Banaras Hindu University and the Story Behind It

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    There’s a residential colony at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) called ‘Hyderabad Staff Quarters’, which carries a legendary story about an encounter between the university’s founder and the Nizam of Hyderabad. This rather dramatic anecdote also shows the creativity and passion of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, the educational reformer and nationalist leader who established BHU, a pioneering Indian university founded on respect for Indian culture, in 1916. Here’s how the story goes.

    While doing the rounds of India’s princely states to seek donations for the development of the university, Malaviya approached the extremely wealthy and famously stingy Nizam of Hyderabad, Osman Ali Khan in 1919-20. Malaviya arrived at the Nizam’s doorstep, only to be told that the Nizam was a staunch Muslim and would give nothing for a Hindu university.

    Malaviya explained that by ‘Hindu’, he meant the ‘people of the Indus’ or ‘Hindustan’, which essentially meant all Indians. The university would educate Indians from all communities, he explained, and insisted that the Nizam contribute generously towards this cause.

    The Nizam grew furious and flung his jootis or leather slippers at Malaviya, and told him to get out. Malaviya picked up the slippers and left. He proceeded to auction them at the Hussain Sagar Lake in the heart of the city.

    The Nizam was enraged and threatened to arrest and incarcerate Malaviya for his impudence. Malaviya explained: “Sir, you gave me your slippers but since I cannot build the university with these, I thought I would auction them within your estate as only here will I get a good price for them.”

    The Nizam’s Prime Minister stepped in and reminded the Nizam that Malaviya was no ordinary commoner who could be tossed in jail. He had been president of the Congress party and a national leader much respected even by the British.

    A reluctant Nizam did not donate any money towards the proposed university but he did agree to build the staff quarters on its campus. In 1939, Osman Ali Khan made a cash donation of Rs 1 lakh to BHU as well.

    At the dawn of the 20th century, India had only five major universities, at Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Lahore and Ahmedabad. They had been set up by the British to produce educated Indians who could perform clerical and other such administrative jobs. However, in the early 20th century, these institutions were also producing aggressive nationalists, much to the alarm of the then Viceroy Lord Curzon, who therefore ordered that all universities be brought under the direct control of British rule.

    This was the reformist era and it was at this time that Malaviya, who had criticized Curzon’s move, set in motion his plan for an institution that would provide quality higher education so that Indians would not have to seek it abroad. Malaviya had long since realised that social reform and education went hand in hand. It was a mission also because he believed that students who went abroad often developed a distorted view of their own culture, during their time overseas.

    The solution, Malaviya felt, lay in setting up a university that would teach Indian youth a correct approach towards Indian cultural values and the Indian way of life, alongside secular subjects of higher education and the development of a scientific bent of mind, Occidental and Oriental arts, and the humanities. In other words, modernity and tradition, side by side.

    Malaviya’s vision was in sync with a growing demand for education – for Indians, by Indians. A surge of resentment towards the British for their treatment of Indians – decade upon decade of humiliation, subjugation and oppression – was gathering momentum. The writing was on the wall: education was the only way for Indians to empower themselves, to reinforce their cultural identity and to give India future leaders who would serve their nation. An education like this, along with knowledge of modern scientific developments and technology, would also open doors to progress and prosperity. And this could be achieved only by educational institutions set up by Indians.

    There was already a smattering of institutions that had been established in the late 19th and early 20th century, set up to inspire Indians to lift India high in the eyes of the world, through a combination of moral and secular education. Lokmanya Tilak had been instrumental in setting up a Samarth Vidyalaya in Poona, while the Khalsa College had come up in Amritsar. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh in 1875.

    But these were colleges, not universities. The desire to have a university with the object of combining the ancient system with that of the West was growing. Against this backdrop, Malaviya worked with Annie Besant to bring about an educational revolution that would inspire Indian youth to work for their country. Besant was an educationist, a social reformer and an active Congress member, and under her guidance the Central Hindu College was set up at Benaras in 1898.

    At a meeting held at Mint House, Benaras, in 1904, Malaviya proposed his idea of a Hindu university. In July 1905, the prospectus of a proposed Hindu university for the promotion of scientific, technical and artistic education, combined with religious instruction and classical culture, was first formulated. The prospectus was discussed at a public meeting of distinguished educationists and representatives of the Hindu community at the Town Hall in Benaras, during the Congress session of 1905.

    The Banaras Hindu University Bill was introduced by the Imperial Legislative Council on 22nd March 1915, and the idea of the university became a reality on 4th February 1916.

    BHU was to be a residential and teaching university of the modern type. There was no such university in India at the time. The existing universities were merely examining bodies. This one would resemble more closely the ashram-type establishments well known in ancient India, as well as the modern universities of the West.

    Aside from the encounter with the Nizam, Malaviya faced several challenges in his effort to raise funds for the establishment of BHU. However, among those who did contribute were many of the Indian princes of the time, from Amritsar to Darbhanga and Jodhpur. They willingly opened their purses, and classrooms, and departmental wings were then named after them, out of respect and gratitude.

    In establishing BHU, Malaviya was inspired by the spirit of true nationalism. The university encouraged students and teachers from all over India to come together, taking pride in their national culture. All world religions were welcomed and held in respect here. Its freeships and stipends too were available on the basis of merit. Muslims, Christians, Parsis were on its rolls, and they lived in the same hostels, together.

    BHU was on a different footing from other universities. While most of the others were established in pursuance of the general policy of the government to increase facilities for higher education in the country, BHU was looked upon as a peoples’ university, established in response to public demand for a very specific kind of higher education. It had an all-India character and played a significant role in the national struggle for freedom by promoting a nationalist outlook among its students.

    Its illustrious list of alumni includes the celebrated musician Bhupen Hazarika, renowned poet Harivanshrai Bachchan, chemist CNR Rao, Pakistani archaeologist Ahmad Hassan Dani, Indian astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar, Independence activist and politician Jagjivan Ram and socialist political leader Ram Manohar Lohia, among others.

    Malaviya, who later served as Vice-Chancellor of the university, had a very clear image of the kind of institution that was needed. While the curriculum focused on the humanities and aspects of Indian culture, it was also job-oriented. Malaviya wanted to offer an education that would help in the development of industry and encourage the utilisation of the country’s natural resources.

    BHU thus comprised a wide range of departments and faculties. These included colleges of Sanskrit, Science and Technology, Agriculture, Medicine, Commerce and a College of Music and Fine Arts. There was a school for Architectural Engineering and Economics, including a physics department, a laboratory for research and experimentation, and a workshop for imparting training in mechanical and electrical engineering. An engineering department provided training in geology, mining and metallurgy. It also included a college of foreign languages. It even had an airstrip attached to a flying club to offer basic training for pilots.

    Malaviya laid great emphasis on technical education too, and wished that by achieving knowledge of various arts and sciences, the country would be made self-dependent and self-sufficient. Referring to the progress made by America and Europe in one of his speeches, Malaviya said: “India has lagged much behind those countries where the study of science by experiments is done for the good of society and in service of the country”.

    He considered physical fitness a vital aspect of any education, a revolutionary idea at the time. Unlike other educators, he believed it made for healthy personality growth and simply better individuals. The university thus provided space and the means for sports and exercise. There was also a well-equipped gymnasium.

    A staunch believer in women’s right to education, Malaviya threw open the doors of the university to women, despite opposition from some quarters. A special college for women with several departments and faculties along with a hostel facility was set up, another revolutionary idea at the time. BHU was clearly pioneering a new era in the progress of pre-Independence India.

    BHU was largely modelled on Malaviya’s desire to integrate the country. In fact, the university was like a mini-India. Hindi was the uniting factor, and regional languages were a source of pride too. The entire university upheld Indian culture and its diversity and left its mark as a very distinct and unique product born of the desire of Indians to grow as a distinct and united community.

    Malaviya died on 12th November 1946, in Allahabad, present-day Prayagraj. Sadly, he did not live to see his beloved nation unshackled from British rule but he had helped in India’s march to a bright and independent future.


    Brinda Upadhyaya is the great-granddaughter of Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and a retired Senior Lecturer of History from Raheja College, Mumbai. When not immersed in India’s historical legacy, she devotes herself to service and works with stray animals, visually impaired individuals, and teaches underprivileged students. She has also been a freelance journalist.

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