It was leadership which reshaped history. It was pragmatism which underpinned politics in our part of the world.
We recall today a day engraved in our cultural and political consciousness, for on this day the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave us the guidelines to our future. It is, therefore, in our interest as well as in the interest of generations to come that we need to keep aloft the banner of freedom which fluttered on our rooftops in the heady days of March 1971.
7 March was a day of decision for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. There were those who thought, quite rightly as it turned out, that he would offer the regime in West Pakistan one last opportunity for a settlement of the crisis in East Pakistan. Similarly, millions of Bengalis expected him to declare Bangladesh's independence at his Race Course public meeting on the day. He chose a course where his wisdom, his perspicacity, his vision of the future confronted the challenge before him. And he triumphed.
Up until his appearance at the Race Course, Mujib and his party colleagues had carefully assessed the situation, with hardly any details of the deliberations trickling out into the public domain. In effect, the people of Bangladesh, by and large, did not quite know what Bangabandhu, on whose undisputed authority the eastern province of Pakistan was being administered, would be saying at the public meeting in the afternoon. Solemn and reflective, Bangabandhu ascended the dais to inform us of the path we would be taking in our struggle for freedom and democratic expression.
Bangabandhu's address at the Race Course has come down in history as his finest hour. It was oratory reminiscent of the great men who had come before him, to provide leadership to their nations, to inspire them through their poignant messages, their soaring declamations. There was Abraham Lincoln with his Gettysburg Address; and we had before us the blood, toil and tears speech of Winston Churchill as the Second World War pulverized the world. Jawaharlal Nehru's independence speech, with his emphasis on India's tryst with destiny, was in our consciousness as we heard Bangabandhu on 7 March. There were the memories of John Kennedy's inspirational inaugural speech as president. There was Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's ringing call for freedom.
And yet there was a difference, for Bangabandhu's words flowed, in the manner of the rivers of pristine Bengal, as he called the Bengali nation to struggle. It was poetry which pulsated in his politics on 7 March.
Bangabandhu did not go for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from his belief that such a move would constitute secession and, worse, could lead to harsh, immediate action by the Pakistan army, which remained in a state of alert in cantonments around the country. But neither did he fail to inform the world that the objective before the people of Bangladesh was political and territorial sovereignty along with the overall goal of an attainment of economic emancipation.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman launched into an address which rose to a crescendo of ideas coming one after the other, the central point of which was to reassure his people that their interests were safe in his hands. He noted General Yahya Khan's call, made the previous day, for a rescheduled National Assembly session in Dhaka on 2 March5. At the same time, he boldly and contemptuously rejected the president's insinuation that the Awami League had been responsible for the crisis in the country.
And what were the essential planks in Bangabandhu's arguments on 7 March? Observe the points he raised: a) Martial law would have to be withdrawn b) a full inquiry into the killings by the army would have to be instituted c) all soldiers of the Pakistan army would have to be withdrawn to their barracks d) power would have to be transferred to the elected representatives of the people.
It was his final lines that clinched the argument, gave him his moment in history. "The struggle this time," declared Bangabandhu, "is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle this time is the struggle for independence."
We did not look back after that, despite the gloom and darkness we were to be pushed into by the junta. We were on course for liberty.
It was our moment of self-assertion. Recall the sheer electric energy which coursed through the country as the future Father of the Nation spoke to us, to the wider world out there, of the destiny he envisaged for us.
Over the preceding few days, reports and rumours had been making the rounds about an impending declaration of independence by the political leader whose party, the Awami League, had secured a clear majority of seats (167 out of a total of 313) in Pakistan's national assembly at the general elections of December 1970.
What should have been a journey to power as Pakistan's prime minister on Mujib's part, had by early March 1971 been transformed, owing to the chicanery employed by the Yahya Khan junta, into a movement for Pakistan's eastern province to prise itself out of the state created through the division of India in 1947. The reasons were all out there. They had to do with the intrigues which had already been set in motion to thwart the assumption of power at the centre by the Awami League.
In the event, the speech Bangabandhu delivered at the Race Course served the very crucial purpose of bringing home the truth that Bangladesh was on its way to political freedom. At an intellectual level, the speech was a masterpiece. Within its parameters, Mujib deftly negotiated his way out of a bind, one in which he had found himself since President Yahya Khan had injudiciously deferred the scheduled March 3 meeting of the new national assembly in a broadcast on the first day of the month. Almost immediately, the fiery student leaders allied to the Awami League cause moved miles ahead to demand that Mujib declare Bangladesh free of Pakistan.
Over the next few days, such demands began to be echoed in other areas, eventually persuading everyone that the Bengali leader was actually about to give in to the pressure for an independence declaration. His rejection of an invitation to a round table conference called by General Yahya Khan for March 10 was seen as evidence of his intended action. Besides, there had been no perceptible move by him to restrain the students of Dhaka University when they decided to hoist the flag, on 2 March, of what they believed would be an independent Bangladesh.
And yet those who stayed in touch with Bangabandhu, or observed the way he handled the situation in those tumultuous times, knew of the difficulties he had been pushed into. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he needed to find an acceptable, dignified way out of the crisis.
On the one hand, a Unilateral Declaration of Independence would leave him facing the charge of secessionism not only from the Pakistan authorities but also from nations around the world. He knew that as the leader of the majority party, he could not have his reputation sullied in such cavalier manner.
There were before him the poor instances of Rhodesia's Ian Smith and Biafra's Odumegwu Ojukwu, images he was not enthused by. Besides, any UDI would surely invite the swift retribution of the Pakistan military, at that point steadily reinforcing itself in East Pakistan.
On the other hand, Mujib realised that as undisputed spokesman of the Bengalis, he was expected to provide his people with a clear sense of direction, one that would reassure them about the future. A recurring image of Bangabandhu, taking slow, ponderous steps as he went up to the dais on that March afternoon, is sure to appear on anyone's mind reflecting deeply on the event. It was the picture of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. There is every reason to believe that he was still shaping his ideas, those he would soon give expression to before that crowd of expectant Bengalis.
And then he began to speak, in oratory that was to prove once more the reality of why he had over the years scaled the heights in the politics of Bengal, of Pakistan. In that one speech he painted the entire history of why Pakistan had failed as a state. Even as he did so, he laid out his arguments in defence of what the Bengali nation needed to do. He mocked the conspiracies then afoot to deprive Bengalis of political power.
With prescience, he told his people that even if he were not around, not amidst them, they should move on to protect the land, its history, from those who would trifle with it. Every moment bubbled with excitement. Bangabandhu soared, and we with him, as he defined our path to the future. The man who only minutes earlier had seemed lost in deep reflections now offered us a clear path out of the woods and into a very bright blue yonder.
Note that in his peroration of nineteen minutes, Bangabandhu touched upon a whole range of issues affecting the future of his nation. In those nineteen minutes, he succinctly and yet powerfully spelt out the history of the twenty-three years since the creation of Pakistan. He moved effortlessly from one critical point to another — the 1952 Language Movement, the 1954 election in East Bengal and the dismissal of the United Front ministry, the imposition of martial law in 1958 and Ayub Khan's decade-long dictatorship, the promises made by Yahya Khan, the general election of December 1970, the conspiracies beginning to be hatched anew in Rawalpindi.
A necessary lesson in history was what he proffered, the better to convince the world of the rationale behind his non-cooperation movement. He was at the height of his oratorical powers.
We cheered. We whooped with joy. We knew that he had not declared independence, but we were made aware that he had set us on the path to freedom. He had refused to be a secessionist; and he had abjured all ideas of a UDI. He had told us, in precise, unambiguous terms, that liberation was down the road, that it was a mere matter of time. We were content. As we went back home, with loud refrains of Joy Bangla around us and in our souls, we told ourselves that life for us had changed forever.
On 7 March, 1971, Bangabandhu gave us reason to believe in ourselves once again. Because of him, we remembered our heritage. Because of him, we were Bengalis again. And because of him, we reached out to one another, to the world outside the one we inhabited, to build our own brave new world.
Leadership, in the purposeful manner it was meant to assert itself, was the idea reinforced on 7 March. That the struggle for freedom would entail sacrifices, indeed a long struggle with all the sacrifices that would come with it was the message conveyed to us by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman fifty-one years ago. He was the leader, the Druid who would lead us into the zone of light.
On 7 March, 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led us to the peaks of glory. And on those heights he pointed out to us our Promised Land. It shone bright and glorious.
We would not look back after that. There was the future which beckoned. That was the clarion call coming from our leader on that day. He was reaching out to the world on his own terms.