The Financial Express

Dhaka University: The nucleus of exploration of Bengali nationalism

| Updated: July 01, 2021 22:50:05

Dhaka University Arts Faculty Building premise with landmark sculpture Aparajeo Bangla.           —Photo Collected Dhaka University Arts Faculty Building premise with landmark sculpture Aparajeo Bangla.           —Photo Collected

Dhaka University officially began its journey on July 01, 1921. Unfortunately, the ongoing Corona crisis has hindered our ability to celebrate the birth centenary of our alma mater with the enthusiasm it deserves. At the same time, we are highly distressed over the fact that the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation could not be celebrated in a joyous atmosphere either. Moreover, we are not able to celebrate the golden jubilee of Bangladesh's independence as we have been dreaming of. Thanks to the unprecedented development of digital technology following the visionary move of HPM Sheikh Hasina to achieve 'Digital Bangladesh', we can now observe these three 'milestones' at least 'virtually'. Limited in-person programmes have also been planned and some already observed.

Undoubtedly, Dhaka University is the fountainhead of Bengali nationalism. In Bangabandhu's own words, "My Bangla, my culture, my civilisation, my sky, my air, my history - these are the elements that make the nationalism of my Bangla. My Bangla's struggle, my Bangla's heritage, and blood create my Bengali nationalism." (Speech in the Constituent Assembly on the draft constitution on October 12, 1972; see Dr. AH Khan's 'Selected Speech of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu, Ekattar Prakashani, 2011, p.97). The best practice of exploring our self-identity took place at the Dhaka University campus. Therefore, "Most of the important events of the freedom struggle of Bangladesh were organised in Dhaka University. And most of the heroes of this freedom struggle were students of this university." (Rafiqul Islam, Dhaka University's Contribution to the Freedom Struggle of Bangladesh, Dhaka University - Special supplement published on August 15, 1975, on the occasion of the arrival of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu, p. 81).

BRIEF HISTORY: After the partition of Bengal in 1905, a positive atmosphere developed in East Bengal, mainly for fulfilling the greater aspirations of the middle class, particularly the emerging Muslim middle class. However, after the annulment of the Partition of Bengal in 1911, the emerging middle class of the region was left with deep frustration and despair. In particular, the Muslim leadership led by Nawab Salimullah met the Viceroy Lord Hardinge during his visit to Dhaka in 1912 and put their demand for establishing Dhaka University to quell this anguish of the people of East Bengal. And the ball started rolling towards the creation of this university. Given this background, the unique role it has been playing ever since as the breeding ground for the renaissance of the people of this region cannot be denied.

Alaknanda Patel, daughter of Professor Amiya Kumar Dasgupta, an early student of Dhaka University and a teacher in the Department of Economics, drew a touching image of Dhaka University after hearing about its heydays from her father, her father's colleagues, and her own research. She quotes an autobiographical essay by her father's friend Parimal Roy: "... Every evening, something is happening somewhere in the university - sometimes a debate, sometimes a drama, somewhere a seminar, somewhere a lecture. I used to think-- what a grand arrangement, just for teaching us!" ((Patel, Alaknanda, 'Prithibir Pathe Hente', Bengal Publications, 2017, pp. 92). Undoubtedly, the period 1921-47 was the golden age of Dhaka University. Although many teachers left Dhaka after the partition, the University continued to follow the trend of attracting talented academics for many years to come. That the university could attract Rabindranath Tagore just within five years of its establishment who gave a couple of talks on contemporary socio-political and governance issues on February 10 and 13 in 1926 speaks a volume about its excellent moral strength and intellectual prows. This is the same University which had the reputation and ability to provide Doctor of Literature (D.Lit.) to personalities like Sir Abdur Rahim, Sir Jagodish Chandra Basu, Sir Prafulla Chandra Roy, Sir Jadunath Sarker, Sir Mohammad Iqbal, Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, among others. No doubt, the teachers and students of this university protested government's myopic decision of banning Tagore songs in the public media in early 1960s.

IN FREEDOM MOVEMENT: Besides contributing to excellent academic achievements, the teachers and students of this university were at the forefront of movements against the British colonial oppression, and later against the neo-colonial Pakistani ruling class. Soon after the establishment of Dhaka University, a significant section of the students pursued revolutionary activities for the liberation of their homeland. (Compiled and edited by Rangalal Sen et al. 'Liberation War of Bangladesh: Contribution of Dhaka and Kolkata University', UPL, 2018, p.15). Many students were associated with revolutionary Anil Roy and Leela Roy's respective organisations 'Sri-Sangha' and 'Deepali Sangha'. Many teachers also patronisd them. Moreover, Dhaka University was also the birthplace of the 'Buddhir Mukti Andolan' (Freedom of Intellect Movement). This tradition of free-thinking and pro-liberation intellectual activities had inspired the teachers and students of Dhaka University to join the subsequent democratic movements.

More significantly, the role of the teachers and students of Dhaka University in the language movement has been the brightest chapter in Bangladesh's history. On September 15, 1947, Dhaka University-centric cultural organisation Tamuddun Majlish issued a pamphlet titled 'Pakistaner Rashtra Bhasha: Bangla Na Urdu?' (Pakistan's State Language: Bengali or Urdu?) where the authors, Kazi Motahar Hossain, Abul Mansur Ahmed and Principal Abul Kashem made a strong case for introducing Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan. Meanwhile, an educational conference held in Karachi from November 27 to December 4, 1947, passed a resolution to make Urdu the lingua franca of Pakistan. The Dhaka University students and teachers marched towards the official residence of East Bengal Chief Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin in protest.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then law student of Dhaka University, emerged as a front-line leader from the very beginning of the language movement. On March 11, 1948, he was arrested along with some other student leaders when they were participating in the strike to observe the 'Bangla Language Day' programme. The detainees including Sheikh Mujib were released on March 15. Sheikh Mujib presided over the student meeting held on March 16 at Amtala. At a civic reception on March 21, Jinnah mentioned that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan. On March 24, he also mentioned the same at the special convocation speech at Carzon Hall in the university. The students immediately protested the announcement.

Meanwhile, Bangabandhu was arrested for taking a strong stand in favour of the class iv employees of Dhaka University. He was later expelled from the university as he refused to sign a bond pleading guilty. From 1949 to 1952, Sheikh Mujib was in jail for protesting the oppressive activities of the government. He was still in jail in 1952 when there were police shootings on the language movement activists. Even though he could not physically participate in the most explosive part of the language movement, he maintained communications with activists and leaders of the movement while receiving treatment from Dhaka Medical College hospital as an inmate. Consequently, he was transferred from the hospital to the central jail and later, to the Faridpur Jail where he began his planned hunger strike to push the demand of giving Bengali the status of a state language. Amidst such dire circumstances came February 21, 1952 and cemented its place in our history. Many people, including a few students of Dhaka University, were martyred that day, raising the stake of the language movement higher than ever before.

The influence of the language movement was well-felt in mainstream politics. We are aware of the outstanding role of Bangabandhu and his co-leaders, who had previously steered the language movement, behind the landslide victory of the United Front in the provincial elections of 1954. Unfortunately, the United Front government formed after that landslide victory was overthrown in just a few days by central intervention. Sheikh Mujib was the only minister in this government who had to go to jail.  General Ayub Khan imposed Martial Law and declared himself President of Pakistan in October 1958. Sheikh Mujib was thrown into jail again.

In the sixties, Bangabandhu got out of jail and formed a powerful movement in favour of his proposed six points. Consequently, the Pakistani military junta imprisoned him again. During this period, students and teachers of Dhaka University formed a strong movement against the regional discrimination of Ayub's regime. These students eventually incorporated Bangabandhu's six points into their more intense eleven-point movement. As Bangabandhu was falsely accused and arrested in the Agartala conspiracy case, a mass uprising took place under the leadership of the students of Dhaka University demanding Mujib's swift, unconditional release. After liberating Sheikh Mujib, the student leaders led by DUCSU Vice-President Tofael Ahmed conferred on him the title Bangabandhu.

The Ayub regime fell apart within a short period. Commander-in-chief of the army General Yahya Khan took over the power and promptly imposed martial law across the country. After much ado, he announced national elections. The students of Dhaka University actively participated in the election campaign and helped raise mass awareness in favour of the six-point programme given by Bangabandhu. In the election, the Awami League scored a historic victory. With this result, Bangabandhu achieved a remarkable moral victory as well. The Pakistani ruling class called the Constituent Assembly, only to postpone it abruptly. In protest, the non-cooperation movement began. Bangabandhu was the undisputed commander of that movement. On March 7, 1971, he essentially declared the independence of Bangladesh at the Ramna Racecourse maiden which is next to the university. In retaliation, the Pakistani rulers weaved a sinister, barbaric plan called 'Operation Searchlight'. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan military launched a vicious, unprovoked attack on the innocent people of Dhaka, brutally killing thousands of people overnight. In the face of a genocide, Bangabandhu formally declared the independence of Bangladesh in the early hours of March 26.

At Bangabandhu's call, the students of Dhaka University jumped into the battlefield without hesitation. The teachers did not stay away either. Apart from India, they formed a public opinion in favour of the liberation war in the United Kingdom, the United States, and various countries in Europe. In a sense, the entire Mujibnagar government consisted of the alumni of Dhaka University. Their contribution to the war field is immeasurable. Many teachers, students, and staff of Dhaka University lost their lives on the horrific night of March 25. Everyone's favorite Madhu Da was also killed in the carnage. Subsequently, many students of this university were martyred on the battlefield in 1971. Many lost limbs and bore the scars of the war for the rest of their lives. Breaking all conventions, the female students of Dhaka University directly participated in the liberation war, fighting on the frontlines. Many talented academics and intellectuals were martyred in a series of targeted attacks right before the end of the war when Bangladesh's victory was imminent. Unfortunately, some teachers and students of Dhaka University joined the Pakistani aggressors and participated in the ruthless torturing and even killing of our dear teachers throughout the nine months of the war. This dark chapter will surely find a place in the history of Dhaka University.

AFTER INDEPENDENCE: In post-1971 Bangladesh, the teachers and students of Dhaka University continued to make remarkable contributions to the nation-building work. The Planning Commission formed soon after independence was headed by the teachers of Dhaka University. Almost all the secretaries were alumni of this university, so were most of the governors of Bangladesh Bank. Teachers and students of Dhaka University are still contributing significantly towards building Bangladesh. Most of the entrepreneurs who have played significant roles in Bangladesh's economic development are also alumni of Dhaka University. Many a time, these prominent alumni have built large institutions of social development. These alumni are now providing important financial and moral support to the University of Dhaka through the Alumni Association. This trend needs to be further strengthened.

There is no denying that the quality of education in our university has fallen considerably compared to our glorious past. Our research funding is meagre. It is difficult for many students to pay for their education. Teachers lack the necessary incentives for doing research and publishing their works. Frustration about the low quality of education is prevalent at the national level. Covid-19 has further accentuated the crisis in our education sector. Its shadow must have fallen on Dhaka University as well. However, if our policymakers, academics, parents, students, and alumni want, it is possible to brighten up the outlook of the university so dear to our hearts. In our development journey, Dhaka University surely has all the potential to be the source of our national capability. With that optimism, let me congratulate all the teachers, students, employees, and alumni on this auspicious first day of the birth centenary of Dhaka University.


Dr Atiur Rahman is Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University and a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank.

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