It was indeed a dream come true for thousands of people of Assam who had relentlessly agitated for decades for an institute of higher education in the province when Gauhati University was established on 26 January, 1948.
For a long time, the only university in the entire eastern region was at Calcutta. This university catered to the needs not only of the students from Bengal but also of those from Bihar, Orissa and Assam. Naturally, therefore, seats for students from Assam were extremely limited and very often even meritorious students found themselves ousted in the fray. Over the years, this had caused resentment among the educated Assamese youth and the necessity of a separate university began to be acutely felt.
Soon after the capital shifted to Delhi in 1911, Bihar and Orissa acquired their own Universities and it was then that Assam, too, put forward her claim to the Government for a separate University. The first public demand was made at the annual session of the Assam Association held at Sivasagar in 1917 when Satyanath Bora made a fervent plea in his Presidential speech for a separate University. He forcefully stated that apart from other reasons, Assam deserved an independent University for the simple reason that the Senate and Syndicate of the Calcutta University had little link with the people of Assam and as such could never identify themselves with the hopes and aspirations of the Assamese people. Satyanath Bora’s powerful speech had a tremendous impact on the Assamese intelligentsia and it was followed up by a petition to the Calcutta University Commission headed by Michael Sadler. From then onwards till 1928, representation and petitions to the Government for a separate university were presented from time to time.
Serious agitation for a separate university, however, started only in 1928 when Daiba Chandra Talukdar moved a resolution to that effect in the general body meeting of the Assam Ekata Sabha held at the Curzon Hall of Cotton College. The media, too, played a very positive role in moulding public opinion. Papers like Awahan, Banhi, Batori, Times of Assam, among others, discussed and debated at length on the issue, and reported in detail all matters relating to it.
In 1932, at a meeting of eminent persons presided over by Qutubuddin Ahmad at Nagaon, a programme was chalked out to launch a sustained agitation. Meanwhile, the Assamese Students Welfare League had been formed at Calcutta. This League, comprising members like Birinchi Kumar Baruah, J.R.Phukan, Rohini Kumar Barua and Madhav Chandra Bezbarua among others, played a prominent role in Assam’s fight for a rightful place in the educational scenario of India.
The absence of much scope for higher education of Assamese youth was also highlighted by Moidul Islam Bora, a Ph.D. from London University, who made an ardent plea for a university in Assam through his forceful articles in the Awahan. He pointed out that the promotion of education and culture of a region was the primary objective of a university. If Assam had to depend on others for regional research and study, she could never hope to make any progress. He reiterated time and again that it was not possible for a people to give expression to the pride and glory of their history and culture in the absence of an institute of higher learning. But like the earlier pleas, Moidul Islam Bora’s ardent pleas also fell on deaf years. Time and again, the Government came out with the same excuses: there was no fund to sustain a university in Assam and the number of local students was too small to justify the establishment of a separate university.
These excuses however, did not deter the Assamese intelligentsia from continuing with their agitation. On 30 April, 1935, at an all party meet at the Curzon Hall, organized by the Assam Association and Sangrakhini Sabha and presided over by Gopinath Bardoloi, it was resolved to form a University Committee. Gopinath Bardoloi was nominated as its secretary. This Committee, together with the Nagaon University Committee and the Students Welfare League of Calcutta, spearheaded the agitation for a University in Assam with renewed vigor. 22 May, 1935, was observed as University Day all over the province with mammoth meetings and huge processions.
All this had occurred in the backdrop of the growing nationalism in the country and the Government could no longer afford to remain a silent spectator. In 1936 therefore, it appointed J. R. Cunningham, a retired Director of Public Instruction, to report on the state of education in Assam and to specifically state whether a separate University for Assam was (i) essential and (ii) feasible. In his lengthy Report, Cunningham expressed his doubts as to the feasibility of a separate university. He wrote “Primary education, of course, cannot be ignored and the claims of Secondary schools and the University must co-ordinate. But it should be realized that unless the university thrives, there will be no health or vitality in the educational system. He suggested that instead of separate university, a few M.A. courses could be started at Cotton College and Murarichand College with a special Examination Board at Shillong. Needless to say, Cunningham’s Report was received with a storm of protest in Assam.
As early as 1931 Roberts, who was then D.P.I. , had stated in his Annual Report, “It is said Assam cannot afford to have a University of its own, it cannot afford not to have one”. This feeling now reverberated throughout Assam. Most organizations criticized Cunningham’s Report in no uncertain terms and resolved to continue the agitation. 1938 was a year of high hopes and aspirations. The people were jubilant as the formation of a Congress ministry headed by Gopinath Bardoloi held out great promises. Bardoloi had been actively associated with the agitation for a university and it was believed that he would do his utmost for the cause. Bardoloi realized that Government funds would not be forthcoming, so he decided to create a special university fund by collecting one anna from every individual. He believed that this would serve a dual purpose. He would not only be able to raise money, but more importantly, also involve all the people of Assam. Unfortunately, the programme received a setback when Bardoloi’s ministry resigned in 1939 following the outbreak of World War II.
In the meantime, much debate had been going on regarding the site of the proposed university. Three names had been proposed during the course of the discussions, viz, Shillong, Guwahati and Sylhet, but nothing was finalized. In 1940 the Government appointed S. K. Bhuyan as Special Officer with the task of collecting relevant information on the selection of site and related matters. Interestingly, in the same year, the family of Siva Prasad Barua offered to donate Rupees 3 lakhs for a university in Assam, but they put forth two conditions viz., (i) the proposed university would have to be situated in Guwahati and (ii) it would have to be named Assam Siva Prasad University. The offer was not accepted.
In spite of the prevailing political situation, the agitation for a university continued. In October 1944, a huge Convention, presided over by Benudhar Rajkhowa, was held at the Kali Prasad Memorial Hall at Sivasagar. This Convention, attended by people from all over Assam, reiterated the demand for a university and decided to form a Trust Board comprising of seven eminent personalities of Assam. They were Gopinath Bardoloi, Sarat Chandra Goswami, Syed Md. Sadulla, Sayadur Rahman, K.K.Handqui , Heramba Prasad Barua and Sailendra Prasad Barua. Several sub committees were also formed. It was decided to form a publicity wing in Calcutta headed by Madhav Chandra Bezbaroa. Once this Trust Board was formed the fund collection drive was restarted with renewed vigour. This time, donation coupons ranging from Re 1 to Rs. 1 lakh were issued. The response of the public was enormous. As Suresh Chandra Rajkhowa, who was intimately connected with this fundraising drive, later commented, “The enthusiasm and spontaneity with which people from all over the state came forward with their contributions to the Trust fund in response to the appeal was simply amazing. The campaign for a university had turned into a people’s movement”. In fact, by the time the university was actually established, the money at its disposal was Rs. 22,39,605. This was a rare example of a university being established with donations, small and large, collected from the people of the region.
Gauhati University was incorporated by an Act of 1947. It started functioning on 26 January, 1948 as an affiliating, teaching and residential university in a few temporary buildings in Guwahati, with K. K. Handique as the first Vice-Chancellor. Phanidhar Dutta, Sailandhar Rajkhowa and Sarat Kumar Dutta were selected as the Registrar, Treasurer and Secretary of University Classes respectively. The emblem of the University, selected from among many submitted, was designed by T. Mukherjee, a textile designer of Ahmedabad. Two Sanskrit words inscribed on it – Vidyaya Sadhayeta (meaning achievement through learning) – indicate the motto of the University.
The objective of the University is to bring about social, economic, cultural, moral and spiritual upliftment of the people of Assam. As stated in the Objects and Reasons appended to the Gauhati University Bill, 1947, “Assam offers great opportunities of study in many fields-linguistic, historical, ethnological, archaeological, geological, scientific and agricultural …..It will be the aim of the proposed University to intensify the study of the age long spirit of Assamese life and character, and to bring in them the necessary adjustments in relation to Indian civilization and to the different and new impulses of the West”. The desire of seeing the University “illumine the banks of the Luit” is reflected in the university anthem, Jilikaba Luitare Par, composed by Bhupen Hazarika.
Starting with 18 affiliated colleges and 8 Post Graduate Departments in 1948, Gauhati University, today, has 39 Post Graduate Departments, besides IDOL (Institute of Distance and Open Learning) and a constituent Law College. It has 341 affiliated colleges offering undergraduate and post graduate courses in the faculties of Arts, Science, Commerce, Law, and Engineering. Gauhati University is a member of the Association of Indian Universities and the Association of Commonwealth Universities. The aspirations of the founders of the University have not gone in vain. The alumni of this university have been able to make their mark not only within the state but at the national level as well. Indeed many have been able to adorn the higher echelons of the nation’s scientific, socio-cultural, administrative and political life.
Gauhati University receives Annual Financial Grants from the Government of Assam and Development Grants from the University Grants Commission apart from different funding agencies like CSIR, DST DBT, NEC, ICAR, ICHR, MAKAIAS, among others, who sponsor various research projects.