Matthew Arnold famously called Oxford University a “home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties!” Over the years, Oxonians have espoused this rather romantic notion, mentioned in Arnold’s “Essays in Criticism,” to describe their alma mater. One of the few Bangladeshi scholars to study English at Oxford University, Professor Zillur Rahman Siddiqui (1928-2014), quoted this motto twice in his memoir Amar Chalar Pathey (ACP 2003) to suggest how Oxford served not only as a microcosm of the academic universe but also as a site that offered a fertile ground for different persecuted causes to flourish.
On his fifth death anniversary on November 11, I picked up the book written by the two-time Vice-Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University (1976-1984) with a personal desire to remember my mentor. The book filled me with a concurrent sense of pride and sorrow. I am proud to be a student-turned-colleague of ZRS; I am honoured to experience the brilliance of his scholarship sitting in a classroom and to hear some of the vignettes first-hand while working as his research assistant. I am sad to recognise that a luminous generation has almost vanished, depriving our campuses of scholarship, leadership and visionary guidance. In their absence, our universities have become “homes of all lost causes” in a literal sense of the term.
A flurry of news on campus vices—murder, physical assaults, extortion, forgery, corruption, and sexual abuse—is a case in point. Except for sporadic individual feats, our universities as institutions are failing to live up to public expectations. The situation is so dire that the prime minister has to go to the extent of announcing the possibility of suspending the funding of one public university. She is irked by the fact that a group of agitating teachers and students laid siege to the residence of a sitting VC and her family demanding the resignation of the VC, who is accused of sharing the development fund with party goons. The problem is, the money is yet to be cleared by the university’s Finance Committee or Syndicate. In theory, the money does not exist to be shared in the first place. Nevertheless, these alleged corruptions are tantamount to moral turpitude and some members of JU are seeking an institutional beheading. The incumbent VC’s reliance on party-men as protective shield instead of initiating a dialogue or a judicial enquiry against the allegations has aggravated the situation. The rigidity on both sides has brought the autonomy issue guaranteed by the Public University Act of 1973 under an uncanny spotlight.
Prof Siddiqui once told me that the universities could never claim full autonomy without freeing themselves from the State purse strings. The PM has a duty to remind the agitators of the government spending of Tk 1.5 lakh per student a year as against the collected fees of Tk 150 per student. If the teachers really want to stop classes for their agitation, they must first think of generating their own resources. While this stance of the PM may appear to be an invasion of the 1973 Act, the reality is, our universities have not tried to be independent in the true sense of the term. Despite the abundance of physical resources, they have failed to generate income for their infrastructural development, research or rewards. Recently, some universities have started running evening or certificate programmes. The earning, however, is mostly shared by the faculty members, and the university gets very little from these financial programmes. There are too many vested groups reigning over our campuses, and serious scholars and students are constantly finding themselves in migratory cocoons.
I feel sorry for Jahangirnagar, which was once my own. It had all the potential to become a Green Campus against the concept of Red-Brick university. The idea of a research university was conceived by General Ayub Khan who laid its foundation stone at Salna, Gazipur. The site was later found to be unsuitable and the campus was moved to 750 acres of land acquired from Savar Dairy Farm. In an independent country, the university assumed a new residential character where stipends were offered to all incoming students. Prof Siddiqui’s predecessor as VC, Dr Enamul Haq, impressed upon Bangabandhu JU’s uniqueness as a “laboratory of Higher Education” (ACP 236). That was the level of a VC’s prestige in the past.
I felt sorry to read about the JU VC’s residence being under siege. Prof Siddiqui’s book recounted how he himself identified an elevated plot of land by the lake for constructing that house. He took great care to demarcate the public and private spheres in his official residence. The only AC in the house was installed in the study room as it was the room where he mostly spent his time. He wanted the house to be the centre of his social life (ACP 263). It seems the same house has now become the centre of many asocial activities where the rescue party featuring employees and students have allegedly kicked their colleagues and peers, while radical educators have threatened their administrative head with snapping off all supplies and even damaging the house. This is not the first time the house of the campus is witnessing such tension.
Prof Siddiqui made it a personal mission to beautify Jahangirnagar in the like of his former workplace at Rajshahi, if not of Oxford. Under Prof Siddiqui’s leadership, JU turned out to be a lush green campus. The designing of the Muktomancha, modelled after the amphitheatre carved in the rocky mountains of Denver, is one glorious example. He brought in fellow Oxonian experts from Calcutta to design the curricula of the English Department. He even gave regular classes in the first periods while serving as a VC.
Once, General Zia summoned VC Prof Siddiqui to point out about the “offensive” and “uncomfortable” graffiti that he had seen on the university walls along the Dhaka-Aricha Road. In response, Prof Siddiqui quipped, “If people could ventilate freely in newspapers and TV, there would be no need for graffiti on the wall.” The General listened quietly (ACP 263-4). While at Rajshahi University, Prof Siddiqui ousted an NSF cadre from his hall of residence. The police IG protested the incident in the presence of Governor Monem Khan to the then VC, who, in response, said, “If you have anything to say, share it here; but don’t you dare implicate my colleague.” One may wonder, where are these men today? When did we lose our path? Where did we go wrong?
Prof Siddiqui’s memoir is replete with memories of some great men and their equally great moments. Revisiting the book on his death anniversary made me think of “London 1802” where William Wordsworth felt the absence of Milton during his time. Borrowing the lines, let me end by saying, “ZRS! Thou should be living at this hour/ Our universities hath need of thee!”
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka. Currently on leave, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org