The other Mujib speech
Yesterday, Deshi cyberspace and TV were flooded with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s famous 7 March speech. That speech is noted for its sheer defiance. And parts of it still give me goosebumps.
However, that wasn’t the only speech Mujib gave in the lead up to the Liberation War. Over the fold is his speech broadcast on PTV and Radio Pakistan before the December 1970 elections. This speech is notable for a number of reasons. It was delivered in English, and Mujib was addressing the West Pakistani ruling junta and the local and foreign establishment. It was Mujib’s chance to tell the powers-that-be what a Mujibist government in Dhaka would mean. This was the closest thing the outside world had to judge Mujib.
What he said, and didn’t say, gives us important clues about what he wanted to do with his impending election victory. Consider, for example, his choice of the word for the country — not Bangladesh, definitely not East Pakistan, but Bengal. Mujib repeatedly refers to Bengal, even when he mentions the damage Farakka would wrought. Bengal had a very specific meaning to the people of Mujib’s generation. Why Bengal, and not Bangladesh?
While he used the word Bengal, he steps well short of cultural nationalism or identity politics. He makes his case not in terms of Bengali identity, but on economic disparities. He talks about the oligarchy that was Pakistan, stressing the solidarity between Bengal and the ‘downtrodden people of West Pakistan’. And he grounds his economic arguments not on the rhetoric of class struggle, but in terms of West Pakistan’s foreign exchange earnings and development expenditure.
Establishing the case for six points, he specifically stresses that the federating units should have the control over monetary and fiscal policy, foreign exchange earnings, and foreign trade and aid — that’s more power in Dhaka vis-a-vis Rawalpindi than most European capitals have vis-a-vis Brussels. And then he warns the ruling junta against using force, echoing Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’, foreshadowing ‘dabaye rakhtey parba na’.
But in general, he falls well short of revolutionary rhetoric or calls for armed struggle. Indeed, the whole speech is noted for its moderation. He spends at least half the speech about his economic programme should he win power. It’s standard fair 1970s era populism. Would it have worked? Probably not. But this was a time when Richard Nixon was imposing wage-price controls and proposing socialised healthcare. Compared with the others of his time — Bhutto’s roti, kapda aur makaan or Indira’s garibi hatao, let alone the communists — his stuff was moderate. Yes, he talks about nationalising banks or land reforms, but there is no tirade against multinationals, no calls for collectivisation or peasant communes. Hell, he wants the private sector to make a robust contribution.
He begins the speech noting Awami League was created by Suhrawardy to thwart a one-party state in Pakistan. He acknowledges the Muhajirs and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The irony of the Mujibist reality is self-evident.
But why did the promise and the performance differ so much? Perhaps someday we will have a mature enough discourse where about Sheikh Mujib and his times. Until then, we can only listen and wonder.