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History repeats itself

National politics always had an impact on Delhi University. Recent incidents proved it again, write Nayanjot Lahiri and Madhukar Tewari.

india Updated: Mar 30, 2008 23:06 IST

What is it about this sepia-tinted photograph of a group of famous people posing before the old Viceregal Lodge, better known as the Vice-Chancellor’s Office at the University of Delhi, that is worth reflecting upon? Why have they come together? And why should we, who have nothing to do with that event, choose to remember it now?

But first, let us create a context for it. This is no ordinary picture. For one, the occasion it captures is an extraordinary one. A special convocation of the University held over 60 years ago, on March 7, 1948. What made it special was that the University — at its first convocation in an independent India — remembered its birth 25 years ago, by conferring honorary degrees on a galaxy of stalwarts.

By honouring these stalwarts, of course, the University was enriching itself, something which cannot always be said about the modern-day honours system in universities. Each of them was integral to the new India that had been birthed — our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru; India’s last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten; our first woman cabinet minister, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur; our minister of education, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad; the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Zakir Hussain; an eminent economist, Professor V.K.R.V. Rao; the pioneer of professional library education, Rao Sahib S.R. Ranganathan; a formidable geologist, D.N. Wadia; a scientist, S.S. Bhatnagar, considered to be the father of research laboratories in India; an eminent jurist, Sir B.N. Rau, also Constitutional Advisor to the Indian Constituent Assembly, and; among several others, even an archaeologist, the redoubtable Sir Mortimer Wheeler. The man, who had planned it, Sir Maurice Gwyer, Vice-Chancellor of the University, sits to the left of Mountbatten. More than any other, it is this man who helped develop the University into a centre of learning that, as he put it, would “not be unworthy of the City of Delhi and of the New India” which was coming to birth.

The sense of occasion captured on camera though, does not explain why the University had decided to commemorate its Silver Jubilee in an appropriately sober, yet unusually solemn manner. Why it was appropriate shall be obvious in a moment. Usually, though, such occasions were, and continue to be marked by high wattage celebrations. It would indeed have been fitting in this case since, in 1947, soon after the University became 25 years old, the Indian subcontinent had finally wrested Independence from British colonial rule.

Actually, a memorable week-long Silver Jubilee celebration had been visualised. This was slated for February 1948 when, along with a special convocation, there would be all-India debates, popular public lectures, dramatic and musical entertainment, publication of commemorative tomes, and a cricket match between the University and ‘the rest of Delhi’. Why then did this not quite work out as planned?

The reason though then fairly obvious, perhaps requires reiteration today. The moment of the establishment of independence in India (as in Pakistan) was accompanied by a horrific partition. As in Delhi, a disaster of some magnitude began to unfold shortly thereafter in the University. Independence Day had been celebrated normally enough. The national flag was hoisted in the presence of teachers, students and other members of the University while in the evening, the main buildings were illuminated. Gwyer, unable to be present personally, had sent his blessings from Kasauli, with a message where he hoped that the new India would open still wider horizons for the University.

However, some weeks later, the situation became tense and violent, recounted in vivid detail in Gyanendra Pandey’s Remembering Partition. Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, Professor of History and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, had sensed that something was about to unfold with the arrival of Hindu and Sikh refugees in huge numbers from Pakistan, who were living in several camps close to the university. By early September, Muslim inhabitants in localities like Timarpur were attacked, which resulted in Muslims pouring in to the Campus to seek refuge. Within a day of this, the Campus was attacked. Qureshi’s library was burnt down, and houses and rooms where Muslims lived, came to be looted one by one, by mobs. “Muslim students and teachers were evacuated with difficulty... Women hastily put on high caste marks on their foreheads and put on Hindu clothes.” Several reached Purana Qila’s refugee camp, others the Pakistan High Commission. The whereabouts of several staff members including the cashier, Riasat Ali, remained unknown for months, while the Registrar of the University, M.A. Hosain, could not rejoin the University. As for Qureshi, whose commitment made Gwyer reminisce that the “University could not have possessed a more devoted and loyal son,” he resigned within a matter of months. The physical damage around was bad enough but what distressed Gwyer, who had spent many years building it up, “was the moral damage which the University had sustained”.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. That was the time, for instance, when migration certificates were issued to Muslim students leaving for Pakistan without the usual ‘no dues’ clearance. Later, in the case of one student who had to appear in his subsidiary subjects, air passage on a priority basis was arranged so that he could come from Lahore for his exams. Also, huge numbers of displaced students from Pakistan had to be accommodated. The University extended the last date for admission to all classes till the end of October in 1947, and even after that, admissions were made with the special permission of the Vice-Chancellor. Three colleges — Hindu, Ramjas and Indraprastha — ran ‘second shift classes’, where courses based on those of the Punjab University were taught to the students who had come from there. The numbers admitted stretched resources, in one college the increase in student numbers within a year was over 54 per cent.

Just as matters were settling down, the spectre of communal hatred again reared its head. On January 30, 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. A rare joint meeting of the Executive Council and Academic Council was organised to record the University’s sense of the loss that India and Delhi had sustained. The deteriorating inter-communal amity that freedom had brought with it was on every mind, and the pledge that was taken on that day specially mentioned that every endeavour would be made “to re-establish this University as a place of learning where two great cultures have met and enriched one another and which welcomes and gives protection to all”. It was in the light of all this — the unhappy disturbances that had occurred since the autumn of 1947 — that all plans to ‘celebrate’ the University’s Silver Jubilee, were dropped.

Thus, only a special convocation, came to mark the occasion, and as the photo shows so well, one which highlighted the link between public life and the University. Also, as the circumstances which made this an appropriate form of remembrance reveal, ours has been a University where national politics immediately impacts — whether it is a violent attack by the student wing of a national party against the Department of History that we recently saw, or the arrest of student leaders and karamcharis more than three decades ago during the dreaded Emergency, or the assault against beleaguered Muslim members of the University in 1947 described here.

Nayanjot Lahiri and Madhukar Tewari are with the University of Delhi.