DU at 100: Delhi and its university: How an institution helped shape a city

May 02, 2022 05:35 PM IST

The first three universities in India were established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1854. A 1917 commission set up to suggest improvements in Calcutta University paved the way for an independent varsity for the new imperial capital

The history of Delhi University, which completed 100 years on Sunday, is closely linked with the history of New Delhi, the capital of the country. Before the capital was shifted from Calcutta in 1911, Delhi, once the intellectually and culturally vibrant Mughal capital, had suffered decades of neglect at the hands of the British after the Revolt of 1857.

Delhi University was established as a unitary, teaching and residential university with three constituent colleges -- St Stephen’s, Hindu, and Ramjas -- on May 1, 1992. (Amal KS/HT)
Delhi University was established as a unitary, teaching and residential university with three constituent colleges -- St Stephen’s, Hindu, and Ramjas -- on May 1, 1992. (Amal KS/HT)

The first three universities in the country were established in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras in 1854. Delhi had no university. It only had three colleges -- St. Stephen’s College, founded in 1881; Hindu College, founded in 1899 and Ramjas College, established in 1917. These colleges were affiliated with Punjab University in Lahore, which had become the hub of art, culture and education after the fall of the Mughal empire. But Delhi’s declining fortunes changed in 1911 when the British announced that the capital of India would be transferred from Calcutta to Delhi. That was when the idea of a university was first mooted.

But no one was not quite sure if Delhi needed a university at all.

The matter was settled by the report of the Calcutta University Commission, set up in 1917 under Sir Michael E. Sadler, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, to look into the model of the Calcutta University and suggest improvements.


According to the Delhi University Calendar, 1923-24, which also dwells on the history of its establishment and the report of the Sadler Committee, “The Committee recommended that the Calcutta University and the other Universities of India instituted on the model of the London University as purely federal and examining bodies, should be reorganized, and that the Universities in India should, in future, be of a unitary teaching and residential type.”

This recommendation, says the Calendar, led to the universities of Allahabad and the Punjab “re-shaping their constitution”, which meant that “the colleges in Delhi could no longer be affiliated with the University of the Punjab, and so the Government of India felt the necessity of providing an independent university for the students of the new Imperial capital”.

Act No. VIII of 1922 (The Delhi University Act, 1922) came into force on May 1, 1922, and Delhi University was established as a unitary, teaching and residential university with three constituent colleges -- St Stephen’s, Hindu, and Ramjas -- in accordance with the recommendations of the Sadler Committee with Viceroy Lord Reading as Chancellor and Hari Singh Gaur, a distinguished lawyer, as vice-chancellor. The representatives of the constituent colleges had a major share in the teaching and administration of the new university.

Within a few months, however, the university’s existence was threatened, with a government-appointed Retrenchment Committee headed by Lord Inchcape recommending in 1923 that the plan for a university in New Delhi should be reconsidered as there was “no lack of university education in north India” and the “present financial conditions do not justify the foundation of a new university”.

Vice-chancellor Gaur and the principals of the three colleges, FF Monk (St Stephen’s), NV Thadani (Hindu) and Kedar Nath (Ramjas), vehemently opposed the recommendation. The question was finally settled by the Imperial Legislative Assembly in March 1923 when, after much debate, it decided in favour of the continuance of the university.

The first convocation of Delhi University was held on March 26, 1923 with 750 students of the constituent colleges, who were de-affiliated from Punjab University, as invitees. Honorary degrees were conferred on Viceroy Lord Reading, pro-vice-chancellor Muhammad Shafi and the vice-chancellor Gaur.

The search for a campus

For the next decade, the university, which initially functioned from the Ritz cinema building at Kashmere Gate, did not have a permanent campus. In fact, when Lutyens planned New Delhi, the site for a university was allotted where the Kasturba Gandhi Marg is located today. It was anointed Great College Street, but the plan was later dropped.

In an essay for the book Delhi Through The Ages, edited by RE Frykenberg, late historian Prof Aparna Basu wrote, “The university was housed in rented buildings in different parts of the old city. Its administrative offices were successively housed on Underhill Road, in Curzon House on Alipore Road…”

In 1926, the university was allotted a portion of the Central Legislative Assembly building, which also housed a temporary secretariat (today’s Delhi Vidhan Sabha) comprising the assembly hall and the adjacent rooms on a monthly rent of 350. (It was here that the Delhi University Act was passed on 28 February 1922).

The university itself appointed a site committee which examined the possibilities of housing the university in areas such as Kashmere Gate; the Viceregal Estate and the old Metcalfe estate. In 1927, it was recommended that the university be shifted to the Viceregal Lodge, a not-so-grand bungalow of Palladian design which served as the residence of five Viceroys till 1931.

But the problem was that the Delhi Conspiracy Case commission (the panel that was probing the bomb attack on Lord Hardinge in 1912) was also housed in that building. It is believed that Bhagat Singh was kept in the windowless dungeon-like basement here before he was hanged in Lahore in March 23, 1931. Finally, in 1933, the Viceregal Estate was transferred to the university for a rent of 3,480 per year. The university offices and the library were the first to move to the new site. Until the 1930s, the science laboratories were partly housed in the kitchen of the Viceregal Lodge.

Initially, the university had only two faculties -- arts and science. Faculty of arts had departments such as English history, economics, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian, and the science faculty had only physics and chemistry departments. No wonder, two decades after Delhi University was founded many students in Delhi still preferred to go to Allahabad and Lucknow universities.

But Delhi University underwent many far-reaching changes in the 1940s under the stewardship of Maurice Gwyer, who was appointed the vice-chancellor in 1938.

In 1942, honours and postgraduate classes were started in science. Delhi University was also the first in India to institute professorial chairs. VKRV Rao (he later founded Delhi School of Economics) was the first to be appointed a full-time professor of economics, and DS Kothari was appointed the professor of physics. In 1943, SN Sen was appointed professor of History. The university also instituted Readerships in different subjects. “Gywer was a visionary who radically reconfigured the academic, cultural landscape of the Delhi University. The university transformed the socio-civic ethos of the capital city and created a whole new intellectual culture,” said Sydney Rebeiro, 80, former advisor and dean, alumni affairs, Delhi University.

DU post-Partition

Delhi University celebrated its silver jubilee in 1947, the same year that India became independent. Delhi was flooded with refugees, and the university was forced to change its rules to give admission to the displaced students. Ramjas College was the first institution to run the classes in two shifts to accommodate students who came from East Pakistan to Delhi after Partition. The morning classes were affiliated with Delhi University, and the evening classes with the Punjab University. A camp college was started in Harcourt Butler School on Mandir Marg to accommodate staff and students displaced from various colleges in West Punjab (Pakistan).

In 1947, Delhi had six colleges, and only one, St Stephen’s, was on the campus. Post-Independence, the university saw rapid growth. Several new colleges were started to accommodate students from West Punjab. The university campus also grew, and later colleges such as Hindu College (1953)and Ramjas (1951)shifted to the university campus.

Hansraj College was started in 1948 by the managing committee of DAV College Lahore. Miranda House — named after Gwyer’s favourite Shakespearean character from The Tempest-- was started the same year. In 1954, Kirori Mal College came into being.

“There were few colleges on the campus, which wore a deserted look those days. Hindu College had shifted to the campus only three years back,” says Satish Sundra, 85, who joined St Stephen’s in 1956 to pursue history. “The best thing was teachers and students enjoyed a close relationship, and students often turned to their teachers for help not only with academic but also personal issues. Delhi University had become a much sought after institution by the time I joined college.”

In the 1960s, several new women’s colleges, — Lakshmibai, Kamala Nehru, Gargi, and Janki Devi – came up.

In 1973, as the city expanded, the South Campus of Delhi University started at the initiative of then vice-chancellor Sarup Singh. Originally located in six residential buildings in South Extension, it moved to Benito Juarez Road, near Dhaula Kuan, in 1984. Many new professional courses such as electronic sciences, genetics, and biophysics were introduced on the South Campus.

Over the 100 years of its existence the university has come a long way. Starting with 750 students and three colleges as a unitary, teaching and residential university, today it has has 91 affiliated colleges, over 500,000 students, 16 faculties, and 86 academic departments.

“It is a matter of pride for me to serve as the vice-chancellor of the varsity at a time it is completing its centenary. The university has done extremely well in academics. We have produced excellent social scientists, engineers, and policymakers,” said Yogesh Singh, Delhi University vice-chancellor. “Now our goal is to enter the league of the world’s 200 best universities and we have both the capacity and capability to achieve this.”

Sydney Rebeiro, who also set up the university’s Culture Council in 1985, said,“Delhi University has many firsts to its credit during its 100 years of journey. Hardly any university has had such a transformative effect on a city as DU has had on the Capital.”

(With inputs from Sadia Akhtar)


    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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