3 years ago

A university's politico-cultural identity

TSC is the cultural hub of Dhaka University
TSC is the cultural hub of Dhaka University

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The University of Dhaka's non-inclusion in most of the lists over the last three/four decades containing the names of the world's major universities may not be that unusual. To these list makers, mostly based in the industrialised countries, Bangladesh presents an image filled with a number of clichés --- poverty, natural calamities and political turmoil (lately1980-1990)  being the dominant ones. Due its being torn by prolonged fits of student violence, the turbulent universities had also done considerable damage to its reputation. Coming to Dhaka University, it had continued to lose its standards of academic activities and teaching. Still it deserved to be counted among the major universities in Asia. For, it could boast of an eventful history that had led to its birth in 1921. The now-defunct Asiaweek magazine acknowledged Dhaka University's distinctive place as it kept the institution in a list of 100 notable universities in the Asian continent. The list was published in the late-1980s and 1990s. With the century-old university preparing to celebrate its centenary next year, the academic circles in the country must be feeling eager to take a backward look at the university's past. Naturally, the process takes them to the landmark events of its birth that occurred against the volatile backdrop of the then Indian sub-continent's history. Few universities in the world have the distinction of witnessing such an eventful birth of a university. Apart from the then British colonial powers, the issue of setting up a university in Dhaka eventually sucked in the 'rival' politicians and the two largest political parties in the erstwhile Bengal. A lot of people may find in the objections to the establishment of the university the elements of 'narrow parochial interests'. But the decision is viewed by many historians as being more than the mere founding of a higher seat of learning in an academically backward region. To them, the university had to be viewed as a perfect seat of advanced academic activities of a formidably large community in the undivided Bengal. The British colonial masters gave their consent to the plan without delay.

It was because the eastern Bengal had already been made to be deprived of the planned benefits of the 1905 partition of Bengal. Moreover, after its annulment in 1911 in the face of vehement protests by a firebrand segment of the other community, the deprived people in the newly created East Bengal and Assam province were brought before a Hobson's choice of sorts. Since the partition plan had been dropped, they now had to remain satisfied with a university in Dhaka, or they would get nothing. This circuitous path finally took the people, especially those in eastern Bengal, to a fully fledged university.

In many respects, the Dhaka University witnessed its birth which had been shaped by the time's political realities, a larger part of which encouraged divisiveness. Ironically, this unique birth of the institution amid politicking came up as a blessing in disguise. Social historians would not be wrong to describe Dhaka University's march from 1921 onwards, as one spearheaded by an inherently politicised institution. To speak without mincing words, it had been veritably impossible to dissociate the institution's students from politics --- be it against the injustices meted out by the Pakistani rulers, or the ones centred on the demands for autonomy, and, eventually, independence through a War of Liberation. The creation of the independent and sovereign land of the Bengalees --- Bangladesh, would have remained a chimera had Dhaka University been not there.

Thirty-one years after its founding and unwavering engagement in academic activities, the university first stepped into the domain in politics in 1952. To call the Language Movement of 1952 just a political event amounts to belittling the great significance of the day. It was only five years after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. One year later at the first constituent assembly session in Karachi, the representative from East Pakistan --- Dhirendranath Datta demanded that Bangla be declared as one of the state languages of the new state. The Muslim League members at the assembly didn't oppose the demand outright, but there were murmurs of disapproval. In that very year, 1948, the students of Dhaka University became vocal in favour of Bangla and opposed the threatening assertion of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's Governor General, that "Urdu, and Urdu" should be the state language of Pakistan, and "no other language". The infuriated general students protested Jinnah's fiat at two venues --- at the then Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan), and at a convocation ceremony at Curzon Hall. The second protest was more forceful and organised. The protests later assumed the form of a spontaneous street movement organised by male and female university students in Dhaka on 21st February in 1952. This time it was joined by students of scores of other educational institutions. In the late noon that day, police opened fire on the unarmed students, killing approximately four. The protests and the killing spree continued also on the following day. The names of six martyrs were confirmed.

The following days saw series of condemnations, tumultuous debates and walkouts at the East Pakistan legislature in Dhaka. In a short time the central government of Pakistan declared Bangla as a state language alongside Urdu.

With the victory in the blood-smirched Language Movement, the University of Dhaka students and teachers had eventually made them integral to all future mass upsurges in East Pakistan. Those were destined, as part of the dynamics of history, to end in the great Liberation War of 1971. That the seeds of independence were sowed in February, 1952, with the Language Movement being led by the students of Dhaka University, is now etched in the country's history. Few universities in the world can rightfully lay claim to their direct contribution to the independence of their land occupied by a neo-colonial power. Dhaka University proved that deed with unalloyed courage and heroism that befits the Bengali nation.

At present the university has 37,018 students and 2,156 teachers. It boasts of the Faculties of the Arts; Science; Biological Science; Engineering Technology; the Fine Arts; Law; Medicine; Pharmacy; Social Sciences; Earth and Environmental Sciences; Education; Post-graduate Medical Sciences and Research faculties. Apart from the departments under different faculties, the university runs 15 allied institutes. Indisputably, Dhaka University at the moment is a vast seat of higher education. It was originally located at the present Dhaka Medical College Hospital and the High Court areas, to be shifted to the Nilkhet and the adjacent locations in the late 1960s.

Dhaka University's educational performance had all along been impressive. That was comparable to the feats of many other reputable universities in the Asia region. Thanks to the interference of governments with political ambitions and provocations by many other pseudo-political splinter political groups, it started entering its phase of decline. This process of deterioration began in the 1980s. It continued quite insidiously. Now that the university had played its due role in the nation's socio-political and cultural struggles, it ought to have returned to its curricular activities before long. But vested interests stood in its way. On being manipulated, a section of students were found indulging in excesses. Those were interspersed with a confrontational student politics and bouts of mindless violence. All this has contributed to tarnishing the glorious past of the university. In a grim twist of events, these developments have also threatened to make a mockery of its achievements. It was the revival of its vibrant cultural and literary activities that came to its rescue. Dhaka University presented itself as an ideal platform for these activities back in the 1960s.

Over a two dozen literary and cultural personalities emerged from the institution in that decade. The number nearly doubled in independent Bangladesh in the era of the 1970s. The University of Dhaka has witnessed the emergence of scientists, scholars, politicians and economists in its 100-year history. But its contribution to the nation's politico-cultural activism keeps it distinctive from the mythically famous Asian universities.

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