The Financial Express

Centennial thoughts on Dhaka University

| Updated: January 07, 2021 20:53:03

Curzon Hall of the University in Dhaka in 1950. Photo: Wikipedia Curzon Hall of the University in Dhaka in 1950. Photo: Wikipedia

The date of 1 July should be regarded as a great day this year, i.e. 2021. It was on this very day, the University of Dhaka formally opened classes to its first batch of students 100 years ago. The teachers also comprised this historical inaugural batch. Had the country been free of the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, Dhaka University would have worn a festive look on the very first day of 2021. The celebration of the New Year would have experienced a special fervour, with the level of jubilations on the part of both students and teachers increasing manifold. Besides, the celebration marking the centennial of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib's birth would have added to the event's festivity and significance. On the other hand, the golden jubilee of the nation's independence, set to be observed in March 2021, would emerge as another great event to add colour to the Dhaka University's centennial celebrations. The people in general and the Dhaka University students in particular, have no hand in remaining detached from the three grand celebrations in the Covid-19 period. There will be more occasions to celebrate the three events at full throttle in the future.   

DU Convocation of 1936, (from left) Sir Jadunath Sarkar (historian), Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (writer), Sir John Anderson (Chancellor and Governor of Bengal), Acharya Prafulla Chandra Roy (chemist), Sir A F Rahman (Vice Chancellor)  — Photo Wikiwand

Under the stewardship of its first Vice Chancellor Sir P.G. Hartog, the University of Dhaka in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, began operating at the presently Dhaka Medical College Hospital building in the Ramna area. It was the institution that pioneered the journey of general universities in this part of Bengal. The region was considered as being deprived of educational and all kinds of cultural outlets. To speak without mincing words, Dhaka miserably lagged behind Kolkata in the education sector. The setting up of the University of Dhaka thus didn't fail to 'delight' the people in East Bengal. In fact, many in the educated segments in the urban areas had felt generally upbeat about their education prospects, after the Bengal Partition in 1905. The Partition created a new territorial entity under British rule. Carved out of the greater Bengal, the new administrative region comprised only East Bengal and part of Assam. But after the politically designed annulment of the Bengal partition, the dejected inhabitants of East Bengal, back to its earlier form, were given a sop of sorts. Ironically, it materialised as a full-fledged university in Dhaka.

Few had paused a while to foresee then that this academic institution, a pure university in all its activities and essence, in the next 100 years would emerge as the largest 'higher seat of learning' in the erstwhile  province of East Pakistan, and a major university in the sub-continent. Few others could then stretch their imagination to visualise the unabated movements spearheaded by its students, which would result in an independence struggle in the Bengalee-dominated East Pakistan.

The process began with the protest by the general people and students against an arrogant declaration by Mohammad Ali Jinnah at a rally on March 21 in Dhaka. The year was 1948. In his capacity as the Governor General of the new state of Pakistan, Jinnah assertively declared that Urdu and Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan, and no other language.

The declaration at the Race Course rally was feebly protested by a section of befuddled people. After a couple of days, a section of Dhaka University's students denounced the same haughty assertion with a resounding "No, No!" In the first case, those present at the Race Course rally felt disillusioned. They were speechless. This time dozens of students shouted in chorus at a convocation ceremony at Curzon Hall on the DU campus. The fact that the supreme leader of Pakistan had been unaware that Bangla was the only language and the mother-tongue of people in East Pakistan stunned many. Two similar declarations by Mohammad Ali Jinnah opposed by fiery students of the university carried the clear notes of discord between the two wings of Pakistan. Finally, as a way out, Bengali was recognised as one of the state languages of Pakistan. In fact Bengali deserved the only state-language status, because the number of people speaking Bangla in East Paistan was greater than the Urdu speakers in West Pakistan. In short, Bangla speakers dominated the land called Pakistan. The language issue flared up again in 1952.

                    One of the earliest Bacelor of Arts certificate from the university — Photo Wikiwand

Thus began the history of the East Pakistani Benglalees' long march of declaring their distinctive cultural identity. It gained force with the eventual snowballing of the issue of pervasive disparity against the Bengalees perpetrated by the central government. The first student outburst against Pakistani misrule came to a bloody surface on 21st February, 1952, the first day of the Language Movement. By facing up to the brutal force of the rulers on the roads near Dhaka University, the students clearly showed a glimpse of their future struggles against the Pakistani neo-colonial oppression.

The Language Movement was followed by dozens of mass upsurges, led by the students of Dhaka University. All of those students-masses movements demanded justice for East Pakistan. The Pakistani rulers remained unfazed.

Finally responding to the call of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the supreme leader of the time, the students and other youths of the country waged an all-out Liberation War in 1971. Like in many such critical national crises before, the Dhaka University students remained at the forefront of the independence struggle. From this point of view, the University of Dhaka and the spirit and the birth of Independent Bangladesh are integral to each other. There are ample reasons for academics to consider Dhaka University as the only institution in the world which has never felt itself detached from the plebeians.

Initially set up on 600 acres of land in 1921, the university was shifted to its new campus in Nilkhet area in the early 1960s. A number of science faculties remained in place at its imposing Curzon Hall building. In the beginning, only the Arts Faculty had shifted to the new site. It was mainly a grassy barren land with few concrete structures. Notable among them was the Madhu's Canteen, the cafeteria frequented by politically leaning students and leaders. In the following decades, several residential halls for male and female students, the residences of the Vice Chancellor, the Pro-Vice Chancellor, the Proctor and the quarters for teachers and office staff were constructed. Some other faculties were set up further west. The total number of DU student halls now comes to 23. The university began its journey with three faculties --- Arts, Science and Law. A total of 12 departments used to be run under these faculties. The departments were Sanskrit and Bengali, English, Education, History, Arabic and Islamic Studies, Persian and Urdu, Philosophy, Economics and Politics, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Law. At present, Dhaka University boasts of 83 departments, 13 faculties and 12 institutes. In general perception, the university comprises the faculties of Arts, Science and Commerce. But the list is quite long. It comprises the faculties of Arts; Business Studies; Engineering and Technology; Government; Fine Arts; Law; Medicine; Pharmacy; Science; Social Sciences; Earth and Environmental Studies; Education; and Post-Graduate Medical Sciences and Research.

The University of Dhaka was set up at a time, which was not congenial to the promotion of higher studies. The university emerged as gift of sorts provided by the British rulers for their failure to give East Bengal the planned administrative status. The university was a wound-healing bid on the part of the rulers. Bengalees in this part of Bengal could have resorted to agitation and violent acts. They lacked able leadership and the political figures having unwavering commitment to the region's progress. In this void, the people had no other choices except bowing down to whatever was foisted on them.

Against the backdrop of plain reality, Dhaka University emerged out of a tense and turbulent time. For the people of East Bengal, the university eventually came up as a catalyst for the emergence of the independent Bangladesh. It is history which knows well whether the independent land of Bengalees could have seen its earth-shaking birth without DU.   


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