New Delhi: The year was 1971. It was a time tensions were escalating between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. Just a few months ago, East Pakistan’s largest political party Awami League, led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had registered a landslide victory in the general elections, but the powerful political and military establishment of West Pakistan was not agreeing to transfer power to the Bengali leadership.
The National Assembly was scheduled to be in session from March 3, 1971. But President General Yahya Khan put off the session in a sudden decision on March 1.
The announcement caused a lot of furore in East Pakistan and brought people out onto the streets in protest. A movement started as Bengalis looked to establish their rights.
Sheikh Mujib called a hartal on March 2 in Dhaka, and another on 3 March across the province.
On March 7, he held a historic public meeting at the then Ramna Racecourse Maidan, now known as Suhrawardy Udyan. What he said in his speech on that day, in front of a mammoth gathering of over 10 lakh people, went on to be known as one of the most influential speeches in the world — one that eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh by the end of that year, on December 16, 1971, with India extending full military support.
“The struggle this time, is a struggle for our liberty. The struggle this time, is a struggle for our independence,” Sheikh Mujib said. His words inspired the entire East Pakistan to prepare for a war for independence.
Only 18 days later, the Bangladesh Liberation War began as the West Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight on March 25 against civilians, intelligentsia, students, politicians, and armed personnel of East Pakistan.
There was no written script for Mujib’s Bengali speech, but it survived in audio and video versions, with people making special efforts to record, make copies and circulate them after West Pakistan disallowed broadcast of the address.
On October 30, 2017, UNESCO inscribed the Bangladesh founding father’s fiery, extempore speech in the Memory of the World Register as a documentary heritage.
“The speech effectively declared the independence of Bangladesh. The speech constitutes a faithful documentation of how the failure of post-colonial nation-states to develop inclusive, democratic society alienates their population belonging to different ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious groups,” the UN body says on its website.
What Happened Before 1971
In 1966, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman launched a Six Point Movement seeking provincial autonomy for East Pakistan. But the military government of West Pakistan rejected the proposals, and placed Sheikh Mujib under arrest, charging him with treason.
He was released three years later, in 1969. Due to mass protests and widespread violence, West Pakistan was forced to drop the case against him.
In 1970, Mujib’s Awami League won the national elections, securing victory in 167 of the 169 seats allotted to East Pakistan and majority in the 313-seat National Assembly. But Pakistan Peoples Party leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto didn’t allow the East Pakistani party to form the government, and President General Yahya Khan supported him.
Through an announcement on radio, he postponed the National Assembly session that was to begin on March 3.
What Sheikh Mujib Said In His March 7, 1971 Speech
In his speech, which lasted for around 19 minutes, Mujib asserted how authoritarian and military violence thwarted East Pakistan’s attempts to seek proper governance and self-determination, and why this could not go on.
Before announcing a civil disobedience movement, he narrated in simple language his entire political exchanges with West Pakistan, highlighting how Yahya Khan did not agree to negotiate with Awami League.
“All of you know how hard we have tried. But it is a matter of sadness that the streets of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Rangpur and Rajshahi are today being spattered with the blood of my brothers, and the cry we hear from the Bengali people is a cry for freedom, a cry for survival , a cry for our rights,” Mujib said at the very beginning of his speech.
He said how the past nearly 23 years, since Partition from India, saw nothing but bloodshed and “history of continual lamentation” and tears.
Mujib said Awami League’s victory in the general elections should have seen restoration of a constitutional government that would bring in economic, political and cultural emancipation, but that did not happen.
While he asked the people of East Pakistan to be ready to “bring everything to a total standstill”, and called upon them to “turn every home into a fortress” if a single bullet is fired, the Awami League leader also asked them to stay calm and keep provocateurs at bay. “Whether Bangali or non-Bangali, Hindu or Muslim, all are our brothers, and it is our responsibility to ensure their safety,” he said.
Mujib asked people to stop working in radio, television and the press if they did not report news of the liberation movement.
“The struggle this time is for emancipation! The struggle this time is for independence,” he declared.
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