THE UNIVERSITY OF DHAKA: “Oxford of the East” or the “Mecca University?”

by M. Rashiduzzaman     29 November 2021

The patrons of the University Dhaka (then spelled as Dacca) steered the new institution with Oxford University’s academic model of a residential institution where the students would primarily live in the campus. And that move had strong reasons behind it. It was  a rebuff to the Calcutta University’s (CU) and the Calcutta-based bhadraloks sneer, suspicion, and often disdainful gestures to the very initiative of a fresh university in Dhaka, the first seat of highest learning in East Bengal’s rural and neglected region. In the Oxford standard, the students would learn in the classrooms as well as in their respective halls of residence with counselling from their provosts and house tutors, who would simultaneously be the university’s teachers as well. The concept of tutorial classes too came from Oxford University’s established practices.

The CU’s tiff clipped the Dhaka University’s (DU) affiliating wings—they did not span beyond the few colleges in Dhaka. Notwithstanding the slings and arrows against its very creation, the DU, albeit a small residential campus in its formative stage, became a flourishing seat of higher education. DU’s early institutional development resulted from an influx of qualified teachers, and administrators—they hailed from West Bengal and other parts of India and abroad. Professors like S.N.Bose and R.C. Majumdar earned international reputation in their respective disciplines, and other notable academics included Kalika R. Kanungo, Dr. M. Shahidullah, Sir A.F. Rahman, Naresh Gupta, and Dr. Mahmud Hasan, to name a few more reputable dons at that juncture. And yet, the newfound university fell short of the illustrious accomplishments of the legendary Oxford University. Before 1947, only a limited number of Muslim students could pay for the residential expenses of living in the University Halls, and the students’ financial constraints persisted well into the 1960s which I saw personally during my stints at the halls of residence.

Dhaka University’s public perception as the “Oxford of the East”—an enduring Utopia of academic distinction in Bangladesh—periodically thunders against the DU’s contemporary intellectual decline though the longstanding institution has expanded hugely in the number of students, teachers and academic disciplines compared to what it had achieved from 1921 to 1947, and again from 1947 to 1971. DU is no longer an educational hub anchored in a district town between the two World Wars. The country’s larger political and economic ordeals undoubtedly shake the students and teachers today, but the public expectations about the University of Dhaka every so often skyrocket far above those realities of Bangladesh.

While its admirers acclaimed the University of Dhaka as the “Oxford of the East” in its yore, its snappy opponents in the past smeared it as the so-called “Mecca University;” the scornful portrayal implied the university’s earlier trajectory of serving the agrarian Muslim-majority in East Bengal. Those labels, one boosting and the others so disparaging and offensive varied on who were those DU enthusiasts, who were its spiteful antagonists and when those hostile epithets descended on the only university in pre-1947 East Bengal.

One of his Dhaka College teachers (1915-19), my father recounted, caricatured the yet-to-be-launched university in Dhaka. He likened the future DU with a “pocket Oxford Dictionary!”  When he was a Dhaka College student, it was still under the Calcutta University, but the gossip about the forthcoming university in Dhaka was in the air, and his college professors habitually cracked jokes with their students about the awaited university. One or two of his professors derided the predicted academic institution more like a “pocket edition university!”—most likely, it implied a “small imitation” of Oxford University. One or two  of his teachers ridiculed that the university in Dhaka would be more of a “Mecca University!”— this taunt, however, echoed  the flurry of other anti-DU admonitions floating on the eve of that university’s debut in 1921. My father also recalled an anxiety among his teachers and fellow students that the intended university in Dhaka would dwarf the elder Dhaka College prestige. At the bottom of those spiteful depictions lay the billowing nostalgia about the Calcutta University; most Bengalis with higher education in those days graduated from that revered center of learning in India.

The Hindu community’s leaders who opposed the new university in Dhaka and, on the other end, its enthusiastic Muslim benefactors lived in the domains of two different insights: the Hindu bhadralok discerned the DU as a “colonial compensation” for the East Bengali Muslims since the government annulled the short-lived East Bengal province in 1911. Sadly, the controversy over the DU’s creation bequeathed a communal color to the new institution even before its initiation. In the wake of the earlier dissolution of the 1905 division of Bengal, the bhadralok’s dread of an empowered Muslim middle class in the East Bengali districts came to the fore with the proposed DU, and the tussle never ended in the pre-partition Bengal. The DU’s established academic stance continued in the post-Pakistan (1947-71) era when the University of Dhaka’s geo-politics changed profoundly. In its earlier epochs since 1921, most DU teachers, students, and administrators were either Hindus or Europeans, and for years the university’s demography did not change much. Still, the Kolkata (Calcutta)-based politicians deliberately reduced the DU’s budget from time to time— R.C. Majumdar (a respectable historian and the DU Vice Chancellor 1937-42) recalled  those events in his memoir. Whenever the Bengal Legislative Council slashed the DU budgets, the Hindu lawmakers backed those reductions and the Muslim legislators opposed them. Once the DU was established,  the Muslim students and Muslim teachers were still sparse in numbers for nearly two  decades. Historically, the Bengali Muslims were behind in higher education and professions in the British-controlled Bengal  for a range of reasons and circumstances beyond this paper’s defined scope. To encourage the young Muslim men and women for university degrees, there were special scholarships/financial support for them—it was, from time to time, a matter of dispute between the DU’s Hindu and Muslim policy makers and at the larger site of Calcutta-focused Bengal politics. The disadvantaged (Hindu) Scheduled Caste community’s students too received such educational stipends and special considerations for certain jobs.

Although the DU’s earlier anticipation was to promote higher education in Muslim-dominated East Bengal, the university, since its doors opened, was very much under the sway of the educated Hindu middle class until the 1947 Bengal partition. For years, the DU’s multiplier effects embellished the (Hindu) middle class in several ways; the bhadraloks were more advanced in education and professions while the DU had small numbers of Muslim students, teachers, and administrators in the campus. A large section of the educated Hindu bhadraloks who, after 1947, migrated to India also enriched the human resources in post-Colonial West Bengal/India.

Even though the Muslim leaders wanted more Muslim teachers at the DU, the reality was that abundant Muslim candidates did not have ample qualification to be teachers at the University level in those days. But other Hindu-Muslim sensitivities had occasionally cast their shadows over the DU campus. When (later Sir) A. F. Rahman became the DU’s Vice-Chancellor (VC) (1934-36), some people expressed their doubts. And those qualms ran like this—he did not have a Ph.D. (later DU gave A. F. Rahman an honorary doctorate in 1937 ), but still he became the VC because he was a Muslim, with political connections, and he received a special favor from the Bengal government that made the VC’s appointment. Another touchy issue hit the campus when the Hindu and Muslim students split over giving a large DU reception to A.K. Fazlul Huq after he became the Chief Minister of Bengal following the 1937 provincial elections. Personal recollections and memoirs including one autobiography by late Dr. A.R. Mullick (a scholar and a diplomat) gave a few details of that episode.

The DU’s earlier decades met with a growing sense of “Muslimness”—an amalgam of an emergent Muslim identity imagination, a sense of marginalization and a thirst for empowerment which expressed themselves distinctly. The new university planners proposed a strong Islamic Studies Department to meet the professed sentiment of East Bengal’s Muslim majority. Bickering over Bankim Chatterjee’s controversial “Vande Mataram,” sung as the Indian national anthem had as well flung its gloom on DU in the 1930s. Prevailing memoirs suggested that in the 1930s and 1940s, Muslim students frequently switched from dhoti to pajama, shirt, achkan/sherwani, and their mentors at the (Muslim) residential halls encouraged them to do so.

For my earlier research and more recent publications, I have gone through  a few chronicles of professionally successful DU graduates in the 1930s and 1940s; they suffered aggravations in the 1940s— sporadic stabbings in the town, and in the campus troubled the students and their parents worried for their dependents at the university. Those episodes, however, did not irrevocably decapitate the academic activities, but their toll on the teachers and students was hard to ignore. One of the worst bloodsheds in the campus, according to earlier students of the S.M. Hall, happened in February 1943, when Nazir Ahmed, a Pakistan movement activist died from knifing in the university grounds. Another student of S. M. Hall also died of a violent assault in the campus in early 1940s. However, in the second half of the 1940s, both before and after the 1947 partition, most  Hindu teachers had left Dhaka that created a vacuum in teaching. Subsequently, the communal incidents did not seriously affect the DU for long; bulk of the Hindu students and instructors had already moved out of Dhaka and relocated in Indian universities.

The new students and teachers who flocked the campus after 1947 had come from various social classes—wedges of the student population were not born or raised in East Bengal’s rural districts. Only a few Muslim teachers had Ph.D.’s in those days; some foreign teachers including a couple of non-Bengali Indian academics taught during the early 1950s. In the newly founded Pakistan, most DU graduates had different choices across the employment spectrum. With restricted promotions to higher ranks in academic professions, the University/college jobs were comparatively stagnant. Limited scholarships were then available for higher studies abroad, which, of course, rapidly increased in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, the flight of the reputable Hindu teachers, for a while, upset the university’s old reputation until the late 1950s and early 1960s when younger teachers, with higher degrees, joined the university that surely improved the University’s academic standing. Although, bulk of the Hindu students had already left the university, there was a flood of Muslim students from the outlying districts and also those Muslim pupils who moved from Calcutta and other parts of India. In the transformed location, the old specter of Hindu-Muslim conflicts no longer haunted the DU campus.

Maximum number of the DU students and teachers supported the anti-colonial campaign during the British Raj. Dhaka was once the nucleus of Swadeshi activities, which had their backers among the DU students and their tutors. Corresponding to different informants, the anti-British Swadeshi recruits came from the educated Hindu middle class. In the 1960s, I knew only one elderly Muslim who, in his youth, took part in Colonial Bengal’s anti-British rebel activities. The political scenario had, no doubt, altered during the mounting Pakistan movement in the 1940s. Highest number of Muslim students and teachers bolstered the demand for Pakistan, a Muslim-majority separate state. In the 1940s, the S.M. Hall’s Muslim student leaders followed the so-called Muslim League politics according to copious reports, documents, and anecdotes. A group of DU Muslim students published a weekly magazine called Pakistan four years before Pakistan was a reality in 1947.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the University of Dhaka had a paradigm shift!—gradually, most students and their teachers no longer faced the Colonial Bengal’s erstwhile imperatives. “The Muslim majority in Bengal,” according to a reputed South Asia history scholar John Broomfield, was a “neglected” community, and the Muslims of the eastern districts of Bengal was in a dire backward stage of education and profession. Since 1947, the eastern wing of Pakistan no longer faced the earlier bumps that preoccupied the Muslims in Colonial Bengal; for example, DU no longer confronted the earlier budgetary cuts by the unsympathetic politicians in Calcutta. DU’s old anchors gave way to its new dynamics.

The prior disputes that stirred Muslim politicians, civic leaders, academics, and students in Colonial Bengal—-a relative sense of deprivation of the Muslim community and its existential issues, the Hindu bhadralok-driven Muslim marginalization, the zamindars and money-lenders’ exploitation of the Muslim ryots, identity imagination and a longing for emancipation —were no longer the movers and shakers of post-1947 East Pakistan politics. In the new backdrop, the state language status for Bengali, inter-wing relations between Pakistan’s geographically separated two parts, resistance to military regimes, the eastern wing’s disparities, and allocation of more resources for East Pakistan became the hot button issues; indeed, the students as well as the academics rallied more over those grounds. The University of Dhaka gradually became more of a “center for resistance” against the government’s intransigence towards the articulated grievances. The earlier Hindu-Muslim questions were no longer at the heart of emerging politics in East Pakistan. Communal clashes between the Hindus and Muslims sharply dropped. The last major sectarian rioting in Dhaka and the neighboring precincts took place in 1964; according to most available reports, the DU teachers, students and civil society leaders worked hard to stop that brief communal violence.

The East Pakistan Muslim League, the largest party in power since 1947, steadily waned after its catastrophic defeat in 1954. Major opposition parties, more liberal in outlook, needed the student groups in street agitations— hartal-thumping protests became the acknowledged tool of redressing the academic and political grievances. The politicians did not worry if high politicization in the universities/colleges would undercut their academic quality. The non-religious and liberal voices had the upper hand in the campuses where the Islamic student groups, and their parallel allies were more on the peripheries. So, there was little scope of DU becoming a “communal pit” in post-1947 East Pakistan except that the overwhelming number of students, teachers and administrators were Muslims while the number of Hindu students and teachers continued to drop.

The few minority undergraduates I had as my students were committed in their pursuits and the remains of the Hindu teachers earned respects form their students and colleagues. Partly a strong liberal arts tradition in DU, the students were still enthusiastic about debates, recitation, dramas, and readings well beyond their textbooks; those performances were non-communal. Once in the 1960s, there was a dispute over Rabindra Nath Tagore’s poems and songs, but they were still popular among the students and teachers in the campus. Socialist ideologues among the students and teachers aligned with the leftist National Awami Party (NAP) with the pro-Soviet and pro-Beijing factions under its banner. Both the Awami League (AL) and the NAP and their respective student fronts had activists from the minority communities. Even the so-called Madhu’s restaurant occasionally came alive with political debates where the students crossed their intellectual swords with each other over cups of tea! To know and talk about Karl Marx, Lenin and Mao was a marker for  a “progressive” student or an accomplished teacher!


DU was not at the level of Oxford, but it was neither a “Mecca University!”— as bleakly portrayed earlier by its antagonists. All the fears, accusations and negative depictions were harmful exaggerations that spiked the lingering Hindu-Muslim conflicts beyond the DU grounds during the inter-war years. More to the point, DU was never a “communal pit” exclusively serving the Muslim interests,  and it was not a “Mecca University” in the no-so-veiled derogatory drift. Colonial Bengal’s Muslim politicians’ demands for additional Muslim teachers and more funding for Muslim students were the affirmative steps for the toiling Muslim community in the eastern corners of Bengal. Their existential bids helped to build an educated and professional middle class in the overlooked districts of East Bengal that later became East Pakistan and independent Bangladesh in 1971. Since 1947, the DU had new anchors with fresh voices;  the symphony of those encounters will come from diverse chroniclers in different forums. Such narratives interspersed with individual experiences and historical details offer the readers a vibrant portrait of the long-lost era—the bedrocks of national consciousness!

Author’s Note: A retired academic, M. Rashiduzzaman, Ph.D. taught first at the University of Dhaka and later at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey. This account of Dhaka University, drawn from varied sources,  journeyed through its historical roots, and then it also hauled from the author’s observations and own involvements first as a student (1953-57) and then as a teacher from 1958 to 1970. During that tenure, the author also stinted as a House Tutor of the DU’s S.M. Hall for four years (1964-68) and then briefly served (1969-70) as the Provost of Jinnah Hall (now Surja Sen Hall). His recently published books are (a) Identity of a Muslim Family in Colonial Bengal: Between Memories and History, Peter Lang, NYC 2021, and (b) The Central Legislature in British India 1921-47: Parliamentary Experiences under the Raj, Peter Lang, NYC 2019.


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