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26 March, 2020 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 26 March, 2020 12:09:04 AM

Ethos of March: Birth of a nation

Ethos of March: Birth of a nation

Coincidentally, March is the special month when Bangladesh as a country and the architect of the Bangladeshi nation, both were born. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, the father of the nation was born on the 17th March 1920 in Tungipara of Gopalganj district. The birth of the nation took roughly 24 years of sanguinary freedom movement under the esteem, resolute, scrupulous and indestructible leadership of Sheikh Mujib, during which he served a total of 4,682 days in prison. In other words, he spent almost 13 of his 55 years of life in prison for the freedom of his countrymen, which is one fourth of his life.The independence of the nation was declared on the 26th March 1971 and then circulated later under his direction andleadership. The final victory came after a ‘9 month long’ liberation war on the 16th December 1971 where three million men and women have sacrificed their lives and two hundred thousand women have lost their dignity in the hands of enemy forces of Pakistan. However, the main motivation of the liberation was impregnated in the minds of general people through the historic speech on the 7th March 1971 when Bangabandhu addressed a mass rally at the then Ramna Racecourse in Dhaka.    

Life in Prison (Source: Oshomapto Attojiboni/The Unfinished Memoirs and Karagarer Rojnamcha/Prison Diaries): The first time Bangabandhu went to jail and spent seven days in prisonduring his school life in his hometown of Tungipara, when he and some of his friends got into a fight with Hindu leaders who had beaten up a Muslim. But during his colourful political career, he was taken to a jail in East Pakistan for the first time on March 11, 1948as he was agitating with other students against the West Pakistani move to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan. He was then imprisoned in October1949 with others due to his involvement in leading the anti-government protests in East Pakistan for a much longer period of time. This had sparked huge protest agitations among the general students and gave the language movement a boost. He was released at the end of February 1952 after the official declaration that Bengali is the mother tongue of Bengal. In 1954, after the dismissal of the Jukto (United) Front government of which he was a minister, there was six-month-long period of detention for him.

In 1958, Bangabandhu had to spend 14 months in prison from October 1958 when General Ayub Khan imposed martial law in Pakistan.In February 1962, he was sent to jail for a short period. During the 1964 elections held by Ayub Khan, Bangabandhu was jailed for 14 days. He was jailed once more in 1965. In 1966, when Bangabandhu spearheaded the ‘Six-Point Movement’ for the complete autonomy of East Pakistan, he was imprisoned for more than two years on false accusations framed by the Pakistani intelligence which was popularly known as “Agartala Conspiracy” case. Nevertheless, on March 26, 1971, he was arrested yet again and taken to a prison in West Pakistan. He was released for the last time from a Pakistani prison on January 8, 1972, soon after the victory of Bangladesh in the war of liberation.

The Historic Speech of 7th March:In the 1970 general election, Awami League won a landslide victory which gave it the constitutional right to form a government in Pakistan. However, the then Pakistani President Yahya Khan and the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, did not want a party from East Pakistan to form the Government. They opted various deceptive measures to deny Sheikh Mujib to become the prime minister of whole Pakistan. On 3rd March, the convening of the National Assembly was postponed until 25thMarch, leading to great unrest in East Pakistan. Violence broke out in Dhaka, Chattogram, Rangpur, Comilla, Rajshahi, Sylhet, and Khulna, and the security forces killed dozens of unarmed protesters. People from different walks put huge pressureon Sheikh Mujib to declare independence from Pakistan.Awami League called a public rally at Dhaka's Ramna Racecourse on 7thMarch to respond.

Bangabandhu started (Source: “The World’s Greatest Speeches”, by Vijaya Kumar and “We Shall Fight on the Beaches: The Speeches That Inspired History”, by Jacob F. Field): "Today, I appeared with a heavy heart in front of you. You know everything and understand as well. We tried our bests, sacrificed our lives. But the painful matter is that today, the streets have been dyed red with the blood of our brethren in Dhaka, Chattogram, Khulna, Rajshahi and Rangpur. Today the people of Bengal want freedom, the people of Bengal want to survive, the people of Bengal want to have their rights. What wrong did we do?" The people of Bengal voted for me and the Awami League in the general election. We had a hope that we would sit in the assembly and frame a constitution which would lead to the emancipation of the people economically, politically and culturally.

Arms were used against the unarmed people of the Bengal. The arms which were bought by our money, to safeguard the country from foreign aggression, are now being used to kill our people. My distressed people are being shot at. We are the majority in Pakistan. Whenever we, the Bengalis, wanted to take over power, wanted to become masters of our own destiny, they pounced on us – every time.

He mentioned four conditions for joining the National Assembly on 25thMarch:

1.    The immediate lifting of martial law;

2.    The immediate withdrawal of all military personnel to their barracks;

3.    The immediate transfer of power to elected representatives of the people;

4.    A proper inquiry into the loss of lives during the conflict.

He also gave several directives for a civil disobedience movement, instructing that:

1.    People should not pay taxes;

2.    Government servants should take orders only from him;

3.    The secretariat, government and semi-government offices, and courts in East Pakistan should observe strikes, with necessary exemptions announced from time to time;

4.    Only local and inter-district telephone lines should function;

5.    Railways and ports could continue to function, but their workers should not co-operate if they were used to repress the people of East Pakistan.

He concluded with, " I request you to form action committees in every village, ward and union under the leadership of the Awami League. Prepare yourself with whatever you have. Remember, once we have shed our blood, we will not hesitate to shed more. But we will free the people of this country, Insha-Allah. Our struggle, this time, is a struggle for our freedom. Our struggle, this time, is a struggle for our independence. Joy Bangla!"

It was a de facto declaration of Bangladesh's independence.Sheikh Mujib declared East Pakistan to be independent and the new state was called Bangladesh. The speech was effective in giving Bengalis a clear motivation and goal of independence. The speech is on the ‘Memory of the World Register of UNESCO’, a list of world's important documentary heritage (the decision was announced at the headquarter of UNESCO in Paris on 30 October 2017.

Most significantly, the speech was included in the book “We Shall Fight on the Beaches: The Speeches That Inspired History”, by Jacob F. Field, which is a collection of history’s 41 most influential speeches with an exploration of their context and consequences. This book covers every inhabited continent, including the Athenian general Pericles’s ‘Funeral Oration’ in 431 BC to recent ‘Tear Down This Wall!’ by Ronald Regan in Berlinin 1987 during the closing years of the Cold War. This book is named after a line from Winston Churchill’s speech given in the British Parliament in 1940 about the future of the World War II and the possibility of the invasion of the German Nazi troops. In the conclusion he said, “We shall go on to the end, 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, ……..” This speech was so influential that it made the weaker United Kingdom and the Allies gain huge boost in motivation to defeat the mighty German Nazi force eventually in 1945.

The 7th March speech of Bangabandhu had also similar influence in the minds of peace-loving and un-armedBengali nation to fight against the mighty armed forces of West Pakistan. His speech “We shall kill them for the want of food (rice), we shall kill them in water” resembled those of Churchill’s. It should be noted that among the 41 most influential speeches, very few were from the Asian leaders including those of ‘Serve the People’ by Mao Zedong of China in 1944, ‘Declaration of Independence’ by Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam in 1945 and ‘I am Aware that this is a Hard Doctrine’ by Syngman Rhee of South Korea in 1954.

Independence of Bangladesh: After the directives for a civil disobedience movement through Bangabandhu’s7th March speech, people of East Pakistan initiated a civil disobedience campaign to press for convening the parliament, amid rising Bengali aspirations for self-determination and independence. Yahya Khan and Bhutto were in the city throughout March for negotiations. On 25 March 1971, negotiations between Pakistani President Yahya Khan and Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman broke down after Khan, being influenced by bureaucrats and senior politicians like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of West Pakistan, refused to accept Rahman's 6 points proposal for a new federal constitution in Pakistan.

After the political process was abruptly ended by President Khan, he declared martial law, banned the Awami League and ordered the Pakistan Army to arrest Mujib and other Bengali leaders and activists. In the evening of 25th March, Mujib convened a meeting of senior Bengali nationalist leaders at his residence in Dhanmondi. On the night of 25thMarch, the Pakistan Armed Forces launched Operation Searchlight in the capital of East Pakistan. Tanks rolled out on the streets of Dhaka.

The troops were said to have massacred students and intellectuals in Dhaka University, as well as many civilians in other parts of the city.It set all neighbourhoods ablaze and crushed resistance from the police and the East Pakistan Rifles.Just before his arrest at midnight on 26 March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman sent a message about attacks on EPR and police barracks in Dhaka; and declared the independence of Bangladesh. Speaking on radio even as the army began its crackdown, Mujib asked his fellows to create resistance against the Pakistan Army occupation by telegraph. This message was broadcast from Swadhin Bangla BetarKendro on 26 March1971, and was widely reported in newspapers all around the world. Mujib declared [Source: LEADER OF REBELS IN EAST PAKISTAN REPORTED SEIZED, The New York Times. 27 March 1971. Retrieved 1 September 2014.]:

“[The] Pakistan Army have suddenly attacked the Pilkhana EPR Headquarter and the Rajarbag Police Line as well as killed many innocents in Dhaka. The battle has started in various places of Dhaka and Chittagong. I am asking help to all the nations of this world. Our freedom fighters are valiantly fighting against the foes to save their motherland. In the name of Almighty Allah my last request and order to you all is to fight for independence till death. Ask your brothers of Police, EPR, Bengal Regiment and Ansar to fight with you. No compromise, the victory is ours. Execute the last foe from our holy motherland. Carry my message to all the leaders, activists and the other patriots from every corner of the country. May Allah bless you all. Joy Bangla.”Later M. A. Hannan, an Awami League leader from Chittagong, is said to have made the first announcement of ‘declaration of independence’ over the radio on 26 March 1971.

Sheikh Mujib was arrested and taken to West Pakistan on March 26, 1971, where he was kept under heavy guard in a jail near Faisalabad (then Lyallpur). The Pakistan Army's campaign to restore order soon degenerated into a rampage of terror, torture, bloodshed, loot, arson, rape (more details are available elsewhere). The East Bengali army and police regiments soon revolted and a major insurgency led by the Mukti Bahini (Freedom Fighters) with the support of Indian Government arose across East Pakistan. Despite international pressure, the Pakistani government refused to release Mujib and negotiate with him. Most of the Mujib’s family was kept under house arrest during this period. The war of liberation lasted for 9 month long as the Pakistan Army surrendered to the joint force of Bengali Mukti Bahini and Indian Army on 16th December 1971. Eventually, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was released from the Pakistani prison on January 8, 1972. He was then able to come back to his beloved motherland on 10th January 1972.

In brief, Bangabandhu and Bangladesh are synonymous. It was destined that both were born in the historic month of March. Although apparently it took more than two decades of movement to get a sovereign Bengal, effectively the people of Bengal were subservient for over two hundred years of slavery: first under the British rules (1757–1948) and then under the Pakistani imperialism (1948–1971). Many leaders have taken initiatives and led many movements at different times for the freedom of Bengalis, but it is the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who led his people to achieve the long-cherished taste of freedom. Therefore, the ethos of March is the birth of a nation, which was destined on the 17th March 1920 at a remote village of Tungipara of Gopalganj district.

The writer is the Founder and Member of Board

of Trustees of University of Skill Enrichment

and Technology (USET), Narayanganj, Dhaka.