Establishing Dhaka University Museum: A Demand of Time

By Barrister Mizanur Rahman


Dhaka University is the oldest university of the country bearing the evidences of more than a century. The age of this historic institution is even more than that of the country itself. The involvement and the contribution of this institution towards the origination of the country is the most unique feature, undoubtedly, of this ancient establishment. It is, therefore, simply a demand of time that a museum should be established to preserve the invaluable assets and heritage of Dhaka University.
Almost all prominent universities in the world have its own museum. Some top universities have multiple museums. Among the world-leading UK universities, Oxford University has 4 museums to preserve its history, whereas Cambridge University has 8 in total including the Botanic Garden. In the USA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the number one top-ranking university (as per 2023 ranking), has world-renowned MIT Museum with the collection of 188 holography pieces, largest in the world. Harvard University has remarkable 15 museums, whereas Stanford University, the third-ranked university in the country, has 3 museums.
Now looking back to Asian region, the number one top-ranking university, the Tsinghua University of China, has 3 museums. The Peking University of China, second in the ranking, hosts many museums, such as theMuseum of University Historyand the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology.
Turning back to our neighbouring countries, the top university of India, again as per 2023 rankings, is Indian Institute of Science of Karnataka which has a museum of its own. The Jamia Millia Islamia University of new Delhi, placed third in the raking, also has its own museum since 2012. On the other hand, Pakistan’s top-ranking universities are stepping forward to establish their own museum as well; like University of Agriculture Faisalabad was reported in 2016 to establish their own museum (1).
Now I will focus on some features of the glorious past this university has to highlight the importance of having a museum for the sake of preserving and protecting those for future generations.
Dhaka University campus has always been the seedbed for groundbreaking progressive thoughts, nationalist movements and movement against the British rule since its inception. One thing must be acknowledged that this is perhaps the only university in the world which has played the pivotal role in the emergence of an independent nation. From the language movement in 1952, the education movement of 1962, the anti-Ayub movement of 1967-69 and the Liberation War of 1971, the roles of Dhaka University can be seen as ‘unique’ and ‘unparalleled’ in the world. Even in the post liberation Bangladesh, the students of this great institution have led the anti-Ershad, an army dictator in power, movement of the 1990s.
Language Movement in 1952
Following the second and final Partition of Bengal in 1947, Bengalis from either side of the newly formed nations were shaken and shocked to the core. They were still resenting under the trauma and were yet to assess and come to terms with the magnitude of pain and loss when the citizens of East Pakistan were forced to encounter a new challenge regarding their mother togue.
In November 1947, a key resolution at a National Education Summit in Karachi advocated Urdu and English as the sole state languages. Opposition and protests arose immediately. Students from Dhaka University led the protests and demanded Bengali as an official language of Pakistan. However, the Pakistan Public Service Commission removed Bengali from the list of approved subjects, as well as from currency notes and stamps. That sparked public outrage and a huge number of Bengali students met on the University of Dhaka campus on 8 December 1947 to formally demand that Bengali be made an official language.
It is a historic joke that the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, spoke no Urdu, a mere five percent of West Pakistanis spoke Urdu, and yet Jinnah reiterated his government’s ill intention in an official announcement at Dhaka Paltan Maidan in 1948 that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan forgetting that Bengali belonged to 70 million people.
In response, public processions and rallies were being organised in Dhaka. Students of Dhaka University along with students of other colleges in city organised a general strike on 11 March 1948 on which Police attacked injuring several students and leaders including A. K. Fazlul Huq. Continuing strikes were observed the following four days.
The Urdu-Bengali controversy continued when Jinnah’s successor, Governor-General Khawaja Nazimuddin, adamantly defended again the “Urdu-only” policy in a speech on 27 January 1952.  As an attempt to prevent protests and demonstration, the Government imposed Section 144 in Dhaka, thereby banning any gathering. However, students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law and organised a protest on 21 February 1952. The movement reached its climax when police killed several demonstrators indiscriminately on that day, the day was later declared and recognised as “International Mother Tongue Day” by the UNESCO in 1999.  The deaths of language-martyrs provoked widespread civil unrest. After years of conflict, the central government yielded and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956.
The Language Movement led to the assertion of Bengali national identity in East Bengal and later East Pakistan and became the forebearer to all subsequent Bengali nationalist movements, including 1960s student movements, the 6-Point Movement and subsequently the Bangladesh Liberation War.
Although the question of official languages was settled by 1956, the military regime of Ayub Khan promoted the interests of West Pakistan at the expense of East Pakistan. Despite forming the majority of the national population, the East Pakistani population continued to be under-represented in the civil and military services and received a minority of state funding and other government help.  The sectional divisions kept growing as a result of regional economic, social, and political imbalances.
Meanwhile, in 1962, Ayub Khan appointed a new provincial Governor to East Pakistan, Abdul Monem Khan, who was enormously unpopular, particularly among students. He realised that Dhaka University’s politicized students presented a threat to their government and he, therefore, planted an action plan to weaken the stance of Dhaka University in national politics. Within months of his appointment, he replaced the then Vice-Chancellor as well as fired several known revolutionary professors.
In retaliation, students of Dhaka University burst into grievance and became major supporters of the Awami League and its Six Points Platform. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the undisputed leader of Awami League, nurtured a close relationship with the campus and students. Dhaka University once again played a pioneering role and demanded its right to self-determination that eventually led to the liberation war of Bangladesh.
Following the landslide victory of Awami League in 1970’s general election, the leaders of West Pakistan made a ‘blue print’, while continuing dialogues with the leaders of Awami League, to crush the uprise of the Bengali nationalist and self-determination movement in East Pakistan. On the night of March 25, 1971, the West Pakistan army launched ‘Operation Searchlight’ against the general public of East Pakistan. It began with great cunningness, surprise, deception, speed and planning
to wipe out Bengalis from the face of the earth. Dhaka University, the epicentre of Bengalis’ nationalist movements, was one of the three key targets (the other two being East Pakistan Rifles HQ at Pilkhana and Rajarbagh Police Lines) of this brutal operation.
Residential halls of the University of Dhaka were particularly targeted. Overwhelming force was used at the university to massacre students at their dormitories. The only Hindu residential hall, Jagannath Hall, was completely destroyed by the Pakistani army, and an estimated 600 to 700 of its residents were murdered. They also killed 12 students of Salimullah Hall, 7 students of Fazlul Huq Hall, 7 students of Surja Sen Hall, 10 students of Mohsin Hall and 6 female students in Ruquaiyah Hall. Their brutality knew no bounds, they lined up the students in the field and shot them. After they were killed, their bodies were bayoneted to confirm death.
Madhu Da’s Canteen, the vibrant centre that Madhusudan Dey unwittingly created, which was the epicentre of many significant movements and was considered as a parallel school of progressive thought, politics and rational debates, was shelled down by the army and razed to the ground.  Besides, the Pakistan army vandalised Dhaka University Teachers’ Club and killed four of its staff. All the priests of Gurudwara Nanak Sahi, Shib Bari temple and Ramna Kali temple were killed. Later it was estimated that on March 25 and 26, the Pakistani army killed at least 200 students and 10 teachers of Dhaka University.
There are hundreds of places in Dhaka University which have immense significance for their connection with Bangladesh’s history and origin. In fact, the entire university campus can be considered as a museum of the liberation war of 1971. That’s why it is needless to say that the glorious past this historic institution holds must be protected and preserved through establishing a museum of its own for the future generations to come.
Writer: Mizanur Rahman, Barrister.
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