From 3 Colleges to a Pan-India Legacy – How DU Shaped Up in These 100 Years

For a long time under the colonial rule, Delhi was deprived of a university.

6 min read
From 3 Colleges to a Pan-India Legacy – How DU Shaped Up in These 100 Years

Recently, on 1 May 2022, Delhi University crossed a milestone as it celebrated a century of its establishment.

Spread across the capital city, Delhi University and the 90 colleges that are now affiliated under it, have become a space of learning that attract lakhs of students from the entire length and breadth of India.

But it all started with just three colleges, 750 students, eight departments and two faculties a hundred years back.


Why Delhi University Came Decades After Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta Universities

For a long time under the colonial rule, Delhi was deprived of a university.

The country’s first three universities were established in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras in 1854, more than six decades before Delhi University was founded.

The reason for the late conception for Delhi University, RC Thakran, a retired professor who taught history in Delhi University, explains, is the fact that Delhi was not not as attractive for the British unlike the port cities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras which were important commercial centres in British India.

“Delhi which was a landlocked area and also very hostile in terms of its climate and politics for the British. It is here that the Revolt of 1857 took place. The British was not in a position to have full control in the areas in around Delhi such as Punjab and Haryana. Therefore, Delhi was not very attractive for them at that time period.”
RC Thakran, Retired History Professor, Delhi University

Another retired professor of history from Delhi University, Narayani Gupta, added, "Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras were the capitals of the three Presidencies of British India whereas Delhi was a town in the North-Western Provinces (later called United Provinces of Agra and Oudh)."

As a result, before the university came into existence, Delhi had only three colleges – St Stephen's established in 1881, Hindu College founded in 1889 and Ramjas College founded in 1917 – all of which were affiliated under Punjab University of Lahore.

“There was, of course, the excellent Delhi College later known as Zakir Hussain College but that was shut down in 1877,” Narayani Gupta, an urban historian, pointed out.

"Some of the other universities that came before DU were Aligarh Muslim University which began as the Mahommedan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875, the University of Punjab in Lahore that was established in 1882, and the University of Allahabad in 1887. Students from Delhi looking for a university degree could choose to go to one of these three universities."
Narayani Gupta, Urban Historian and Retired History Professor

The Conception of DU

The idea of a university in Delhi came around only after the capital of British India was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.

“Once they realised that Delhi happens to be the seat of power for centuries and the fact that it was centrally located, it became quite important for the British to consolidate their power in the area for political reason. Until and unless they established themselves as a seat of power in Delhi, they wouldn’t be able to have full control over the area. So, they decided to shift the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911," Prof Thakran said.

A year later Delhi was separated from Punjab.

"The Punjab and UP Universities seemed too far for the Delhi students to go. By this time, universities were proliferating in British India and the princely states"

"The Punjab and UP Universities seemed too far for the Delhi students to go. By this time, universities were proliferating in British India and the princely states."
Narayani Gupta, Urban Historian and Retired History Professor

But did Delhi need its own university? This was a question that the administrators were pondering upon.

"After the capital was shifted to Delhi, some good administrators realised that since Delhi happens to be a new capital for British India, it would also be good to have a strong educational institution, so their interests are protected," Prof Thakran explained.

But that matter of establishing a university in Delhi found resolution only with the Sadler University Commission recommendations.

To examine the shortcomings of higher education in Calcutta, this commission was appointed in 1917, with Michael Sadler as the chairman. One of its recommendations was that Indian universities needed to be re-organised "as unitary, teaching and residential institutions".

So, affiliation with Punjab University could no longer be allowed. Besides, it was believed that a government-funded university would thwart attempts by nationalists to set up their own institutions.

On 16 January 1922, the Delhi University Bill was introduced in the Imperial Legislative Assembly to "establish and incorporate a teaching and affiliating University at Delhi". The Act came into force on 1 May 1922, with Viceroy Lord Reading being appointed as the first Chancellor and Hari Singh Gour as the first Vice-Chancellor.


The Expansion of North Campus

Of course, the establishment of the university came with challenges.

"This area around Delhi had a vacuum in respect to educational institutions. Initially three colleges were affiliated with Delhi University. But these colleges weren't located in a cluster. They were spread around Kashmere Gate or in very small localities of Old Delhi," Prof Thakran said.

A report on The Indian Express stated that the University also moved around in rented spaces — in the Ritz Cinema building, in Curzon House on Alipur Road, and in the Old Secretariat building.

The Temporary Capital (1912-1929) was located north and south of the Northern Ridge. When the offices moved to their permanent homes in British New Delhi, a section of the Temporary Capital, north of the Ridge, was offered to the new University. Most of the early colleges were given land in this area.
Professor Narayani Gupta, Urban Historian

It was in 1923, that the university campus was shifted to the Viceregal Lodge.


How The Partition of India Influenced DU

Delhi University holds a lot of India's colonial history within.

For example, the university's brochure points out how the Viceregal Lodge served as the residency for five Viceroys and was also the site for major parleys that led to India’s Independence.

"Mahatma Gandhi traversed these corridors while planning for a free nation...especially attending lengthy meetings before signing the pact with Lord Irwin in 1931," it reads.

Shaheed Bhagat Singh was also believed to be in confinement in the hidden chambers of the basement of this building before being transferred to Mianwali jail.

At the same time, events around India's Independence also influenced the shaping up of the University – especially the Partition of India in 1947 which had changed the demography of Delhi.

"After 1947, when a great many displaced people were forced to come to Delhi, a number of resettlement colonies were established in the city. With that, there was also a general upsurge in population of Delhi. Consequently, demand for schools and colleges grew. So, more colleges were added to Delhi university as the number of admissions seekers went up. So gradually, Delhi University became popular over time."
RC Thakran, Retired History Professor, Delhi University

According to a report in Hindustan Times, there were only six colleges under DU around 1947. Subsequently, many more colleges were added to accommodate displaced students.

Deshbandhu College established in 1952, Nirmala College later known as Kirori Mal College established in 1954, Hansraj College (1948) are some of the several colleges that came post-Partition and were inundated by displaced students.

"There was a very positive response to the crisis of Partition – many colleges started operating in two shifts, and many young men, totally driven, combined a salaried job with a college course."
Narayani Gupta, Urban Historian

The South Campus

Speaking on the expansion of South Campus, Prof Thakran told The Quint, "Around the 1970s, it was realised that the city was expanding and therefore, the North Campus would not be capable to deal with the city and its educational requirements. So, the idea of the South Campus was conceived in 1973."

Initially, the South Campus was located somewhere in the South Extension area. Later in 1984, it was shifted to Benito Juarez Road, where it’s located currently. Then a number of colleges in South Delhi were brought under its administrative control.

"There was a concept of East and West campuses as well which haven’t taken off properly so far," Prof Thakran added.


How DU Built on its Legacy

As DU celebrates its century, it is undoubtedly one of the most sought after central Universities in the country.

From three colleges in 1922, it has grown to 90 colleges, 16 faculties, 86 departments, 23 centres and 3 institutes which offers around 540 Undergraduate, Masters, PhD, Certificate and Diploma programmes for students.

But its legacy, Narayani Gupta believes, is its cosmopolitan culture.

"The most refreshing feature of Delhi University is the absence of a dominant culture or ideology. Delhi University is cosmopolitan, or at least pan-Indian, far more than any other. Its students are aware of and react to political issues, but not in a knee-jerk fashion," she said.

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Topics:  Delhi University 

Edited By :Padmashree Pande
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