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The University Of Dhaka 1921: At The Crossroads Of Colonial Bengal’s Politics – OpEd

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The University of Dhaka’s history is still intertwined with (a) the 1905 contentious division of Bengal that spurred the not-so-hidden Hindu-Muslim discord, (b) the spiraling Muslim distrust of the (Hindu) bhadralok elite that led to the founding of the Muslim League in 1906 as a counter forum to the Indian National Congress (Congress), and (c)  the 1909 separate electorate that produced a new breed of assertive Muslim politicians who braced the proposed new university in Dhaka. One or two observers occasionally claimed that the Dhaka University (DU) idea was tacit in the 1905 Partition Plan. And yet, the prospect for a university in Dhaka, the capital of the new province of East Bengal, was, of course, mute while the hostile volleys hailed the first Bengal division. When the newfangled province dissolved in 1911, the Dhaka University project was perceived as a colonial compensation for the Muslim disappointment over the demise of the new East Bengal province. 

Divided and  exhausted by anti-partition agitations and periodic bomb blasts, Colonial Bengal was at the crossroads over the new Dhaka University initiative—even the prospect of a non-political pulpit of learning became a bellicose terrain between the Hindu and Muslim elites. More than a coincidence, the array of politicians and civic leaders who vigorously opposed the 1905 division strikingly roiled against the planned University of Dhaka. The Muslims were mostly unhappy when the 1905 Partition ended in 1911 obviously to appease  the “bhadralok-led” rage against the division. Now there was a bunch of younger politicians, who in cooperation with various feudal scions—Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka and Nawab Nawab Ali Chaudhury, braced the cause for Dhaka university. They were undeniably successful in 1921, when the university opened its doors. Intellectuals, historians, popular writers, and politicians are yet to wind-up the debate about who got what out of that history-churning episode. The Muslim critics of the 1905 split are still scarce indeed while the debate over the historical split has not yet met its closure.

My father’s Dhaka College days (1915-19) had a trendy storyline about the DU’s birth  that he fondly recounted from time to time. Anecdotally, Nawab Salimullah of Dhaka sobbed at the meeting where the Muslim leaders reluctantly yielded to the Bengal Partition’s dissolution earlier declared by King George V at the Delhi Durbar on December 12, 1911. A new university in Dhaka was at that time promised evidently  to comfort the Nawab, an ardent supporter of that Bengal divide. Few authentic sources could vouch for the Nawab’s moaning episode, but the Nawab of Dhaka, no doubt, was deeply disappointed. Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy of India had visited Dhaka in 1912, when Nawab Salimullah led a delegation of prominent Muslim leaders. They urged upon the Viceroy that a new university in Dhaka would partly compensate for the loss of educational opportunities as Dhaka ceased to be the provincial capital with the partition’s termination. The Calcutta-centered hostility to the projected university surely spilled in Dhaka’s bhadralok community. Ashutosh Mukherjee, Surendra Nath Banerjee, and a bunch of other prominent leaders in Bengal lobbied against the recommended university in Dhaka. Barrister Abdur Rasul was the only Muslim member of the delegation opposed to the proposed Dhaka University. Sir Ashutosh, however, yielded later when the Governor of Bengal was adamant about the expected university, and he agreed to make additional grants to the University of Calcutta. 

The opponents of the endorsed Dhaka University apprehended that the future university’s funding would slash the Calcutta University’s budget. The scarcely veiled Hindu bhadralok’s misgivings of the educationally empowered East Bengali Muslims was hard to ignore by the contemporary Bengali Muslim leaders. In early 1960s, while I was researching on the British Indian Legislature’s debates, I stumbled on the Dhaka University Act earlier passed in the central legislative council in Delhi in 1920. The antagonism to DU was so strong then in Calcutta (now Kolkata) that the British Indian government bypassed the Bengal Legislative Council and approved the DU Act in Delhi’s all-India legislative body. 

Sadly, the Dhaka University politics took a communal turn even before it was born. Those who opposed the proposed university e.g., Ashutosh Mukherjee, Rush Behari Ghosh and Surendranath Banerjeewere amongst the best-known Hindu elites. On the other hand, the energetic supporters of the expected university— Nawab Salimullah, Nawab Nawab Ali Chaudhuri, Nawab Shamsul Huda, A. K. Fazlul Huq (Fazlul Huq/Huq), Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah and Nawab Serajul Huq were among the prominent Muslim leaders of Bengal of that time. There is still an on-going debate if Rabindranath Tagore had really opposed the new university. Once the University started its intellectual journey in 1921, the maximum number of the teachers and students were Hindus, and a handful of exceptional ones like S. N. Bose and R.C. Majumdar moved to Dhaka from other parts of Bengal. Excluding the Muslim teachers in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Bengali departments, most faculty members were Hindus, with a sprinkling of foreign instructors and administrators. Muslim leaders hoped that the new institution of higher learning in Dhaka would be the gate opener to more Muslim students in East Bengal. But it took years, before more Muslim students crowded the first university in Dhaka. In his memoir (Jiban Jeman Dekhesi, ibid), Dr. R. H. Khandaker recalled that most Muslim students in 1940s concentrated in the Liberal Arts subjects. 

In the closing years of the 19th Century and the early decades of the 20th Century, the landowning Muslim khandans fell behind the Hindu bhadralok, both in education and professions. Nevertheless, the circumstances changed slowly when the Muslim ryots gradually moved towards higher education for their children— bit by bit, the rising number of Muslim students in the Dhaka University proved that point. Professor Abdur Razzaque, a widely respected Dhaka University faculty from the 1930s sporadically reminded us that merely the surplus Muslim farmers, with a cash flow from selling jute, could provide college education for their children. Abul Mansur Ahmed, the distinguished writer, activist, and politician carried similar views through his memoirs. 

To the Calcutta-concentrated Hindu elite, the Dhaka University’s trajectory of educating the East Bengali Muslims was wasteful; utmost of them were farmers, not particularly geared for higher education. Such stereotyped voices against the expected university in Dhaka are still alive in plentiful memoires and official records. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, when the Bengal Legislative Council slashed the Dhaka University’s budgets,  most cutback supporters were the Hindu legislators, and their opponents were typically the Muslim members. The undivided Bengal’s old legislative proceedings are replete with fierce debates between the Hindu and Muslim lawmakers over the DU’s annual budget allocations. (1)

While 80% of the DU’s faculty and students were non-Muslim for a couple of decades, the Hindu-Muslim impasse did not severely affect the quality of education—the Muslim students were respectful of their non-Muslim teachers. Dhaka University earned a popular reputation as the “Oxford of the East,” and Dhaka was still an attractive town for inexpensive and healthy life. A couple of biographies and remembrances of former students recorded their frustrations once the Hindu teachers, fearful of the intermittent sectarian conflicts, started moving to different parts of India in the mid-1940s. Paradoxically, the 1940s were also the years when the Dhaka University’s Muslim students were enthusiastically involved in the Pakistan movement; most of their teachers were still highly admired irrespective of their religious affiliations.

The Muslims of East Bengal had certain undeniable gains even when the Hindu educators led the new Dhaka University. Huge infrastructures changed the face of Dhaka from 1905 to 1911—the fresh Ramna area came under the new university since 1921. A couple other educational institutions were also located in Dhaka—in fact; the quiet district town became East Bengal’s educational nerve center. My father recalled that Purana Paltan, Wari, Rankin Street and Hatkhola areas became the new-fangled residential areas for the educated Hindu middle class—zamindars, talukdars, government officials, lawyers, doctors, educators, and retired officials. A limited number of Muslim professionals also moved to Dhaka in 1920s and 1930s. A group of university and college teachers established a Muslim Shahitya Samaj (1926)—a meeting ground of the Muslim academics and professionals of that time. Leading Muslim educationists like Dr. M. Shahidullah, (Sir) F. Rahman, Kazi Abdul Wadud, Kazi Motahar Hossian, (Khan Bahadur) Abdur Rahman Khan and Sultanuddin Ahmed, a lawyer associated with the Dhaka University since the 1920s, were engaged in intellectual debates and seminars. Sometimes, they held such meetings in their private homes. They authored deliberative essays/books urging more education and reforms for the Muslim society and they were popular among people. Dr. Shahidullah was an admired figure in the Muslim community in Dhaka. I remember his nameplate in front of a house near the Chowkbazar market although I am not sure if he was still living there in early 1950s. Because of the Dr. title prefacing his name, the local people in the vicinity often confused him as a physician and from time to time requested for medical treatment! – acquaintances of the neighborhood narrated to me in the past. I remember him performing a Waz at the corner of Chowkbazar. Sometimes in the middle of 1940s, he came to my high school at Kaliganj for a public lecture. Individuals like those academics, writers, lawyers, and social activists represented a new band of Muslim leaders in Dhaka—few of them were the scions of the old Nawabs. 

A new Muslim awareness— a combination of the domino effect of the 1905 episodes, existential pressure, religiosity, identity imagination, politics, a relative sense of deprivation, and a yearning for empowerment, was mounting among the Muslims in Colonial Bengal. Those  vibrations were more resolute in the reformed provincial legislature in Calcutta where the newly elected Muslim members gained prominence.(2) And yet, the Dhaka University’s stimulus towards the East Bengali Muslim emancipation is missing in the mainstream Bangladeshi saga. The slogging Muslim ascendancy through steady electoral expansion and a larger legislative enfranchisement made it possible for the Dhaka University’s founding in 1921. In the backdrop of  the Indian Congress Party’s opposition to the 1905 Bengal division and the Hindu bhadralok’s vehement hostility to it, the Muslims launched the Muslim League in Dhaka in 1906, an expected platform for their own voice. Furthermore, the 1909 separate electorate enhanced their legislative presence though it became the focal point of unyielding Hindu-Muslim bitterness. The emerging Muslim leaders, bracing the University of Dhaka, encountered a tough grind because of the Hindu intelligentsia’s continued resentment to it. 

Going back in the early 1920s, my father gave up dhoti, and was stuck with achkan, shirt, pajama, and the red fez on his head as the outside-home clothing for the rest of his active life. That wave of Muslim consciousness likewise heartened the Dhaka University’s Muslim students and faculty, and those remembrances still linger in popular recounts. From the late 1930s and into 1940s, the successive Provosts of the S. M. Hall instructed their Muslim students to give up dhoti, and most students complied gladly. One senior bureaucrat in Bangladesh wrote in his memoir (3) that the switch from dhoti to Muslim dress was one of the unforgettable experiences in finding his own identity in his life. Dr. M. Shahidullah, while a House Tutor of the S.M. Hall in the 1930s, urged the Muslim students to say their prayers regularly. In my recently published book, (4) I have a chapter on dress and identity in Colonial Bengal. Furthermore, I recited my senior colleagues’ reminiscences from late 1930s and 1940s—–the Muslim teachers and students often dashed to Chowk Bazar’s tailors to make their sherwani, and, sometimes, there were hilarious encounters between the haggling university teachers and the witty Dhakaiya tailors! 

Every institution is the product of its own dynamics —the University of Dhaka is no exception to this rule—-this article, an array of voices from the past, covers until I was working for that University (1970). Beyond the statistics of its graduates, delivered from 1921 to 1947, and again from 1947 to 1971, the University of Dhaka midwifed the greatest social transition among the Muslims in East Bengal’s overlooked districts. Its alumni and their cohorts moved out of a stagnant agricultural setting to the more educated and dynamic professional  hubs. Between the two World Wars, they fought the British Raj, and the educated human resources were critically useful to both post-Colonial Pakistan and India. Again, the students and ex-students of this institution led the Bangladeshi independence struggle against Pakistan in 1971, but none of those would have been viable without the educated workforce accomplished by the DU and the other educational institutions developed under its stewardship. The University of Dhaka is the mother of all other institutions of higher learning in East Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh. To deny that in any form would be historical memory loss! 

*M. Rashiduzzaman is a retired academic who taught at the University of Dhaka and Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey. Two of his most recent books include Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History, (Peter Lang, NYC, 2021) and The Central Legislature in British India: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj (Peter Lang, NYC, 2019). He has published  other books and peer-reviewed articles on British India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. 

Endnotes

  1.  See Asim Pada Chakraborty, Muslim Identity and Community Consciousness, Minerva, Calcutta, 1993. 
  2.  See also, Asim Pada Chakraborty, ibid.
  3.  Kishu Smriti and Kisu Dhriti byMahbubur Rahman, ibid.
  4.  M. Rashiduzzaman, Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History, ibid.

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