Tuesday, 5 July, 2022

“Oxford of the East” — Fond Memories of Those Carefree Days I Left Behind

Humayun A. Kamal

“Oxford of the East” — Fond Memories of Those Carefree Days I Left Behind
F. H. Hall Student Union ( 1965 -66) executive committee members with professors and House Tutor and Hall Provost

Several years back,  I went to the University of Dhaka to participate in the inauguration of ”Professor /Dr. Maliha Khatun-Nargis Trust” presided by the Vice-Chancellor, which was established in memory of my mother and sister. After the ceremony, I felt a compelling urge to walk around the various buildings and facilities of the “Oxford of the East” of which I am a proud student. The university was in session. Students were coming in and out of their classes, looking at textbooks, scribbling notes, munching various snacks and of course, talking in the usual loud, excited and animated manner of students everywhere. Looking at them, nostalgia took hold of me! In a flash, it seemed, I was transported to the past,  the year when I was admitted to the Department of Economics. The friendly, familiar and welcoming walls of the Arts Faculty Building appeared to tempt me to reminisce about those good old, carefree days of my student life. There, I beheld the imposing and spectacular “ Aparajeyo Bangla” sculpture! I came close and touched it with my hands. This filled my heart with joy and pride. I thought it has such an appropriate name.   The sculpture is a testament to the tenacious resistance of Dhaka University students to all measures that were against our language, culture, freedom and political rights!  It also felt like a personal joy! The sculptor who created “ Aparajeyo Bangla”- Syed Abdullah Khalid - was an uncle  (mama) and the female model ( Hasina Ahmed) is the youngest aunt ( khala) of my wife, Shahrina, (who is the granddaughter of Dr. Akhteruddin Ahmed former Civil Surgeon of Sylhet).  

I was justly proud of being a resident of Fazlul Huq Muslim Hall which was established in 1940, with Dr Muhammad Shahidullah as the first Provost. When I was a resident of F.H.Hall  (1963-66)  Professor Muhammad Sofiullah was the Provost, who later became the first Director of the newly established “Institute of Business Administration”(IBA)

The most dramatic event occurred soon after I started classes. This was the much-awaited solemn, but joyful annual Dhaka University Convocation-1963. My hall and the other sister Dhaka Muslim Hall, separated by a pond, were quite close to Curzon Hall, where this annual event was always held. The chief guest was always the Governor of East Pakistan. In 1963,  Abdul Monem Khan was the Governor. A few days before this great event, all the student unions of Dhaka University, except the pro-government National Student Front ( NSF), took a momentous decision not to welcome the Governor into the hallowed grounds of the University. Neither the University authorities nor the East Pakistan government took this warning seriously. That year, there was remarkable unity and resolve among the student unions, as well as the great majority of students, not to allow the "dalal”  Governor to enter the Campus.

I was eager to get a good view of the ceremony that was about to commence. The Governor, sitting inside a big, black Mercedes car, with police escorts in front, sides and behind him, with siren blaring, drove fast but came to a screeching halt in front of the main gate of Curzon Hall, where he was confronted by a large group of angry students, determined not to allow him entry. Of course, the police resorted to the lathi charge and forced a passage for the Governor's car. The students continued to resist, which was met by more lathi-charge, tear gas and later, arrests of some leaders. But the brutal and barbaric police actions did not intimidate the students. Rather, these actions inflamed them further and made them determined to stop the Governor from presiding over the convocation. The Governor and University officials did eventually reach their designated places at the raised platform (“moncho”). However, the environment still remained too chaotic and unpredictable to conduct a peaceful, orderly and dignified ceremony. Suddenly, we, the onlookers from afar, were astonished to see that the platform (“moncho”) made with wood, bamboo, cardboard and paper, had caught fire, which spread very rapidly causing consternation to all those “dignitaries'' sitting on the platform. There was a mad rush to exit the platform. The Vice-Chancellor and guests were alarmed at this unexpected turn of events. They dismounted, with whatever dignity they still possessed and rushed to their vehicles. The Governor departed with undignified haste, to the loud cheers of the students.                                                                        

Sometime later,  we came to know the details of this  “platform fire”. While there was a great deal of sound and fury at the front and sides of the platform, the back was relatively quiet with hardly any police presence. A small group of students, led by HH, ( whose names I can not disclose without their permission) surreptitiously went behind the platform and set fire to it, with matches, which were concealed in their pockets. The highly inflammable material started burning soon after the dignitaries had taken their seats. No one noticed the small fire until it suddenly flared up causing total pandemonium among the guests.

Needless to say, the University authorities were forced to announce the "postponement” of the convocation. This was a great victory for the students, who dared to challenge the authorities and might of the Establishment and forced them to concede defeat.  However, the students had to pay a heavy price for this victory. Scores of them were injured by brutal and indiscriminate police action and several were arrested. For those arrested and sent to prison,  their chance to secure government jobs became zero, as they could not obtain positive “Police Clearance Reports” Another fall-out of this incident was that the Dhaka University convocation remained "postponed” for several years.

When I graduated with Honours in Economics in 1966 and a year later, with Masters in Economics, I could not obtain my original certificates, as no convocations were held since 1963. Instead, I had to settle for “ provisional” certificates from the Office of the Controller of Examinations. For various reasons, I could not succeed in exchanging my provisional certificates for the originals, even to this day.           

I was fortunate in obtaining admission to the Department of Economics, which was in great demand by new students. "Economics", was considered a “practical subject” that opened doors to several lucrative occupations, such as banking, insurance, marketing, public and private sector companies, besides teaching assignments in government and private educational institutions. The Head of the Economics Department, Professor Dr Abu Nasr Mahmud, was a brilliant, leftist and anti-west teacher. His extempore lectures were admired by his students. Although a PhD from an American Ivy League university, he spoke and wrote fearlessly about the evils of capitalism; the harmful impact of capitalist economic theories and policies on the economies and peoples of Least Developed Countries and the “Third World.” Professor Mahmud stressed the immoral and the criminal, " profit at any cost" policy adopted by Western multi-national and trans-national corporations. Since many of the teachers of the Economics Department were perceived as "rightist" and "pro-West", Professor Mahmud's lectures gave us an insight into the harmful impact of capitalist, western economic theories and policies. He was also outspoken and unafraid to speak out against corruption, injustice, illegal activities, irregularities and misdeeds inside and outside the Campus. During my time, the NSF students( National Student Front), a government-sponsored and financed student organization, were involved in numerous incidents of violence, intimidation and illegal activities. They were above the law and protected by the law! ( of that time) Professor Mahmud spoke out against their depredations and violence on innocent students and threats to the teaching staff.

One day we were shocked to learn that NSF leaders had badly beaten our “Mahmud Sir” on the grounds of the teacher's quarters in Fuller Road. He spent several weeks confined in his cabin at the Dhaka Medical College & Hospital, with multiple injuries. During this period, the NSF leaders were roaming freely on the Campus. Media, prominent personalities, educationists, and the public at large, condemned this ugly incident and called for an immediate and befitting punishment for the perpetrators. Under pressure, the Vice-Chancellor, Dr M.O. Ghani, constituted an “enquiry committee” and promised appropriate action against the attackers on the recommendations of the committee. But nothing happened. The enquiry committee never completed their enquiry and the assailants were never punished.

During my period at the University, the Department of Economics contained a remarkable collection of brilliant and dedicated teachers. We were beneficiaries of their knowledge, experience, dedication and commitment to excellence. However, a few years later, most of them left the teaching profession to join politics, business, civil, diplomatic and other government services.

In those days, to be an "honours" student was a privilege. Students received more attention from teachers. The number of students in an honours class was small, much smaller than in degree classes, usually 30 plus students. Classes were often followed by discussions, debates and tutorials conducted by teachers on selected subjects but there was no "spoon- feeding". Students were encouraged to speak and express themselves. “Notebook study” hardly existed during my University days. We would regularly visit the University, Public libraries, the British Council, USIS, other libraries and book shops to gather material referred by our teachers and undertake further reading from reference books. Some sought-after books were not always available as  “good students” would loan them and keep them in their possession longer than necessary, thus depriving other students. A few students would resort to the most despicable practice of cutting out the desired pages from the books with shaving blades and returning them to the librarian, with blank papers inserted for padding. The only solution was to hunt for these books in the “Nilkhet Book Market” close to the New Market. If not available even at Nilkhet, some adventurous students would venture as far as Bangla Bazar, in Old Dhaka, to get hold of these prized books.   

There were several places where students could relax and socialise. The two most popular were the Teacher-Student Center and “ Madhu's Canteen”.  The iconic Teachers-Student Center, which students simply referred to as “TSC”, was designed by the world-renowned Greek architect, Konstantinos Doxiadinos. It was the social and cultural heart of the Campus, where students from different regions, backgrounds and cultures, could interact and interface, exchange ideas and gossip over lunch and snacks.

  Madhusudan Dey established the University Canteen which soon came to be called “ Madhu’s Canteen” soon after the completion of the Arts Faculty Building. It was originally the “ Darbar Hall” of the Dhaka Nawabs. “Madhu Da” as he was affectionately called by students, believed to have been born in 1919, was brutally murdered by the Pakistan occupation forces on the Black Night of 25th March, along with several members of his family. The present owner, Orun Day, is the surviving son of the martyred Madhusudan. Madhu's Canteen was the place of many historical events and the venue of numerous political and social meetings and “ adda” by students and their friends.  Plans were hatched up and programmes were finalised over cha, singara, patis, alur-chop, piyaju, paratha and omelette. Madhu was perhaps the most popular and well-known person on the Campus. Some “freshers” may not have known the names of the Vice-Chancellor,  Registrar and the  Controller of Examination but all knew “Modhu Da”. He had a phenomenal memory and could name students just by looking at them. One recurring problem he had to face: students were unwilling or unable to pay for the items they had consumed. Madhu Da was very understanding and sympathetic. He allowed them to eat  “baki”, which would be paid at some future date.

Despite the destructive activities of the NSF students, the Dhaka University campus was relatively calm and peaceful. The vast majority of students were well behaved, studious, respectful of their teachers and senior colleagues, law-abiding and free from anti-social habits. The liberal, peaceful, environment was conducive to study and research. The following favourable factors that made the University unique and contributed to high academic standards were: Qualified and dedicated teachers; serious and respectful students; a peaceful environment conducive to study; relatively efficient administration; good maintenance of various facilities, such as faculty buildings, classrooms, laboratories, libraries, residential halls, gardens, playgrounds, medical clinics etc. These favourable factors helped the University to earn a reputation of academic excellence and was justly called the  “Oxford of the East ".

The“Rag Day” heralding the culmination of the four-year graduation course,  a fun-filled day of singing, dancing, dress-as-you-like, colourful rallies, mock fighting, spraying participants with coloured water and other silly antics is a Dhaka University “ tradition” whose origin seemed to have been lost in the mist of time. It was a day when senior students released their pent-up tension and worry and bid adieu to their beloved Alma mater. I, had happily participated with many departing students, and now feel nostalgic and amused when recalling that Day!

Here, I wish to mention that during my stroll on the Campus, after meeting with the Vice-Chancellor, I went to the Teacher-Student Centre (TSC) to check out the quality of snacks at the canteen. I witnessed a lecture being delivered in the auditorium. There were about three hundred plus students from the Humanities department and the lecturer was using a hand-held speaker to deliver his lecture. To my surprise, I was informed that this was a "honours” class. So, from thirty plus students in honours classes during my time there are now three hundred plus students, in some departments. Sadly, quality has given way to quantity.

I tried to make the most of the facilities offered to Dhaka University students and tried to be an "all- rounder''. I joined the UOTC (University Officers Training Corps) . We received "military training”, which consisted of precision marching, crawling, use of firearms etc. For me, the most enjoyable part of the training was horse riding.  On the insistence of the Officer-in-Charge, I had to make a pair of "Jodhpur pants”  for horse riding (which put me back several hundred Rupees).

As I also wanted to be a "culturally enlightened” person, I joined ”Chhayanaut” Music Academy at Fuller Road, to learn to play the violin. My instructor was Ostad Motiur Rahman. Chhayanaut offered a pleasant bonus. I could meet and talk to female students. Happily, girls outnumbered boys, three to one.     

“Student politics” did not interest me. However, I was sucked into it by “peer pressure." In those days, students with good academic records and extensive personal contacts were selected to contest elections to unions of the residential hall. Needless - to - say, student politics then was not what it is now. I was elected as Assistant General Secretary (AGS) of the F.H.Hall union representing East Pakistan (Bangladesh) Chhatra League (BCL), during the 1965- 66 academic year. Advocate Mujibur Rahman was the General Secretary, Mahbub Hussain Khan and Jamal Jasimuddin  (son of Palli Kabi Jasimuddin) among others, were members of the Executive Committee.  Executive Committee Members were expected to be very active in supervising and monitoring the functioning of the Hall and the work of the staff, such as supervisors, gardeners, repairmen, cooks, cleaners and security guards. Office bearers and members would go on "inspections", sometimes with House Tutors, to ensure that the gardens were well maintained, corridors were adequately lighted, dining hall and kitchen were without bad odour, security arrangements were adequate etc. The Executive Committee members organised various cultural events for the residents. Debates, recitations from famous poets, (“abriti”), extempore speeches on selected subjects, dance performances, musical shows etc were held periodically, paid from the Hall budget, for the entertainment of the residents. The Executive Committee members maintained good and cooperative relations with the Provost and the two House Tutors, which resulted in smooth and trouble-free maintenance of our  Hall.

One matter very close to the hearts and stomachs of all residents was the quality of meals served in the dining halls. Office bearers of our hall union had to ensure that meals were tasty and had variety but also reasonable in price. Understandably, one of the most important positions was that of the Dining hall cum Mess Manager. His responsibilities were to accompany the cook and supervisor to the market  (“Kacha Bazar '') to purchase fresh provisions; supervise the preparations of meals, and ensure proper and timely serving of the meals to the residents in the dining hall. During my time, hall residents would get one  “feast” and two “ improved diets'' every month ( which was reduced to one improved diet later on). The “feast”, which all students looked forward to with considerable excitement, consisted of “pilau”/ fine rice, with upgraded beef curry, roast chicken, shami kabab;  roohi fish, fried/curry, daal, salad, etc. The soft drink was served with the meal and at the end, paan and cigarette. Most mess managers did a good job and students would express their appreciation. However, there were a few “ bad apples'' when the quality was below standard and a couple of items reduced. There was one such “bad apple”, who was seen wearing a new Safari suit and shiny shoes. Students took it for granted that he had purchased them from the money he skimmed off from shopping. Some agitated students went to his room to give him a good beating. However, he was able to give them the slip and remained outside the hall for several days.

In my final year, I was fortunate to be allotted a single room at the newly constructed “M.A.Jinnah Hall” (now “Masterda Surja Sen Hall). In the election of the first student union body of the new hall, I was a candidate, rather reluctantly,  for the post of General Secretary. I lost narrowly, by only five votes, to the NSF candidate. Later, I came to know that I had actually won but the Hall authorities, who were supervising vote counting, had declared several votes in my favour as “rejected” for “technical reasons ”, to ensure the victory of the pro-government candidate. For the next few days, the NSF supporters went on “victory celebrations”, which included harassment of BCL candidates and supporters. I went into hiding, as did other  BCL leaders.  My room was broken in and some personal items, including my almost new Hercules bicycle, were looted. I took all this philosophically. This was the price for engaging in "student politics "

My Alma Mater has come a long way since its establishment on First July, 1921, with only 877 students, three faculties (Arts, Science & Law)and three halls of residence. ( Dhaka, Jagannath and Muslim halls)and one main building  (present Emergency Building, Dhaka Medical College and Hospital).

Today, a century later, Dhaka University is the largest public research university in the country and one of the largest in Asia (with over 37,000 students,  2000 plus faculty members and twenty halls of residence). Our University was identified by Asia Week as one of the top 100 universities in Asia.

The parting speech ( 1925) by the first Vice-Chancellor Sir. Philip J. Hartog had envisioned Dhaka University as “a great university uniting the science and culture of the East and the West and achieving new things by a new synthesis”. Have we fulfilled or exceeded the expectations of the first Vice-Chancellor? To put this question in another perspective: Has the University fulfilled the purposes for which it was established? I shall place this question to my esteemed readers for them to ponder!

 From the interviews of former students, during the  “Pariser Zanala ” programme, conducted by Mr.Raquibuddin Ahmed, former President, Dhaka University Alumni  Association (DUAA) we have heard about the numerous achievements and accomplishments of our Alma mater. However, it is generally accepted that there has been a slow but steady slippage in the quality of teaching and other activities, from its previous high standards, especially in recent years, for numerous reasons. How can we restore the past glory of Dhaka University? This thought has been in the minds of former students, intellectuals, educationists and indeed, all concerned citizens.  On the auspicious Centenary Celebrations of Dhaka University, we have seen and heard many former distinguished students express their views and offer their suggestions on ways to make the university regain its previous height of academic excellence. I believe this can be achieved, but require the dedicated, committed and sustained efforts of all stakeholders i.e,  in the public and private sectors, professionals, the civil society,  as well as our Bangladeshi diaspora.                


The writer is a retired secretary and ambassador