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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

Centenary of Patna University, Bihar: Patna Gained at Dhaka’s Cost

Sunday 24 December 2017

by A.K. Biswas

Bihar was euphoric over the centenary cele-brations of the Patna University graced by the presence of the Prime Minister of India. After the universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, the nineteenth century saw the birth of two more universities—the fourth, Punjab University at Lahore (now in Pakistan) in 1882, and the fifth, Allahabad University in United Provinces (now UP) in 1887—under the colonial masters. The University of Patna, with jurisdiction over Orissa and Nepal, was the sixth one of higher learning established in 1917. Speaking candidly, Dacca’s (Dhaka’s) loss went to benefit Patna. To make it more explicit, the envy of the savants of Calcutta benefited Patna.

The annulment of the partition of Bengal brought the curtains down on the anti-partition agitation coupled with swadeshism between 1905 and 1911 over the creation of the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam with the capital at Dhaka. The partition was warmly welcomed by Muslims and the populous low castes who were in overwhelming majority in Eastern Bengal. Its annulment, therefore, sorely disillusioned them. To assuage the grievances of the majority, Governor-General Lord Hardinge declared in 1911 his plan to establish a university at Dhaka.

The brahmanical forces bared their fangs against Bengal’s second university in Bengal. Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee (June 29, 1864-May 25, 1924) and Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea (November 1848-August 1925), both educationists among others, fomented a campaign! The Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University for four consecutive two-year terms (1906-1914) and a fifth two-year term (1921-23), Sir Ashutosh was fondly nicknamed ‘the royal Bengal tiger’ whereas Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea (November 10, 1848-August 6, 1925), on the other hand, was ‘the uncrowned king of Bengal’ as well as the rashtraguru, ‘father of Indian nationalism’ for his role in the anti-partition struggle in Bengal and swadeshi movement. Rarely in history do saboteurs of the establishment of a university occupy as high a stature as educationists or patrons of learning as Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee and Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea. Of course, they had, as an accomplice, Provash Chandra Mitra, the Education Minister of Bengal, in the sinister game.1 According to one account,

“Many Hindu leaders were not happy with the government’s intention to set up a university at Dhaka. On February 16, 1912, a delegation, headed by advocate Dr Rashbehari Ghosh, met the Viceroy and expressed the apprehension that the establishment of a separate university at Dhaka would promote ‘an internal partition of Bengal’. They also contended, as was recorded in the Calcutta University Commission report later, that ‘Muslims of Eastern Bengal were in large majority cultivators and they would benefit in no way by the foundation of a university’. Lord Hardinge assured the delegation that no proposal, which could lead to the internal partition or division of Bengal would meet the support of the government. He also expressed that the new university would be open to all and it would be a teaching and a residential university. At one stage, Lord Hardinge told Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, that he was determined to establish a university at Dhaka in spite of all their opposition.”2

The Governor-General’s ‘determination’ under-lines the stubborn opposition he encountered from the royal Bengal tiger and the uncrowned king against the establishment of the university at Dhaka. This drives home the essence of what Plato said centuries ago: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The Greek philosopher perhaps did not have the misfortune to see men, who, though there flashed angelical glow on their faces, were “afraid of the light” Here Bengal’s talented and gifted men turned sworn enemies of the masses of their motherland! This was indeed a great tragedy.

They had, however, their cheerleaders to shower praises on them notwithstanding the subversion they inflicted on their targets. Lest we forget, it is noted, the more equipped and accomplished such men were, the damages to their victims were more irreparable and exacerbating. The university at Dhaka ultimately came into being a decade later in 1921! The delay and opposition from these men of high standing, understandably, drove the people of Eastern Bengal and Assam to deep sullenness. This only exemplified that the famous and celebrated had little love for the unlettered, underprivileged and deprived when their education was concerned.

A biographer of Gopal Krishna Gokhale recorded why ‘the uncrowned king of Bengal’, in league with others, opposed and sabotaged his Compulsory Primary Education Bill in 1911 in the Central Legislative Council. According to him, “Surendra Nath Banerjea opposed it (Compulsory Education Bill), fearing that it would divert funds for elementary education from higher education.”3 Sir S.N. Banerjea was the founder of Ripon College, Calcutta (renamed after him in post-independence India). Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Madan Mohan Malavyiya, notably, were two of the most promi-nent supporters of Gokhale’s Bill. The true colour of the rashtraguru was exposed when we see him jointly with Sir Ashutosh torpedoing the proposal for the foundation of the university at Dhaka as it aimed at addressing the higher educational needs and aspirations of the preponderantly Muslims and the untouchable population of Eastern Bengal. Wolves in sheep’s clothing have mostly posed real and unfailing dangers as they catch their targets unawares. Essentially Banerjea was against any form of education, primary or higher, to benefit the illiterate from the lower and neglected social hinterland. In 1907, the Chief Secretary, Eastern Bengal and Assam, conveyed the perception of the Lieutenant Governor to the Government of India the “present great keenness for education among the Muhammadans and Namasudras” who “practically” comprised “almost the whole of the peasantry” of the new province.4

History bears ample testimony of attitudinal hostility of the upper-caste Hindu leadership and gentry against the educational aspirations of the low castes and Muslims in Bengal. The careful chronicler of the British empire, William Hunter, traced the thread of prejudice in the nineteenth century. “The upper classes are opposed to the lower orders being taught at all.” If this left any gap or grey area, he filled that up by adding: “The Brahmans and Kayasthas deem education to be strictly their inheritance; and in losing the cooperation of the wealthy classes, the Government unavoidably fails to reach the ordinary cultivator; for however much the latter may be oppressed, he looks to the former to interpret every action of the foreign race which rules them.”5 The menace against mass education was known to the country long back—in the high noon of the overrated renaissance of nineteenth century Bengal! But the Young Bengal could not bulldoze the menace as they sprung from the same vicious stock.

Kayasthas opposed unsuccessfully High School for Chandals: a Sad Historical Record

In Bengal, the first ever English high school by and for the untouchables was established in 1908 at Orakandi in Faridpur of Eastern Bengal under the initiative of the crusading Namasudra socio-religious reformer, Guru Chand Thakur (1847-1937), with the aid and encouragement of the Australian Baptist missionary, Dr Cecil Silas Mead. They were immensely exploited and oppressed by the high-caste landlords and moneylenders who “tricked the illiterate peasants in everyday matters of rent or debt-payment receipts”. In this noble mission, they encountered “stiff opposition from high caste Kayasthas who were afraid that their share-cropper and servants would no longer work for them if they became educated”. 6 [Emphasis added by this writer] One of the torchbearers of Bengali bhadralok class was in the forefront of this opposition being afraid of the light for the illiterates!

We now know, who and why they disliked the spread of knowledge over a wider spectrum. It is in India alone where people hate their educated neighbours and countrymen either because of religion or caste. Out of the darkness of insanity they blocked the roads of new learners. Here is an illustration. Guru Chand Thakur’s son, Sasi Bhusan, and his friend, Bhishmadeb Das, were sent from their village Orakandi, Faridpur, to Calcutta for education. There the former matriculated and the latter cleared his entrance examinations (then equivalent to Intermediate standard). Both the young men were keen to pursue their studies in law at Calcutta. In a letter they informed Dr Mead that at this stage “our caste was discovered and we were barred from proceeding any further. We returned to Orakandi feeling completely crushed.”7

Interestingly, Sasi Bhusan Thakur’s father was invited around this time by Sir Surendra Nath Banerjea to join anti-partition agitation of Bengal and boycott of foreign goods. Guru Chand Thakur had turned down the invitation of Banerjea who, in league with Ashutosh Mukherjee and others, foiled the University at Dhaka. This happened in 1907 at Calcutta in the immediate post-renaissance Bengal. The Bengali intellectual class, however, is tireless in feeding us glowing accounts of the renaissance with Calcutta as the focal point. Two Chandal boys were shunted out from pursuing their dreams when their caste was discovered! Calcutta, the most shining city of the Anglo-Saxon Empire, was full of opportunities for education but the doors were open with stretched arms only for the upper castes! This was the essence of the over-hyped and overrated renaissance of nineteenth century Bengal.

About this time the Government of India was contemplating with the idea of abolishing fees in primary schools. A cross-section of opinions from various walks of life was consulted. H. Savage, the first member of the Board of Revenue, Eastern Bengal and Assam, made a striking observation in a letter dated January 12, 1907 to the Chief Secretary of Eastern Bengal and Assam:

“At present in the Dacca Division (at least) there is a system under which the grant-in-aid is in part contingent on the attendance of Muhammedan pupils or pupils of the lower caste Hindus. This system should be maintained and extended. There is a widespread feeling against pupils of these classes among the ordinary gurus—much more widespread than appears on the surface—and unless strict measures be taken under either European or Musalman supervision in each district, boys of the Musalman and lower Hindu classes will be shouldered out of the Pathshalas and the benefit of the abolition of fees will accrue solely to the high caste Hindus. Probably no amount of inspection will avail to prevent this, unless it be distinctly ruled that the teachers’ pay will, to certain extent, depend on the number of pupils of these classes who pass a certain examination.”8

Powerful upper castes used all their acquired scholarship and acumen in suppressing the vast section, though far numerous, considering them potentially dangerous to their own happiness and well-being. The enlightenment of the progressive Bengalis did not necessarily endow them with commensurate large heartedness and catholicity towards their less fortunate countrymen over access to education. Actually their character and action were marked by craftiness, deviousness and trickiness. It is a sheer catastrophe for millions of Indians that they have in drivers’ seats men who are enemies of their moral and material progress and prosperity. Lord Macaulay described them rather unflatteringly:“What the horns are to the buffalo, what the paw to the tiger, what the sting to the bee, what beauty, according to the old Greek song, is to woman, deceit is to Bengalee. Large promises, smooth excuses, elaborate tissues of circumstantial falsehood, chicanery, perjury, forgery are the weapons, offensive and defensive, of the people of the Lower Ganges.”9 Do those people of the Lower Ganges need identification? The countrymen, who have suffered the falsehood, chicanery, perjury and forgery, would instantly cheer Macaulay for talking, at least, the plain truth in so many words.

Sadly India never boasted of a man of the stature of Lord Richard Temple, a former Lieutenant Governor of Bengal (tenure 1874-1877). In November 1882, while addressing the Board of Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church, New York, he was confronted with the inevitable question whether Britain should give education to Indians and face disloyalty and rebellion or keep them submerged under the deluge of illiteracy and ignorance for the sake of loyalty and obedience to the Empire. His replies were classic:

“As to the loyalty or disloyalty, England will do her duty without fear. I believe education will produce loyalty. But, be the political consequences what it may, we must be just and fear not, and give India the education in those arts and sciences which have made England herself what she is. Even if certain sort of disloyalty were to be the consequence, we must persevere, for we could not consent to keep the people ignorant in order to keep them loyal.”10

Did we ever hear any Indian speak in such noble language and sublimity as this? Make no mistake that our celebrated savants are the bitterest enemies of illiterate India the whole of which they want tightly under their boots. They speak in patriotic veneer from public platforms only. We have not recognised the wolves in sheep’s clothing even after 135 years of such sane warning.


Let me, before I conclude, have a glimpse of the harrowing experience of a Negro, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) who fought and made a spectacular name in America in the nineteenth century. He wrote himself the ‘Narrative of the Life of An American Negro’ which in 1845 was published in Boston. Separated in infancy from his mother, Douglass was transferred from master to master. At 12, he became a property of Hugh Auld and his wife Sophia, “a kind and tender-hearted woman”, who treated him “as she supposed one human being ought to treat another”. Education was the most precious wealth that was then denied by law to the Negroes in America. Douglass recorded in his autobiography, “...... she very kindly commenced to teach me the A B C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Sophia to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read.” To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give the nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.” “Now,” he said, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

His master’s peremptory behaviour stirred up in Douglass “an entire new train of thoughts. It was new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly.” Prophetically, Douglass noted that “from the moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was what I wanted, and got it at a time when I least expected.” Every dark cloud has a shining streak. He was positive in his thinking and approach for his future.

Then he recorded that “Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the inevitable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read and write.” His sublime goal, thus, was defined. “What he most dreaded, that I most desired.” A realisation dawned on him, what his master “most loved, that I most hated.” They stood on direct line of fierce confrontation. “That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great god, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.” In conclusion Douglass wrote in his memoirs, “In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.”11

The stubborn opposition of the Bengali Hindu intelligentsia against the university at Dhaka was precisely out of the consciousness that prompted the White Americans against the black African-Americans acquiring education and knowledge for all in the nineteenth century. The upper-caste minuscule Hindus did not want educated ryot/tenants and masses whom they treated no better than slaves. A decade that elapsed between 1911, the year when the Dhaka University was proposed by the highest colonial authority, and 1921, the year it ultimately came into being, starkly stands out as a shameful chapter in the history of education in Bengal marked by conspiracies of the bhadralok against the people of the new province.

Frederick Douglass rose to be an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his dazzling oratory and incisive antislavery writings. In his time, he was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to the slaveholders’ arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. The same argu-ment is dished out almost everyday from various corners of accursed India with glee against Dalit and tribal communities as did the America’s white racist counterparts a century-and-a-half ago!


1. Biswas, A.K., ‘Universalisation of Education: India in a Trap—Bane of Negligence Portends National Disaster’, Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009.

2. University of Dhaka.

3. Nanda, B. R., Gokhale, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 389.

4. Letter of H. LeMesueier, Chief Secretary to the Government of Eastern Bengal and Assam bearing no. 11053C, dated September 30, 1907 Selections From The Records of The Government of India, Home Department, No. CCCCXLV. Home Department Serial no. 33, Papers Regarding The Question of The Abolition of Fees in Primary Schools, Calcutta, Superintendent Government Printing, 1910, p. 255.

5. Hunter, Statistical Account of Faridpur, London, 1876, p. 349.

6. Sarkar, Sumit, Beyond Nationalist Frame, Permanent Black, 2002, Delhi, p. 236.

7. Elva Schroeder, Doctor Sahib: The Story of Dr Cecil Mead, Even Before Publishing, second edition, 2006, p. 68.

8. Records of the Government of India, Home Department Serial no. 33—Paper Regarding The Question of the Abolition of Fees in Primary School, Calcutta, Superintendent, Government Printing India, 1910, p. 314.

9. Lord Macaulay, Thomas Babington, Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays, Boston, 1860, pp. 19-20.

10. Biswas, A K, Social and Cultural Vision of India: Facts against Fiction, Pragati Publication, Delhi, 1996, p. 214.

11. The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., First printing September 1987, pp. 174-275.

The author is a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur (Bihar). He can be reached at biswasatulk[at]

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