An old story for a new time

January 05, 2020

An old story for a new time

Among the flurry of e-messages (including a surprise “phishing” one), there was one worthy nugget available in my year-ending inbox: a random warning about not writing the year 2020 in short format. For instance, if one writes just “20” at the end, after the month and date, others can easily change it to “2019” to suit their convenience. The presupposition is that there are many potential fraudsters. It is better not to leave your date open to others; any rubbing out of a tinder-dry date can set it to fire. A date, as a unit of history—related to the Spanish word historia implicating both history and stories—are susceptible to changes. Unless you set it right, others can set it off course.

As we are approaching a historic milestone, the idea of protecting and preserving our hi(story) has become pithier than ever. For us, 2021 will be a momentous occasion when an institution will celebrate its Jubilee year and join in to share the Golden Jubilee of the birth of the country. The University of Dhaka will reach 100, while the People’s Republic of Bangladesh its 50 years of independence. The alignment of their celebrations next year is no coincidence.

It is only befitting that this year has been named after an alumnus of the University, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It is the university campus where “Mujib” first made his mark by standing by the university’s disenfranchised fourth-class employees and eventually morphed into the Father of the Nation by leading an entire nation to independence. Bangabandhu’s story is part of a larger history, and each story has its own place and pace in the grand scheme of things. Avoiding one or creating a void can make our history vulnerable.

The doubts and confusions that I share are as old as the institution and the country, if not older. Dacca University was seen as an imperial gift for the Muslims, much to the resentment of the upper- and middle-class Hindu populace who were already reaping from the benefits of the University in Calcutta; an education system that had solidified their middle class. No wonder, protests against the establishment of Dhaka University came from none less than the most emphatic figure of Indian Higher Education Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, the vice chancellor of Calcutta University. The story that we have been told is that the planned university in Dhaka was a device to divide a culturally and linguistically homogenous group in religious terms primarily for the sake of administrative convenience of the British so that they could defuse the nationalistic agitation and prolong their rule.

A scheme to divide Bengal and strengthen the Muslim majorities of Assam was carried out by Lord Curzon in 1905. The immediate aim was to turn Hindus into a minority in a province including the whole of Bihar and Orissa. This was seen as an attempt to strangle nationalism, but ended up adding fuel to the fire. The Partition of Bengal was annulled in 1911; however, the Muslims who were teased with a development narrative resulting from the Partition needed some sort of compensation. On January 31, 1912, a delegation led by Nawab Sir Salimullah, Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury and Sher-e-Bangla A K Fazlul Huq met Viceroy Lord Hardinge and petitioned for a university in Dhaka. A 13-member committee led by Sir Robert Nathaniel was formed who recommended the inception of a university. Based on which Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury moved a bill in the Imperial Legislative Council, leading to the commencement of the university on July 1, 1921.

Dhaka University is thus an imperial gift. Ironically, it later became the site that resisted imperialism along with its paraphernalia as it witnessed, first, the inglorious exit of the British, and, then, of the Pakistani rulers. Ever since, it has been at the pivot of all cultural practice and identity. Dhaka stood tall against the British ploy of weakening the anti-colonial spirit in the region through poking communal sentiments.

With communal tension brewing at the national boundary and the issue of Assam resurfacing once again, it is important to revisit the story of the birth of DU to detect how it shaped our intellectual, cultural and political milieu. A close look at the events may even suggest that the government of Bengal was sincere enough in establishing a university of world repute. The appointment of P J Hartog as the first vice chancellor is a case in point. The university offered a lucrative pay package of Tk 1000 – Tk 1800 for professors, which was double the amount the university teachers were receiving in Kolkata. The annual budget of Dhaka University was Tk five lac which was only Tk one lac for Kolkata. Naturally, Kolkata suspected the extra perks as a challenge for its existence. A rift between the Hindu intellectuals who joined the university at a nascent stage and those who were teaching in Kolkata ensued. Historian R C Majumdar hinted it in many of his pieces.

In a souvenir published in 1974 on the occasion of paying tribute to the teachers who left Dhaka University and was settled in Kolkata, Prof Majumdar mentioned an interesting anecdote. He wrote that Sir Ashutosh agreed to stop protesting against the establishment of Dacca University in exchange of four chaired professors in Kolkata. Viceroy Lord Hardinge told him point blank, “I am going to build this university in any way. So just tell me what will stop you from objecting to the project?” (Amader Shei Dhaka Viswabidyalaya p.27). Prof Mukherjee in response asked for the creation of four professorial chairs at Kolkata.

The annulment of the Partition of Bengal also left many abandoned buildings, and there was another round of muscle-flexing between the civil servants and university teachers over their occupancy. Once Provash Mitra became Education Minister, he billed Dhaka University for the buildings that were built for white officers, thereby squeezing the university’s fund (Tk 55 lakh at that time) and restricting it from hiring overseas faculty members.

The University, however, maintained a heightened academic spirit and rose above petty communalism. The university was fortunate to have the stellar presence of Dr C L Wrenn (English), Dr K S Krishnan (Physics) , R C Majumadar (History), Satyendranath Bose (Physics), Budhhadev Bose (English), Dr Muhammad Shahidullah (Sanskrit), A F Rahman (History), Naresh Sengupta (Law) and many others in its teaching fold. This group of talented teachers made education the religion for students who later succeeded in their respective fields.

Today Curzon Hall has become the symbol of the colonial days of Dhaka University. But as we move towards the celebration of history, we also need to pause to look at the different narrative junctures that build up historia. Curzon’s ploy to “divide and rule” and to make Bengal a “communal cockpit” got shadowed under the light of education. His evil schemes worked for some time and even unleashed violence (details of which I cannot put here). But that too is part of the university’s glorious history, and is tied to the birth of the country. It is the duty of the academics to make sure that the missing links of history are pointed out through substantial research and academic reflection. Any partial representation of culture will make us repeat the same mistake that the university saw in its originary moments. As we begin to write our date in 2020, we may as well give it some form of completion so that our next generation is not as confused as we were in the past.


Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.


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