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History of the Formation of Dhaka University


Dhaka University, being the first of its kind in what is now Bangladesh, has been the most influential institution of the country. Its marks and shadows extend to the pillars of the society, culture and politics of the region. In the 80 years of its history, the graduates of this fine and badly needed institution have been the major driving force in the region's politics. But it took years to lay the bricks and stones for the foundation, a result of the tireless work of the many East Bengal leaders, mainly Muslims. However, its creation is an integral part of the British-Indian history that began around the mid-nineteenth century. This piece will try to walk the readers through its beginning.


Before the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, East Bengal was far from the hub of commerce. The people, especially the Muslims lagged behind in education, business, and government services. The Hindu dominance and Muslim inferiority were clearly present and felt in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the region. During the British period, the Muslims alienated themselves from the opportunities opening up for the emerging middle class, by remaining aloof of the western-oriented education. This self-imposed isolation, however, later intensified their awareness of the minority status. After the mutiny Muslims began to realize the importance of education and started to think ways to adapt with the rapidly changing socioeconomic conditions in India. In the late nineteenth century, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817- 98), an well-known Muslim scholar and politician, through his writings helped to reconcile the traditional views of Indian Muslims with the emerging ways. He made Muslims aware of the new ideas and education system being introduced by the British. He was one of the first Muslims to recognize the problems facing his community under a government ruled by a Hindu majority. In response to this need, in 1875, Syed Ahmad Khan founded the Muhammadan-Anglo Oriental College (which was later renamed as the Muslim University of Aligarh in 1921), where Islamic culture and religious instruction were combined with the British university system of education.

Indian politics was not steady in the beginning of the twentieth century. The political situation was rapidly changing. The British were beginning to feel uneasy in their colony. Hostility was brewing among the natives. The anger among the people intensified when the British Government failed to organize effective relief during the plague and famine. In order to alleviate the anger, the British played the political trump-card; they used their divide-and-rule political game. From 1870 and on, the British began to provoke the Hindus and the Muslims to form their own political parties to establish their distinct religious identities. That was the beginning of the communal politics in India. In addition, the British also took other various steps to create tension between Hindus and Muslims.

Remarkably, the Muslim leadership rose during this time. These leaders knew what they wanted and they pressured the British government to fulfill their demands. British used this opportunity to divide the Bengal in 1905. West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar were on one side and the East Bengal and Assam were on the other. The partition was made along communal lines. However, the Muslims were happy with the partition, realizing that this would help them to build their own destiny without interference from the majority Hindus in Indian politics. But Hindus were not happy with the partition. The partition was a severe blow to the Bengal?s economy. As a result of the partition, All India Muslim League and All India Hindu Mahasabha were formed. Both organizations aimed at fanning communal passions.

The partition brought about united opposition from many influential Hindus. Poet Rabindranath Tagore, Sir Gurudas Banerjee, and the Maharajas of Mymensingh and Cossimbazar joined in the protest. The well-known slogans of Swaraj, Swadeshi, Boycott, and National Education, emerged during the anti-partition campaign. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was at the forefront of the vigorous propaganda against the partition and recommended its abolition at the session of the congress held in Calcutta in 1906. Dadabhai Naoroji and other leaders of the Liberal faction supported the proposal and it was adopted. Tilak emerged as the most popular leader, approached national stature from that year.

In 1907, various Bengali newspapers were banned. Bande Mataram, Jugantar and a number of other dailies faced the anger of the government. Many Hindu leaders were deported and leaders like Aurobindo Ghosh was arrested in 1908 on a charge of connection with a revolutionary conspiracy. On the face of severe Hindu opposition, in 1911, the British government decided to nullify the order of dividing the Bengal (Bongo Vongo Batil). But the Muslims of East Bengal welcomed the partition of Bengal in 1905. They hoped that the creation of a new province would facilitate their education and make life better. During the pre-partition period, the people of East Bengal had very little opportunity for higher education.

Most of the colleges were located in or around Calcutta. Out of the 45 colleges in Bengal Province, only 15 were in East Bengal and Assam. Even in these few colleges, the Hindus predominated. The formation of the province of East Bengal and Assam was a great boon to their people. During the short span of the partitioned period, from 1905 to 1911, the educational progress made by the Muslims was remarkable.

Therefore, the declaration of the annulment of partition on December 12, 1911 came as a rude shock to the Muslims of the East Bengal and Assam. The annulment retarded their progress and the Muslims voiced their resentment against the annulment of the partition. Thus, the talk of Dhaka University was born.

The Beginning of the Dhaka University

The Viceroy Lord Hardinge came for an official visit to Dhaka (then Dacca) to soothe the ruffled feelings of the Muslims, resulting from the annulment of the partition. A Muslim deputation consisting of A. K. Fazlul Haq, Sir Nawab Salimullah, Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Choudhury and several other Muslim leaders, met with the Viceroy on January 31, 1912. The members of the deputation convinced the Viceroy that the annulment of the partition have threatened the education in the East Bengal. The Viceroy promised to recommend to the Secretary of State for the formation of a University in Dacca. On February 2, 1912, Indian government published a communiqué, stating the decision of the government of India to establish the University of Dacca. The Secretary of the State approved the decision of the Government. Government of India invited the government of Bengal, in a letter dated April 4, 1912, to submit a comprehensive scheme with financial estimates for the proposed University.

On May 27, 1912, the Government of India appointed a committee ( The Nathan Committee) of 13 members with Mr. R. Nathiel, Bar at Law, as President to frame the scheme of the Dacca University. Other members of the committee were: G. W. Kichler, Director of Public Instruction, Bengal; Dr. Rash Behary Ghose, Advocate of the High Court, Calcutta; Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury; Nawab Sirajul Islam; Ananda Chandra Roy, Pleader and Zaminder, Dacca; Mohammad Ali, Aligarh; H. R. James, Principal of Presidency College, Calcutta; W. A. T. Archibald, Principal of Dacca College, Dacca; Satis Chandra Acharji, Principal of Sanskrit College, Calcutta; Lalit Mohan Chatterjee, Principal, Jagannath College, Dacca; C. W. Peake, Professor Presidency College; Samsul Ulama Abu Nasr Muhammad Waheed, Superintendent of Dacca Madrassa. The Government asked that the University be a teaching and residential type and not of the federal type. The committee was also instructed to bind together the colleges of the city and not include any college that was beyond the limits of the town. The Nathan Committee was very effective, prompt and thorough in the formation of the scheme. It obtained advice from 25 special subcommittees and in the autumn of 1912 submitted its report to the government of Bengal with plans of proposed buildings and an estimate of capital expenditure of 53 lakh rupees.

The Nathan Committee recommended that:

-The University of Dacca should be a state University maintained by the government and staffed by the Government officers. The Director of the Public instruction will have the full authority to inspect all colleges and departments.

-The University should be a unitary teaching and residential University. The colleges were to be the units of the university.

-The University should have a department of Islamic Studies and suggested that a European Professor should organize the Department.

-The existing engineering and medical schools would be raised to the level of colleges and made two departments of the University.

-The Eden Girl's School should be become a Women College.

-The Teachers' Training College in Dacca should be part of the university constituency.

-For Law, the teaching should be done in Dacca University, but the Calcutta University will conduct the examination.

The Nathan Committee suggested a magnificent site of about 450 acres in Ramna for the Dacca University. The site was a part of the civil station of the short-lived Government of Eastern Bengal and Assam. The site included the Dacca College, The new Government House, the Secretariat, the Government Press and a number of houses for officers surrounding it. The Nathan committee report was published and public opinion was invited on the scheme in 1913. In December 1913, the final report was submitted and approved by the Secretary of State.

The outbreak of the World War I in 1914 and the consequent financial difficulty faced by the government severely disrupted the development of the University and further progress was stalled. In 1916, the Government of India asked the Government of Bengal to submit an estimate of minimum expenditure with reduced scheme of the University. The Government of India approved the modified scheme and suggested that the university should start with only four colleges.

The delay in starting the University dismayed the Muslim Leaders. Nawab Syed Nawab Ali Chowdhury raised the issue in the Imperial Legislative Council of India on March 7, 1917. On March 20, he moved a resolution asking the government to introduce a bill for the establishment and incorporation of a University in Dacca. However, upon the assurance from the Government that a bill for the proposed University has already been drafted, he withdrew the resolution. The Government, however, mentioned that for such a bill to be approved, a report from the University of Calcutta would be needed.

On January 6, 1917, Lord Chelmsford, Chancellor of the Calcutta University announced the appointment of a 'Calcutta University Commission' to investigate the problems and to formulate recommendations regarding the constitution and management of the proposed Dacca University. The Calcutta University commission agreed that a separate University at Dacca is needed and praised the comprehensive scheme of the Nathan Committee. However, they did not accept the proposal of the Muslim leaders for an affiliating type of University. Muslim Leader advocated for a teaching cum affiliating type. They demanded that the colleges in East Bengal should be affiliated with Dacca University.

The Calcutta University Commission insisted on a teaching cum residential type. The Committee also recommended against the direct management of the Dacca University by the Government. Many educators from Dacca wrote to the Commission that the proposed university should be autonomous. Among these were Professor F. C. Turner, Principal Dacca College, Dr. Naresh Chandra Sen, Vice Principal of the Law Department of Dacca College and Professor T. T. Williams, Political Economics department, Dacca College. They believed and stated that complete autonomy is the essence of a university life.

The decision that the Dacca University would be teaching cum resident type was made. The colleges in the East Bengal would not be affiliated with the University. However, the University would enjoy complete autonomy and the Governor of Bengal would be the Chancellor of the University. The Vice Chancellor would be appointed by the Chancellor, and would be the Chief Executive Officer. The Vice Chancellor would be responsible for the day to day running of the university.  On March 23, 1920, the Indian Legislative Council passed the Dacca University Act. Under this Act Mr. P. J. Hartog C. I. E, the Academic Registrar of the University of London, was appointed the first Vice Chancellor of the new university. His term began on December 1, 1920. For the appointment of teachers, an advisory committee of eminent educators and government officials was formed. The first treasurer (Honorary) of the Dhaka University was Mr. J. H. Lindsay, I. C. S. Ten selection committees, consisting of distinguished scholars, were formed to identify and recommend suitable heads for each of the departments.

The University inherited the old buildings of the Dacca College (that included the Curzon Hall) and most of the buildings and estates in Ramna that were created for the short-lived government of Eastern Bengal and Assam. The former Government House was designated as the private residence of the Vice-Chancellor, but Mr. Hartog declined the offer and chose a residence close to the University.

The University of Dacca formally opened its door on July 1, 1921 with three faculties, the Arts, the Science and the Law, and 12 teaching Departments: English, Sanskrit and Bengali, Arabic and Islamic Studies, Persian and Urdu, History, Economics and Politics, Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Law and Education. Mr. F. C. Turner was appointed as the first provost of the Dacca Hall (now Shahidullah Hall), Mr. (later Sir) A. F. Rahman provost of the Muslim Hall and Dr. Naresh Chandra Sen provost of the Jagannath Hall.

Unlike any other university in India, the Dacca University started as a new model University being a teaching cum residential university with the provision of the tutorial system. All students were required to be affiliated with one of the resident halls and the Provost and the House Tutors would be responsible for helping the students with their education. The organizers of the University had a high hope that the model University would develop as a great seat of learning. This was clearly reflected in the comment of Lord Lytton, the first Chancellor of the university. He said, in his speech at the first graduation ceremony, that, in his opinion, the University was Dacca's greatest possession and, that the fame of Dacca University would spread beyond the boundaries of Bengal.

The first 25 years of the University was, undoubtedly, the most glorious period of the University. Teachers were recruited based on their proven scholarship. They were brought from different parts of India and from abroad. Most, if not all, of the teachers were well known internationally for their research and publication. During this period, Professor S. N. Bose became internationally known for his Bose-Einstein Theory.

Besides, attracting these scholars and providing homes for their research, the Dhaka University also incorporated several programs for the teachers and students to keep them abreast of the outside world. Every department formed an association of its own to promote research activities in its specific area. These associations met frequently and invited scholars from outside to discuss current developments and published research papers. There were Popular and Public Lecture series. Many national and international scholars participated in these lectures.


The period, 1921 through 1940, may be considered as the formative phase of the University. During these years, astonishing internal developments were made. This development of the University and the enthusiasm among the teachers and students continued to flourish till the World War II ensued. After the war, rapid changes began in the University in consonance with the political development in the continent. But that deserves another independent look under a separate headline.

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