speech evoked a spontaneous response from the people present, with cries of “Joy Bangla! (Hail Bengal). With his statement, urging “Brave Bengalis (to) pick up arms and liberate Bangladesh (“Bir Bangali Ostro Dhoro, Bangladesh Swadhin Koro!) Rahman called on freedom-loving Bengalis to wage a decisive struggle against Pakistan. It was a de facto declaration of Bangladesh’s independence.
Rahman gave a frightened nation hope with that inspirational speech. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilising drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of independence and democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of Bangladesh’s people. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood,” he declared.
UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has recognised the historic March 7, 1971 speech by Rahman as part of the world’s documentary heritage over the past 2,500 years. The address has been included in the ‘Memory of the World’ International Register, a list of the world’s important documentary heritage, maintained by UNESCO, adding a new dimension to the country’s history.
The inspirational speech resounds even for future generations. The speech has also been recognised as one of the world’s famous speeches in the book “We Shall Fight on the Beaches: The Speeches That Inspired History”, by Jacob F. Field, a noted Historian.
The March 7 speech at Dhaka’s Race Course Ground (now SuhrawardyUddan) was a defining moment for the people of Bangladesh and for Rahman. Through it, people across the world began to understand what was happening in the region.
After Rahman’s Awami League had won the Pakistani national elections in 1970 with a landslide majority, he became the majority party leader in Pakistan, but the Pakistani military junta refused to hand over power to him.
That speech on March 7, 1971, signified the final beginning to end Pakistani oppression and gave birth to the voice of the people to liberate the country. The 1971 war is one of the few wars that literally involved people of all strata of society; the Bangladesh people’s war against tyrannical rule of Pakistani rulers.
Rahman’s speech unmasked the underlying evil of Pakistani oppression. The war changed the region’s polity and the everyday life of its people.
What makes the speech so memorable? It was dramatically delivered in the open air in front of a million people. His words proved to be a touchstone for understanding the social and political upheaval of the time and gave the people a vocabulary to express what was happening. He argued passionately and powerfully. Stylistically the speech has been described as a political treatise, a work of poetry, and a masterfully delivered and improvised sermon, bursting with revolutionary language and imagery. As well as rhythm and frequent repetition, alliteration was a hallmark device, used to deliver key points. Most important, the format was simple and stirring.
While the address had a strong revolutionary message, his words mostly sought peace, offering a vision everyone could buy into. Rahman’s mastery over the spoken word, his magnetism, and his sincerity raised familiar platitudes from clichés to commandments. The speech’s appeal lies in the fact that, whatever the interpretation, it remains the most eloquent, poetic, unapologetic and public articulation of that victory. The tone is informative and argumentative; it is descriptive and the ideas are sincere.
He took the right kinds of chances rhetorically, ending the speech with a powerful metaphor of a bell ringing. “Every house must turn into a fortress. Face the enemy with whatever you have…And be ready with whatever you have…We will surely liberate the people of this country,” he asserted. In his speech, the ringing of bells is meant to signify the echoing of the sounds all across the country.
The address is rich with allusions to the Declaration of Independence and filled with poetic and rhetorical constructs so that it is more of a poem than a political speech. Rahman’s speech lifted hearts in dark times, gave hope in despair, refined the characters of men, inspired brave feats, gave courage to the weary, honoured the dead, and changed the course of history, as he tore the oppressive Pakistani establishment into pieces.
(The writer is an ordinary senior citizen of Bangladesh. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)