Within the subcontinent’s educational history, Delhi University (DU) looms large as the juggernaut of academia. It has more than 300,000 students spread across its 80 colleges, 84 post-graduate departments and its School of Open Learning. This makes it the largest university of India. Its academic reputation, while certainly in need of refurbishment, is still the most impressive in the country.
It was not always this way. When DU was born 85 summers ago, it began in an unremarkable way. Even though the 1911 declaration, which made Delhi India’s imperial capital, contained within it the seeds of the formation of the University, British rulers were not keen to give it life. More than a decade passed before it was born, and another decade before it acquired a permanent home. In fact, DU’s first premises, as Aparna Basu’s University of Delhi recounts, were at the Ritz cinema complex in Kashmiri Gate. Two of its three colleges — St Stephen’s and Hindu — were located in the same area. The third, Ramjas, was at Anand Parbat.
‘Delhi University’ was not even the first choice of name. If it had been left to the British babu, H Sharp, in charge of the education department in the 1920s, it may well have been called Prince of Wales University. Sharp had hoped that this would persuade ‘His Royal Highness’ to lay its foundation stone. Lord Reading, India’s viceroy, though, thought better about giving it the royal name. This is not because it smacked of obsequiousness but because he felt that “the future success of the institution appeared to be somewhat doubtful.”
Reading’s was not a wrong assessment. That the University came into being in 1922 is itself surprising. The British members of the Viceroy’s Council had thrown cold water on the proposal. Universities as institutions that transformed raw minds into educated adults, may have earned accolades, but in government corridors, there were those who remained skeptical about their ‘usefulness’. In this case, the Home Member, WH Vincent, was reluctant to clear additional funds while the Finance Member, Sir Malcolm Hailey believed that India had “too many universities which are unable to finance themselves or get financed.”
It was an Indian member of the Council, Muhammad Shafi who pointed out that whereas England’s 18 universities serviced fifty million people, for the education needs of the 30 million population of Punjab, Northwest Frontier and Delhi, there was only Lahore University. As he put it, it would be “a standing reproach against the Central Government that in the one province which is still under their direct charge and where they have their own winter home, they have not yet established the university which was an integral part of the original scheme of transfer of India’s capital to Delhi.” The Viceroy went along with Shafi and other Indian members of the Council, Tej Bahadur Sapru and BN Sharma. That is how the scheme for a university in Delhi was carried forward.
The penny pinchers, though, succeeded in ensuring that it began its existence with a pauper’s purse. An annual grant of Rs 75,000 was coughed up but reduced to Rs 40,000. This was surprisingly stingy, since Delhi was the capital. Around the same time, the government was spending large sums of money on building ostentatious structures for itself in what is now called Lutyen’s Delhi. This is also surprising since other universities set up a little before this, worked with larger grants. The Lucknow University had seed money of Rs 13 lakh while the University of Dacca had Rs 5.5 lakh. Even Rangoon University’s budget was more than four times that of DU. That DU’s first Vice-Chancellor (V-C), Hari Singh Gour — a noted barrister — did not draw a salary must certainly have helped matters. Those who succeeded Gour were, like him, legal luminaries who remained honorary V-Cs.
Curiously, even with such a small budget, soon after being founded, the University faced the prospect of closure at the hands of a Retrenchment Committee. This was the infamous Inchcape Committee. Its brief was to suggest means by which State expenditure might be curtailed. While some institutes were to be pruned, in the case of DU, Lord Inchcape’s panel observed that the financial conditions did not justify formation of a new University, and recommended that the scheme be reconsidered.
DU’s founders offered a defence against Inchcape that was swift and unwavering. The principals of its three colleges, along with the V-C and the Rector pointed out that this was tantamount to stabbing a healthy infant. By the standards of other new universities, it had an outstanding beginning. Unlike the Lucknow University, which had just 31 graduates on its rolls even though it was entitled to register graduates from 12 districts, DU, they wrote, had already registered more than 300 graduates. Fortunately, the University managed to escape the Inchcape axe.
Gour’s contribution to DU is worth acknowledging. The indefatigable institution-builder in Gour can be seen in the way he created the Faculty of Law. It came to be founded with members of the local Bar, along with the V-C himself, becoming its honorary teachers. The quality of teaching must have been outstanding because registration more than tripled within a year.
The democrat in Gour can be discerned in his intervention in the debate in the Legislative Assembly, where he underlined the necessity of having a majority of elected members, as against nominated and ex-officio members, in the Delhi University Court. He was that rare breed, who could recognise merit and tolerate dissent. After becoming the V-C, Gour appointed VG Kale on the Department of Economics’ Committee of Courses. Since Kale was a eminent professor of Economics in Pune’s Fergusson College, this endowed prestige to the Committee. At the same time, his appointment was amazing because before this, Kale had given a written note of dissent about the autocratic powers that the Delhi University bill vested in the Vice Chancellor.
Nor did Gour kowtow before imperial authority. Public occasions, instead, were used by him to remind the government of its duty — how many V-Cs these days demonstrate such courage? For instance, he possibly caused some embarrassment to the Viceroy (who was the chancellor of the University) at the third convocation of DU when he reminded him that this university, located in the imperial capital, was the poorest of all of India’s universities. “With the possibilities of improvement that exist there,” he asked the Viceroy, “what could not be achieved if the Government of India treated this University in the same spirit as the neighbouring Provinces treat their own?” In fact, no faculty in Du was named by him after either a viceroy or a British royal.
The self-respect and autonomy, which Gour displayed in defending the interests of the fledgling university he served is, sadly, markedly absent now. We have, after all, just been treated to the spectacle of a distinguished historian who, as V-C of another university in Delhi, named university property after the HRD minister who ‘granted’ government funds for its development. Fortunately, DU may have outgrown its unremarkable beginning but, in other ways, it still follows the path of its remarkable founder V-C.
Nayanjot Lahiri and MA Sikandar are with Delhi University