Dhaka University in the Bengali ethos

The growth of Bengali nationalism in pre-1971 Pakistan had a whole lot to do with the various struggles put up by students and teachers of Dhaka University. And that was clearly a reason why during the War of Liberation the university would be made the target of the Pakistan army’s particular wrath. That, of course, is an obvious truth. But what Rangalal Sen, Dulal Bhowmik, and Tuhin Roy came forth with some years ago in their seminal work (Bangladesher Muktijuddho: Dhaka O Kolkata Bishwabidyalayer Obodan, The University Press Limited) is a comprehensive study of the role Dhaka University has played in the shaping of Bengali nationalistic aspirations, beginning especially with the Language Movement of 1952.

That is quite a departure from the title of the work. At the same time, for all the stress on the role played by Dhaka University and Calcutta University during Bangladesh’s war for liberty in 1971, information on the contributions of the latter does not much go beyond an enumeration of the efforts its academics and students made towards assisting the Bengali movement. But, to be sure, it is invaluable information, a necessary reminder to Bengalis inhabiting the people’s republic of the powerful wave of support that had come their way in clearly the darkest moment of their collective life.

These are instructive essays we have here, from individuals who have closely studied Dhaka University as it has operated through the decades. That the university has been a focal point of an assertion of freedom in this part of the world has never been in doubt. Successive regimes in Pakistan understood this truth only too well, and for the very good reason that of all the institutions of higher learning in pre-1971 Pakistan, it was only Dhaka University which identified itself, gradually and surely, with the larger canvas of Bengali political aspirations. The first instance of defiance went out from the university, back in March 1948, when an arrogant Mohammad Ali Jinnah sought to have Urdu imposed on the country as the language of the state. It was only the beginning. In subsequent years, the university would come to acquire the role of a crusading spirit. It is interesting to think that almost the entire Bengali political set-up in the 1960s and, later, in the 1970s comprised the young men who as students had spearheaded various movements on the campus.

A wide range of subjects and themes is covered in the work. Ajoy Roy’s reflections on Dhaka University as it carved a niche in the tale of the War of Liberation provide an incisive account of how the university transformed itself from an academic institution into a hotbed of nationalistic activity. A similar approach is taken by Rafiqul Islam who, however, makes sure that it is a broad area he deals with. Islam records the number of casualties the university went through in 1971, in terms of the lives of teachers and students lost at the hands of the Pakistan army and then its local collaborators. A refreshing aspect of Islam’s observations is the bare truth he reveals about the collaborationist role adopted by a number of reputed academics. Syed Sajjad Hussain, Mohor Ali, and Hasan Zaman come in for severe criticism, naturally and justifiably, because of their clear looking away from the genocide perpetrated in 1971. Hussain, appointed by Tikka Khan as vice-chancellor in early 1971, remained indifferent to the many misfortunes students and his fellow academics were regularly subjected to by the occupation army.

Sent on a trip abroad by the Pakistani junta to speak for it, he indulged in barefaced lies. The army, he told a disbelieving world, had not indulged in any atrocities in ‘East Pakistan’. Here is the truth. Taken under arrest by the army, together with other teachers, Giasuddin Ahmed, from the department of history, was eventually freed. But he was not lucky the second time. The first time he was abducted by the army, he was allowed to return home. The second time, on the eve of liberation, his fate was sealed: an al-Badr killer squad of the Jamaat e Islami seized him and murdered him, along with others, most viciously. Reports have circulated all these decades (and they do not come from Rafiqul Islam in this work) of some of those very young al-Badr elements rising to prominent bureaucratic positions in Bangladesh. Perhaps they are yet there? Perhaps a checking of the records in government ministries will yield these killers up?

The shaping of the Bangladesh nation-state through the periodic political ferment Dhaka University went through forms the theme of Abul Maal Abdul Muhith’s essay. In essence, Muhith’s thoughts go back to the earliest instances of student revolt and all the way through the gathering steam of the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a theme Rangalal Sen builds on in his admirable article on the 1962 student movement. There is another gem of a write-up from him, this one on Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury’s role as vice-chancellor and then as a special envoy of the Mujibnagar government in 1971.

Mohiuddin Ahmed expands on the Chowdhury theme in a separate chapter on the man who would subsequently take over as president of Bangladesh. You then go back to Rangalal Sen for some rich background information on the first twenty-five years of student politics at Dhaka University, with particular reference to the times of Aditya, father of Madhu-da, he of Madhu’s canteen. But if you need a more detailed account of the canteen and Madhu-da’s supreme sacrifice in 1971, you cannot but pore through K.M. Mohsin’s informative essay on the subject.

Bangladesher Muktijuddho is a comprehensive, objective account of a significant part of national history that you ought not to ignore. It explains, in substantive form, why winning in 1971 was so important for the Bengali nation and how Dhaka University shaped the national ethos in those critical times.

— Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad.