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University of Dhaka: Inadequately headed for centenary celebrations

AS I was reading posts down my wall on Facebook, on the day I was off duty, a news piece came up. The University of Dhaka has made its centenary celebrations plan public, with events on a limited scale meant for July and the main events held up till November, as the news portal said. The Covid outbreak is certainly the reason for the deferral. But the university authorities appear to be viewing the July event as a precursor to what they call the main events as yet meant for November. The outbreak could put that off too, or push that into an after-effect of the July event, or completely put that out.

The news is based on a release that the university issued on June 9, headlined ‘Dhaka university centenary celebrations on July 1.’ What makes the news portal headline to the piece intriguing is ‘on a limited scale', the phrase that likens itself to the proverbial recipe term ‘to taste’, which tries to say something definitive with a serious tone that is ultimately, and successfully, lost in its hedging. In Covid times, almost everything is done on a limited scale and almost everything is done keeping to the required health protocols. The century celebrations of the University of Dhaka should be no exception.

But for the main events meant to begin on November 1, the July events will begin with the hoisting of the national and the university flag in front of the Nabab Nawab Ali Chowdhury Senate Building in the presence of ranking university officials. The national anthem will be played. There will be balloons and festoons. While all this will take place in the morning, a discussion on digital platform will mark the day’s programme in the afternoon.

The day will have a theme, which will have been decided by then. There will be a backdrop banner for the inauguration and a digital banner for the discussion. The university will be trumpeting around the digital banner on social media two to three days before the day. The authorities will bring out a souvenir with the help of a committee composed of four teachers and the university’s public relations director. And much of the rites will be broadcast online.

The oldest university, the premier seat of higher learning, in Bangladesh completes its 100 years as July begins. The university has had its centenary celebrations plans in hand, made public, and on hand, yet to be known. But all this has so far come to be a series of rites. There is nothing much to it but the online discussion meant for July 1 afternoon and it will be broadcast online. After Covid-19 broke out in early March 2020, the university has kept struggling to cope with how to take classes online. The government rolled out its outreach class scheme on television, for primary, secondary and higher secondary students, but it barely reached out to a third of the 42 million students effectively. Online classes by the university at hand and others on digital platform failed to make their mark. This discussion so supposedly will.

The authorities of the institution, alma mater to thousands of people including many who have left their mark on the creation of knowledge within Bangladesh and without, have finally, as it appears, relinquished the university's centenary celebrations to a series of rites, to be publicised online, catering to a small group of people, to impress on themselves that they have achieved a lot and will step forward beyond a hundred years.

The University of Dhaka, founded in 1921 under the Dacca University Act 1920 — An Act to establish and incorporate a unitary teaching and residential University at Dhaka — of the Indian Legislative Council, began its academic activities on July 1, 1921. This is about to become a centennial pride of the nation. The university began with 12 departments under three faculties with 60 people teaching 877 students. The university spanned a sprawling 600 acres of land, which has so far only sounded to be a fable as none of the attempts, especially by newspapers some of which have been in touch with the estate officer of the university on this, could beyond doubts add up to the figure.

The university has now grown to have 83 departments under 13 faculties with about 2,000 people teaching about 37,000 students. The university has also grown in terms of the number of people, others on the staff but teachers, having been employed, and in terms of the number of buildings that have crowded out the sprawling space and started rearing their head well up into the sky. But the university appears to have hardly matured and has now failed, unlike in the past that should be construed as distant, to leave its mark that such an institution should have done in a hundred years of its existence.

All the wrong reasons set aside, there are all the right reasons for the university authorities with its current teachers and students and countless people to whom the university is an alma mater to celebrate the centenary of the university. The vibe of the centenary has already begun to be visible on social media, especially on Facebook, where people have started filtering their profile pictures with the university landmarks such as the Curzon Hall or the Aparajeya Bangla with texts reading, in Bangla or English, something like the glorious 100 years of the University of Dhaka.

While former and present students are doing this seemingly in attempts at professing and taking pride in having been a student of the university, some others who were not students of the university are doing this apparently in attempts at having a share of the pride, with disclaimers that although they were not students of the university…. The oldest university of Bangladesh, originally set up in Eastern Bengal and Assam that was an administrative area of the British India covering territories in what are now Bangladesh, Northeast India and northern West Bengal, is the pride of all who had been part of the territories since 1921 and all who had been students of the university since then. A disclaimer sounds to be a political correctness that is better having been dispensed with.

Not many universities in the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh subcontinent have crossed hundred years. The list may include the University of Bombay, of Calcutta and of Madras, founded in 1857, the University of the Punjab founded in 1882, Allahabad University founded in 1887, the University of Mysore founded in 1916, Patna University founded in 1917. Osmania University founded in 1918, Rangoon University founded in 1920, and the University of Lucknow and of Dhaka founded in 1921.

The University of Madras brought out a centenary volume of more than 300 pages, which is an account of the celebrations with all the bells and trinkets, to mark the occasion. The volume, published in 1959, in its preface says that although the occasion fell in the last week of January 1957, as the celebration committee chair PV Rajamannar said, preparations for the celebrations began in January 1956. The celebrations featured an exhibition on the Engineering College grounds, ‘arranged on a mammoth scale, which attracted nearly two lakhs of visitors’, the centenary convocation where honorary degrees were conferred on several ‘distinguished scholars and renowned public men,’ including Dr S Radhakrishnan who delivered the centenary address, a science symposium under the presidency of Sir CV Raman and the centenary sports.

The University of Calcutta in January 1957 published a book, Hundred Years of the University of Calcutta: A history of the university issued in commemoration of the centenary celebrations, spanning 561 pages, edited by a committee headed by Pramathnath Banerjee. The book featured eight chapters — dealing with the beginning of western education, the foundation of the university, the formative years: 1857–82, years of consolidation: 1883–1904, the university and the government: 1904–24, reform and reorganisation: 1904–24, the post-graduate and other problems: 1924–34, and recent activities: 1934–56 — and six appendixes.

The university also published a supplement to the book on its hundred years spanning 750 pages in December 1957 that featured a select list of research publications by the university, addresses by the dignitaries and notes of welcome and wishes by all foreign and Indian universities that poured in on the occasion, accounts of colleges and the description of centenary events that included sports, an exhibition and funds along with the list of donors to the funds.

The University of Dhaka published a book on how the university was founded and the structure of the university, The History of the University of DhakaDhaka Bishwabidyalay O Elakar Itihas: 1599–2012 (History of the University of Dhaka and its areas), first published in 2014, came out to fill in the gap, but that too by and large remained a description of the physical environment of the university. There have been fewer than a dozen other books, on the history of the university, the role it played, its impact on and some of its departments. Noted among them is University of Dhaka: Making, Unmaking, Remaking, edited by Imtiaz Ahmed and Iftekhar Iqbal, came out in 2016, that provided some insight into what is expected. But it is a private publication.

Most of the books are brought out by publishers other than the Dhaka University Press and most of them largely failed to present readers with any critical appreciation of the university, its foundation, impact and progress. The centenary celebrations could be a good occasion for the university to come up with a large volume, detailing a critical appreciation of the university. Neither would it require to be carried out ‘on a limited scale’ nor would it call for any adherence to social distancing — the Covid-time buzzwords that have almost left the university, along with its other public counterparts, crippled and the students disappointed for more than a year.

The university is set to bring out a souvenir, which is feared not to be any better than an album titled Smritir Chhonwa: 1921–2009, a history and photographic album of Dhaka University, that was privately published in 2009. The Dhaka University Press became the distributor of the book, rendered unattractive and ineffective because of scanty accounts and hordes of diminutive photographs that eat away the interests of readers. The university has had a great occasion of coming up with a volume, featuring a critical history of the university and making it heard in society. The university also has had an occasion to publish a large volume with the works of scholars that it has so far produced or on the works that the university can boast of in having left its mark on society. Rites and rituals should not mar an occasion such as the centenary celebrations of the university that could be otherwise used to create impact, a grave one, on its history and on society, in a mark of excellence that the university does not appear to have celebrated for long.

It is a matter of pride that the university completes its hundred years, with its academic sheen having diminished over the past few decades because of a partisan politicisation of the university administration and the teaching staff. It should be the occasion for the university to own up to its weaknesses through a critical assessment and to resolve to restore the glory of the institution, by mostly doing the routine chores that it has been founded for and by sometimes breaking through the bounds of the chores for it to shine for a hundred more years. It should be an occasion to look back as much as to look forward to set traditions to inspire the next generation.

Traditions are not set overnight. A Harvard professor on a visit to Oxford asks a professor there, as the story goes, how Oxford lawns are so lush green. The Oxford professor says, ‘It’s easy. We mow and water.’ The Harvard professor asks back, ‘We do the same. But why are yours greener than ours?’ The Oxford professor smiles and says, ‘We have been doing this for 600 years.’

With no disrespect intended for Harvard University, founded in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and no eulogy meant for the University of Oxford, founded in 1096 in Oxfordshire, this speaks of tradition — a simple task accomplished regularly for years that can do wonders.

 

Akkas, Abu Jar M (2021 June 28) University of Dhaka: Inadequately headed for centenary celebrations. New Age. 8

 

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