The University of Dhaka was established in 1921 under the Dacca University Act 1920 of the Indian Legislative Council. It opened its doors to academic activities on 1 July 1921 with three faculties, 12 teaching departments, 60 teachers, 847 students and three residential halls. In distinction today, as arriving at the age of ninety two, the University has 10 faculties, 48 departments, nine institutes, 26 research centres, 1,345 teachers, about 25,000 students and 17 residential halls. After the Partition of India in 1947, the university transformed from its status of a residential institution to a teaching-cum-affiliating institution as well as a proud alma mater of the country's leading intelligentsia, academics, political leaderships, businesses, bureaucracies and ballads.
As was Rome, the university was not founded in a day; nor did the process get going without pains. A combination of a whole set of political, social and economic compulsions persuaded the British government in India to establish it 'as a splendid imperial compensation' to Muslims for the annulment of the partition of Bengal. The partition of Bengal in 1905 provided the Muslim majority community of East Bengal and Assam with a sphere of influence of their own and raised new hopes for the development of the region and advancement of its people. But its annulment on December 12, 1911 in the face of stiff opposition from the powerful Hindu leadership was viewed by Muslims as 'a grievous wrong'.
Distressed at the government's decision for annulment of Bengal, in consultation with other leaders, Khawaja Salimullah sent two handwritten letters to the British Viceroy in India Lord Hardinge, within a week-one on December 17 (expressing anguish for the annulment ) and the another on December 20 (demanding development of institutions for advancement of education in East Bengal). The Viceroy immediately forwarded these letters to his Education Member in the Council, Sir H Butler with a note expressing whether it would not be desirable to encourage the creation of a university in Dacca with Mohammedan Hostels, which should be an undeniable proof of our [Government's] intention to encourage Mohammedan education, or in this way to safeguard the interests of the Mohammedans in the province. The Viceroy was very fast to perceive the dissatisfaction of Muslims and decided to pay an official visit to Dhaka to assuage the aggrieved community. A deputation of high ranking Muslim leaders, including Sir Nawab Salimullah, Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Choudhury and A K Fazlul Huq met him on January 31 in 1912 and expressed their apprehensions that the annulment would retard the educational progress of the major community. In response, the Viceroy acknowledged that education was the true salvation of Muslims and that the government would recommend to the Secretary of State the constitution of a university in Dhaka.
This was confirmed in an official communiqué on February 2 in 1912. Many Hindu leaders were not happy with the government's intention to set up a university at Dhaka. On February 16 in 1912, a delegation headed by advocate Dr Rash Bihari Ghosh along with Hindu Zaminders of Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chittagong, Faridpur and Mymensingh, met the viceroy and expressed the apprehension that the establishment of a separate university at Dhaka would promote 'an internal partition of Bengal'. They also contended, as was recorded in the Calcutta University Commission report later, that "Muslims of Eastern Bengal were in large majority cultivators and they would benefit in no way by the foundation of a university". The opposition by Hindu intelligentsia was not the only hurdle to implementation of the plan for the new university. Many complex legal and material issues were to be examined. After obtaining the approval of the Secretary of State, in a letter on April 4 in 1912, the government of India invited the government of Bengal to submit a complete scheme for the university, along with a financial estimate. Accordingly, in a resolution of 27 May 1912, the government of Bengal appointed a committee of 13 members headed by Mr Robert Nathan, a barrister from London, to draw up a scheme for Dhaka University. The committee acted with speed, with the thoroughness and wisdom of 25 special sub-committees it submitted its report on December 24 which was circulated next day to concerned quarters for comments. On March 1, 2013, the influential members of the Calcutta University Senate in its ninth meeting strongly opposed the establishment of a university in Dhaka and condemned Nathan Committee recommendations. However the Secretary of State approved it in December 1913. Then the First World War intervened creating acute financial stringency for the government.
The inordinate delay in undertaking the project caused worries in the minds of Muslim leaders. Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Choudhury raised his voice on 14 April 1914 while inaugurating Presidency Mohammedan Education Conference. To cool down the sentiment the government formed a Committee headed by the DPI, Mr WW Hornell to find out the reasons behind the backwardness of Muslims in education. Mr Hornell engaged one of his key colleague in the Education Department, Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah as member of his Committee who worked hard to reflect that the poverty of the Muslims, the linguistic difficulty, demand for religious instruction, and want of Muslim representation in the governing bodies of educational institutions retarded the spread of education among the Muslims. Two and a half years later, having no significant progress, again Mr Nawab Ali Choudhury raised the issue in the Indian Legislative Council on 7 March 1917. In response the government spokesman reaffirmed the government pledge to establish the university at Dhaka, but added that consideration of a bill already drafted would now have to wait for a report from the Calcutta University Commission, to which the Dhaka University scheme had been referred to for advice regarding its constitution and management.
The Calcutta University Commission formed in 1917 with Dr. ME Sadler as its chairman, invited memorandum from noted intellectuals and educationists on 22 specific questionnaire. In written testaments to the major questionnaires, mostly related to the establishment of the university in Dhaka, Muslim leaders and educationists including Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah could convince the commission of its importance. Thus the commission justified the setting up of a university at Dhaka. The Commission agreed with most parts of the Nathan Committee scheme and urged that the University of Dhaka should be established without further delay.
Getting favourable recommendations from the Commission, the government on the spur of the moment tabled the draft Dhaka University Act in the Imperial Legislative Council on 11 September 1919 and invited comments on the draft act from Calcutta University on September 23. The University Senate opposed the government move again and sent its protest resolution telegraphically to New Delhi. However, in its 14th meeting of November 1, 1919 the Senate formed a nine-member Senate Special Committee to review the draft Act. Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah, the lone Muslim member from east Bengal in the Senate was included in the special committee who supported the causes for the establishment of Dhaka University and faced the stiff opposition on various provisions of the Act. The Special Committee submitted the report on November 27 along with a "Note of Dissent' from Khan Bahadur who could not be in agreement with all other members' propositions etc. In his Note of Dissent he reiterated the reasons for establishment of the university and justified safeguarding such provisions in the Act which should be treated as lifeblood support for the sustainability of the university. Based on the review committee report the Calcutta University senate in its four-day consecutive session from December 17 to 20 adopted the final comment. Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah was equally vocal and intervened at appropriate stage while reviewing the Act both at the committee meeting as well as in the senate proceedings. Most of his suggestions were adopted, with few exceptions, in the Dhaka University Act 1920.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Mazid, former Secretary to the Government and Chairman, NBR.
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