The first three decades of Dhaka University during the British era were quite eventful. These are encapsulated here in the following paragraphs based on recollections of various luminaries associated with the university.
INITIAL YEARS: The Dhaka University faced many governmental obstacles after its formal founding on July 1, 1921. The fourth vice-chancellor of the university (1937-42) Dr Ramesh Chandra Majumdar had mentioned in his memoir that the first education minister of Bengal Prabhash Chandra Mitra was hostile towards the new university at the very outset. After becoming minister, he ordered reduction of salaries for Dhaka University teachers, and the university was powerless to do anything about that as it could not spend any public money without the sanction of Bengal government and the legislative council. Dhaka University had a reserve fund of Taka five million during its inception. But the Bengal government deducted that sum against the land and buildings awarded to the university, and allocated only Taka 500 thousand per year for running it. As a result, the salary of teachers had to be cut.
In the souvenir titled 'That Dhaka University of Ours' published on the occasion of reunion of former students of Dhaka University at Kolkata in 1974, Dr Ramesh Chandra Majumdar reminisced about the university and recalled, "The main reason for the initial complexities was that the Hindus were against Dhaka University, and the education minister lacked sympathy for East Bengal as he hailed from West Bengal. The educated Hindu class of Dhaka also did not look at Dhaka University in a positive light. All the Hindu professors and readers who served there came from outside Dhaka; so the local Hindus could never tolerate their fat salaries or residences in such big houses. A professor once asked an eminent Hindu leader of Dhaka, 'If we did not occupy these houses, would the government have allowed you to stay here? Why are you so jealous of us then?' The Muslims did not oppose the Hindu teachers. But they sought appointment of as many Muslims as possible to the posts of lecturers - even when there were better-qualified Hindus. But they generally supported the appointment of professors and readers based on qualifications. Many teachers of the university were ex-officio members of the University Court, and many Hindus were also its members; it would not have been an exaggeration if they were termed as the opposition. Dr Naresh Chandra Sengupta was the spokesperson of teaching members, and I had to fight with the opposition Hindu group at court meetings. For this reason, the Hindu civic leaders of Dhaka were not much pleased with me. But as the Muslims supported the Hindu teachers during court meetings, it was not possible to pass any resolution that harmed the teachers or anything related to university education".
COMMUNAL HARMONY AND BONHOMIE: In his essay titled 'That Dhaka University of Ours', the former teacher of English department at Dhaka University Professor Profulla Kumar Guha recalled that Dhaka University became famous as an ideal institution among the Indian universities within 15-16 years of its establishment. But it had to face serious adverse circumstances at the very outset. The learned society of Dhaka considered this new university as an impediment to higher education in Dhaka. There were choruses: 'They have killed a good college (Dhaka College) to make a bad university'. On the other hand, the government had a profound political motive behind setting up this university. It wanted to turn this educational institution into a 'communal cockpit' by arranging special facilities for the Muslim teachers and students. But the enmity and doubts of Dhaka's citizenry and the ill-motive of the government were soon dissipated through the magic touch of the university's teachers and administrators. It was fortunate for Dhaka University that the people who ran the university at the initial stage had that pure academic spirit and mind-set that was most liberal and free from communal parochialism. Under their direction, the new university became a sacred temple of learning. In their eyes, there was no difference between Hindu and Muslim students. They imparted lessons neutrally by showing equal sympathy and love for all students".
"Because of this noble resolve displayed by them, a bond of cordiality and friendship also grew among the Hindu and Muslim students. Teachers like A F Rahman, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Gyan Ghosh, Muhammad Shahidullah, Naresh Sengupta et al made this impossible task possible through the impact of their liberalism and personality. The special opportunities and facilities offered to the Muslim teachers and students did not evoke any jealousy among the Hindu teachers and pupils. The Hindu teachers discharged their responsibilities with a missionary spirit. They and Hindu administrators took up the task of extending help to the creation of a middle class among the Muslims by tutoring the Muslim students, as higher education was scarce among that community. The Muslim students who were illumined through education at Dhaka University laid the foundation of a Muslim middle class. Previously, there was no middle class in the Muslim society. Therefore, creation of this middle class was a historically significant contribution of Dhaka University".
Teachers belonging to both Muslim and Hindu communities deserve credit for the non-communal environment that prevailed from the very beginning at Dhaka University. For example, Profulla Kumar Guha wrote about the first provost of Muslim Hall and the first Muslim Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, "Mr Hartog's most important appointment was the posting of A F Rahman as the first provost of Salimullah Muslim Hall. Due to the influence of Mr A F Rahman, who had a great liberal personality devoid of communal narrow-mindedness, no anti-Hindu thinking could enter the minds of the Muslim students".
In his essay titled 'In the memory-lamp of life', the former provost of Jagannath Hall and former vice-chancellor of Dhaka University Dr Ramesh Chandra Majumdar wrote about the conduct of Muslim members at the Dhaka University Court and Executive Council (present-day senate and syndicate). He recalled, "Although many unpleasant incidents occasionally took place with regard to the appointment of teachers and students, the Muslim members did not hinder any other matter of the university. The subject of examination may be cited as an example. They never tried to show any partiality for Muslim students in this regard. The renowned political leader Nazimuddin, belonging to the Nawab family of Dhaka, had a brother named Shahabuddin. The latter's son appeared in the Honours examination of history, but did not get Honours for shortage of a few marks. At that time, many Hindu and Muslim teachers and even some outsiders claimed that such a happening would have been impossible at Calcutta University. In reality, Dhaka University had an excellent reputation with regard to examinations. And I had conviction that the principles and standards that were set at Dhaka University in this area were rare in many other universities of our land. That anyone had lobbied for succeeding in examination or increasing the marks was unheard of in Dhaka University".
A former student of the English department of Dhaka University as well as ex-teacher of English at Dhaka, Calcutta and Aligarh Muslim University and eminent litterateur Dr Amalendu Basu had written in his essay 'Unforgettable' about the communal environment of Dhaka University before the partition of India. He wrote, "Just as the press termed Dhaka University as 'Oxford of the East', similarly it was called the 'Mecca of the East', that is, it was mainly the educational institution of the Muslims. But for a long time, the proportion of Hindu teachers and students at Dhaka University was more than that of the Muslims. During my student and teaching life between 1926 and 1948, I never saw any shrinkage of the non-Muslims in sports, education and social life of the university. But there were special financial aids for encouraging the Muslim students to study, similar to the ones for scheduled caste Hindus. During my student life, I recall that apart from the teachers of Urdu, Arabic and Farsi departments, there were only three Muslim teachers at the university. They were A F Rahman (later Sir Ahmad Fazlur Rahman and third vice-chancellor of Dhaka University) of history, Mahmud Hasan of English department, and Muhammad Shahidullah of Bengali and Sanskrit department. They were ranked very high in the areas of education and knowledge not because of their Muslim identity, but because of their extraordinary merit…. My life was very intimately intertwined with Dhaka University during my 22 years as a student cum teacher there. During that long period, I never saw anyone being given extra honour because of his religion in examinations, sporting arena, or debate competitions. In the contests for excellence, there were no Hindus or Muslims, but only the outstanding youths".
The non-communal atmosphere conducive for free thinking that existed at Dhaka University during the decades of 1920s and 1930s was evident from the preface of the Rabindra Award-winning (1373 BS) book 'Rajsthan Kahini' (1372 BS) written by the former professor of Islamic History at Dhaka University and renowned historian Kalika Ranjan Kanungo. He wrote, "I have taught my Hindu-Muslim students about the religion of Islam and the history of Khelafat for almost 21 years (1927-48), and received kudos for showing reverence for the Hazrat Rasulullah during the Milad Sharif prayers".
CULTURAL AND LITERARY SETTING: There were healthy cultural activities at Dhaka University since its very birth because of the non-communal environment that existed from its inception. A glimpse of the cultural environment of Dhaka University can be obtained from the visit of Poet Rabindranath Tagore to Dhaka at the invitation of the university in February 1926 and his speeches on 'The Meaning of the Art' on February 10, and 'The big brand the complex' on February 13 delivered at Curzon Hall. Rabindranath expressed his original views on fine arts in those events. He was scheduled to be accorded receptions by the three residential halls - Salimullah Muslim Hall, Jagannath Hall, and the Dhaka Hall. But he could attend only the Muslim Hall reception because of his illness. Dhaka University also honoured the novelist Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay. None of the universities had awarded any honorary degree to him as he did not have any formal academic recognition. But Dhaka University honoured him by awarding the honorary D Lit degree in August 1936. These events demonstrated the non-communal atmosphere that prevailed at Dhaka University during the 1920s and 1930s, although Dhaka city witnessed many communal riots between 1926 and 1946.
Beyond formal education and research, the most important development at Dhaka University during the 1920s was the practice of free-thinking and liberal views by the young Muslim teachers and students of the university. In fact, the free-thinking movement of the Bangali Muslim community was launched from the Dhaka University campus. The 'Muslim Sahitya Samaj' (Muslim Literary Society) was founded at a meeting chaired by Professor Muhammad Shahidullah at the Salimullah Muslim Hall Union room on January 19, 1925. This society arranged ten annual conferences at Dhaka University from 1927 to 1936. The tenth conference was presided over by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay. The activities of Dhaka-based progressive writers and artists led by the 'Pragati Lekhak O Shilpi Sangha' (Progressive Writers and Artists' Association) - founded in Dhaka in 1939 - also flourished up to 1949 centring on the Dhaka University campus.
DECADE OF 1940S: During the 1940s, a majority of the Muslim teachers and students of Dhaka University were supporters or activists of the Pakistan Movement. Due to the influence of this movement, the East Pakistan Renaissance Society was formed in Kolkata in 1942. The convener of this organisation was journalist Mujibur Rahman Khan, and his associates included journalist cum litterateur Abul Kamal Shamsuddin and Abul Mansur Ahmad. The ideals of the Renaissance Society were the inauguration of national renaissance, literary fruition of Pakistanism, holding scientific and intellectual discussions on Pakistan, and resisting the anti-Pakistan viewpoint in literature.
The 'East Pakistan Sahitya Sangsad' (East Pakistan Literary Council) was founded centring on DU campus in 1942, as a cultural organisation rooted in the two-nation theory of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that supported the Pakistan movement. The chairman of the council was Syed Sajjad Hossain, while its secretary was Syed Ali Ahsan. The first annual conference of this council was held at Salimullah Muslim Hall in 1943, where the chairman of Kolkata-based Renaissance Society Abul Kalam Shamsuddin was the chief guest. The council accorded reception to poet Kaikobad in 1944. Its mouthpiece was the fortnightly 'Pakistan'. Edited by the Dhaka University student Nazir Ahmad, its objective was to spread the ideology of Pakistan Movement as well as Islamic ideals.
As the situation started to heat up, the Muslim students of Dhaka University staged demonstrations on February 2, 1943 in protest against the singing of 'Bande-Mataram' song of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay that was used at the start of DU programmes in line with the tradition of Calcutta University. As a result, a communal riot broke out between the Hindu and Muslim students. On the third day of this riot, the founder of the fortnightly 'Pakistan' and activist of Sahitya Sangsad Nazir Ahmad was killed when he was stabbed with knife. In this way, Dhaka University's two decade-long non-communal, free-thinking, modern and progressive heritage started to get tarnished and stigmatised.
Moreover, Dhaka University descended into a cycle of abnormal scenarios during the 1940s due to the Second World War, the Bengal Famine, and the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent. During the war, the main building of Dhaka University (at present medical college) was acquired by the colonial government for setting up a military hospital. Besides, the military authorities also took over the Salimullah Muslim Hall and Jagannath Hall buildings, and military barracks were set up in the university area. As a result, the classes and residential facilities of the university were severely curtailed. At this time, a number of professors of the university also retired. And then, many non-Muslim teachers and students left the country following the partition of India.
NEW JOURNEY: Before the university could return to normalcy, the capital of East Bengal in the then Pakistan was set up in Dhaka. The arts building of the university was turned into a medical college, barrack-houses were built in Palashi and Nilkhet areas for the government employees, and a number of buildings of the university like the Bardhaman House, Chameri House, and the present-day building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were taken over by the government. In that backdrop, many migrant Muslim students as well as some Muslim teachers from Kolkata joined the Dhaka University.
Dhaka University started its new journey after the partition of India in August 1947 by accommodating the arts, commerce and law faculties in a small part of the medical college building, and the science departments at the Curzon Hall complex.
At that time, the three residential halls for males were the Salimullah Muslim Hall, Fazlul Huq Muslim Hall, and the combined Dhaka cum Jagannath Hall in the shape of Dhaka Hall. There was also a hostel for the female students. The auditorium and attached parts of the Jagannath Hall were acquired by the government for the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly. Another part was used by administrative offices of the university.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.