Dhaka University in Its Second Century

Dr. Akhter Hussain

7 July, 2020 12:00 AM printer

Dhaka University in Its Second Century

Dr. Akhter Hussain

The University of Dhaka has entered into the 100th years of its establishment. Next year, 2021, it will be celebrating its centenary birthday. It was the first university in this part of the world and provided opportunities for higher education to the people of the region which was historically lagging behind than the other parts of the colonial India.

However, there was also political reason behind the establishment of the University. The colonial government tried to appease the people of East Bengal, predominantly Muslim, for their disillusionment with reintegrating in 1911 of the province of East Bengal and Assam with the erstwhile greater Bengal. However, the new university was established with the objective to provide education of a higher level, encourage research with appropriate facilities and promote the advancement and development of knowledge and its application in real life situations.

From the very beginning, Dhaka University remained focused in achieving those objectives. With time, the university put its mark as a centre of excellence in teaching, learning and research. The one hundred years of the University could be divided into phases. The first phase spans a period of about 26 years (1921 to 1947) till the partition of the subcontinent and the creation of two independent states of Pakistan and India ending the British colonial rule of about two hundred years. This period could be seen as the period of consolidation. In this particular phase, the University grew in stature and received recognition as a reputed institution of higher learning and research in the subcontinent. During this time, it also made significant contribution in the socio-cultural and political development of the people of East Bengal now Bangladesh.

However, during the partition and its aftermath the University had to undergo some turbulent periods. Many of its faculty members and students had to leave the University because of the partition. However, those difficulties and uncertainties of the initial years of the partition were overcome and the University resumed its mission to pursue its goals and objectives with new vigour and earnestness. Then on, the second phase of the University of Dhaka started and it continued till the independence of the country in December 1991. During this period, Dhaka University among others, particularly contributed in the political awakening of the people. In fact, Dhaka University became the centre of all political activities and movements. Its students and faculty members served as the vanguards of all these political movements. It started with the question of establishing Bengali as a state language of Pakistan. At the time of the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Bengali-speaking people of East Bengal made up about 56% of the total population of the new country. In the same year, it was proposed Urdu to be the only state language of Pakistan.

This immediately led to wide spread opposition and protests. Students of the University in a meeting demanded Bengali also to be a state language of Pakistan. But the central government did not pay any heed to that demand. To promote their cause, the students organised protest rallies and processions. At the height of these movements, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan arrived in Dhaka and declared that "Urdu and only Urdu" shall be the state language. He delivered a similar speech at the University of Dhaka on 24 March.

However, Jinnah encountered protests by a large number of students present there as audience. The language movement continued unabated. On 31 January, the all-Party Central Language Action Committee was formed. The action committee called for a protest on 21 February, 1952 including strikes and rallies. In an attempt to prevent the demonstration, the government imposed Section 144 in Dhaka, banning any rallies and meetings. The students gathered at the university gate and attempted to break the police cordon. However, the police arrested several students for violating section 144.

Enraged by the arrests, the students met around the Legislative Assembly and asked the legislators to present their demand at the assembly. It is alleged that at this point, police opened fire and killed a number of students. As the news of the killings spread, mass agitation and protest began across the city and a general strike was called. After continued unrest and widespread protests, eventually on 7th May 1954, the constituent assembly of Pakistan resolved with the Muslim League's support to grant official status to Bengali. Bengali came to be recognised as the second official language of Pakistan on 29 February 1956.

It is interesting to note that the language movement had, in fact, shaped the destiny of East Pakistan and is now considered that the freedom movement of Bangladesh owed its origins from there. This also marked the beginning of disillusionment about the concept of Pakistan based on two nation theory. This new realisation provided the necessary impetus for the beginning of a new politics for emancipation with the active participation by the students of the University of Dhaka.

Here it needs to be pointed out that with the successful completion of the language movement the University of Dhaka emerged as the ultimate hub for all subsequent movements and political struggles of the people. Political leaders conceived the ideas and the student community of Dhaka University translated them into popular movements by taking the masses with them. In 1959, Pakistan government formed a commission on the formulation of an education policy. The commission's report was published in 1962. The students of the University of Dhaka took to the street vehemently opposing unequal and exclusionary national education policy. Later, the government was compelled to discard the said policy.

From the mid-sixties of the last century, political unrest became a common phenomenon in East Pakistan with the Six Point Movement of Bangabandhu; it got momentum at the beginning of 1969 and culminated in the resignation of the first military ruler of Pakistan. The uprising also led to the withdrawal of infamous Agartala Conspiracy Case and acquittal of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and withdrawal of the case.

During these turbulent times, the University of Dhaka and its students’ community played the most deciding role in organising mass protests and agitations. With time, disillusionment with the concept of Pakistan became evident because of the absolute deprivation of the people of East Pakistan from their rightful share in the political, economic, cultural and social arenas. This brought in the concept of the establishment of a new nation comprising now Bangladesh under the leadership of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The University of Dhaka again played the key role in translating the vision of the Bangabandhu.

Pakistan military’s atrocities started on the night of 26 March, 1971 mainly targeted, among others, the Dhaka University. On the very first night of the beginning of the war of liberation innumerable students, faculty members and staff laid down their lives for the independence of the country. In the subsequent days, a large number of Dhaka University students, faculty members and others joined the Liberation War. Ultimately, the victory was achieved at a great cost of 3 million lives and Bangladesh emerged in the world map as an independent and sovereign nation on 16 December, 1971. It is evident that in the second phase, the University of Dhaka made pivotal contribution to establishing an independent country. It can rightly be said that the history of emergence of Bangladesh cannot be written without mentioning the deciding role that the University of Dhaka played in all movements and struggles for it. 

With independence, the third phase of the University of Dhaka ushered in. It became the premier university of the country with best of the students and faculty members. In every sphere of the national life, it is making significant contributions. The political movements that were organised after the independence especially against the military rulers and their rules, the University of Dhaka again became vanguard and led to victories. In the socio-cultural fields, it has also made noteworthy contributions.

In fact, the university has shaped the psyche and ethos of the people of independent Bangladesh. With time, the University of Dhaka has grown with the addition of new faculties, departments, institutes and centres having different focus areas and opened up opportunities to increasing number of students to enrol. After a year or so, the University will journey into its second century.

Traditionally, there are some specific functions of any university like teaching, research and knowledge generation and technology transfer. The University of Dhaka will definitely pursue those functions in the new century with renewed vigour and zeal. For pursuing those in a meaningful way the University should develop a strategic plan with stated vision, mission goals and objectives. This plan should be developed with the participation of all stakeholders like, the students, faculty, officials, alumni, government and other concerned quarters. The strategic plan should take into consideration the needs of the hour with respect to education and knowledge generation needed to address the present day’s issues and problems. The plan will provide the University the necessary direction with appropriate strategies.

The successful implementation of any plan needs resources. For that purpose, beside traditional funding sources, Dhaka University need to embark upon to create a central endowment fund with an initial target of Taka 1,000 crore which is to be increased over the years. The sources of the fund could be government grants, contribution of the alumni, industry and other institutions and individuals. Some of the education and research initiatives to be taken up by the University could be funded from the income to be generated from the endowment fund. This will allow the University to make contributions in the area of research and generating new knowledge where right now the University is lagging behind compared to others in the region. It is perceived with appropriate planning and dogged persuasion the University of Dhaka will achieve more laurels in its next century, especially in areas like teaching, research, knowledge generation and technology transfer.

(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude)


The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka.