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A Social History of Osmania University Arts College

Friends, I have come in as a gap-filler. The organizers had planned a heritage walk through this iconic building, to give you a glimpse of rich history of Hyderabad and tried to get professional heritage walkers and historians. As none of them was available, I was summoned to fill the gap. 

This magnificent building we are about to enter is the icon of Osmania University that was established by and named after Mir Osman Ali Khan, the seventh ruler in the Asif Jah dynasty. He ruled Hyderabad from 1911 to 1948 and this university was established by his firman (edict) in 1917. There are many reasons behind the significance of Osmania University, but we will just see two: This was the second university (after Mysore a year earlier) to be established in the princely states of British India. At the time there were only seven universities even in British India and thus this is one of the first ten in the subcontinent. This university is also significant in that this is the first in the subcontinent to have a local language – Urdu – as medium of instruction.

We will go back a little into history of why and how Urdu became a local language.

This city, Hyderabad is a city of love; a city of bridges. It evolved over love between a king and a commoner, a Muslim and a Hindu, a prince from capital and a dancing girl from hamlet on the outskirts. A dynasty called Qutub Shahis established their rule in this part of south India by 1518 and ruled from Golconda as their capital till the Mughals conquered them in 1687. The kingdom was very rich as it was famous all over the world for its diamond mines. The fifth king in the line, Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, fell in love with Bagmati, a dancing girl on the other side of the Musi. He used to travel about 10 kms from the capital Golconda and cross the river even when it was in spate to meet Bagmati. Seeing this, his father got the first bridge constructed on the Musi in 1578. The city of Hyderabad spread around this bridge and the formal foundation of the city was laid at Charminar by Quli Qutub Shah in 1591.  According to various legends, the majestic monument of four towers is believed to have been constructed at the place where he first saw his beloved, as a memorial to the victory over plague and as a cornerstone for the city, designed after Ispahan, a town in Iran. Later he married Bagmati and she was re-named Hyder Mahal. That is how the city is called either Bagnagar or Hyderabad. After the fall of the Qutub Shahis in 1687, the capital moved to Aurangabad for some time but came back under the next dynasty, Asif Jahis, who ruled Hyderabad from 1724 to 1948. Osman Ali Khan, founder of this university was the last and seventh king in the line.

During the rule of Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam and the father of Osman Ali Khan, Hyderabad began to see the entry of modernism and modern developments in education, communications and social life. His famous Prime Minister Salar Jung I had a close relationship with the British. He is credited with introducing modern education, telecommunications, railways and administrative and judicial reforms. On the other hand, he supported the British during the first of war of Indian independence in 1857, so much so that it prompted a contemporary East India Company top official recording that “if we lose Hyderabad, India will be lost”. Salar Jung’s regime 1853 to 1883 saw the starting of the first high schools: for boys in 1856 and separately for girls in 1881.

Salar Jung visited Oxford in 1876 and requested them to provide a person to set up a college in Hyderabad. That is how Dr Aghorenath Chattopadhyay came to Hyderabad to launch Hyderabad College, which is now called Nizam College. There is a lot to talk about Dr Aghorenath Chattopadhyay, but suffice it here to say that he was so modern in his views that he was expelled from the state by the same king who invited him, for his ‘anti-state’ activities. Among his children, one, Virendranath, became a first generation revolutionary and founder of the Communist Party and another a renowned poet, Sarojini Naidu.

The educational atmosphere in Hyderabad was developing and by the 1910s a loose organization called Hyderabad Educational Conference was established. This conference submitted a memorandum to the king to set up a university, with Urdu as medium of instruction. Within two days of this memorandum, Osman Ali Khan issued a firman to establish the university. That was in April 1917. Even before the actual work of the university began, he set up a Translation Bureau and got hundreds of text books translated into Urdu.

Thus Osmania University came into existence and the first batch of Intermediate came out in 1919, BA in 1921 and MA in 1923. However, the university did not have its own campus and was running temporarily from the royal buildings in Gun Foundry. By the end of that decade there was a search for suitable vast land for the university and here there is again an interesting story.

There used to be a learned courtesan, well versed in music and dance, a poet in her own right, called Mah Laqa Bai Chanda, who owned several jagirs of thousands of acres. She died in 1824, bequeathing her properties to homeless women. In 1928 Osman Ali Khan acquired about 2,500 acres from her Adikmet jagir and transferred it to the university. Then a team of experts were sent to Europe, US, Japan, Egypt and Turkey to study the universities there to suggest a model. The team identified Monsieur Jasper, a Belgian architect, who had designed Cairo University and brought him to Hyderabad. Jasper visited Ajanta - Ellora caves, at that time in Hyderabad state, and this building’s front elevation resembles a major cave in Ajanta. He also blended Mughal, Hindu, Buddhist and European architectural traditions. Pillars and lintels are from Buddhist – Ajanta - Ellora style, arches and domes from Indo-Saracenic, corridors from European and Hindu temples.  As per Jasper’s design, Nawab Zain Yar Jung executed the construction.

Most of the construction, with pinkish granite stone blocks and flooring with Shahbad stone was done by the local Vaddera community, a caste traditionally involved in stone-cutting, masonry, digging wells and construction. The Vadderas from all over Hyderabad state settled down within a kilometer of this building and set up a colony, which is called Vaddera basti even now. It is still a glorified slum, and has an organic relationship with the university that during 2009-14 student movement for a separate Telangana state, it was this colony which sheltered and fed students and protected them from police brutality.

The construction began in 1934 and this building was declared open in 1939. In the beginning, the building used to accommodate administrative offices as well as all the departments, but with the construction of other buildings, it now houses only arts and social sciences departments. 

Coming to the last part of the walk, this university on the whole and particularly this building has a lot of history of association with social and student movements.

This building might have seen at least half a dozen major waves of student movements. Even while this building was under construction, Osmania University has seen a movement called ‘Hyderabad for Hyderabadis’. Since it was the only university teaching in Indian language and also because of the prominence of the people knowing Urdu from United Provinces in the Nizam’s administration, Osmania attracted a lot of outsiders who later joined the public service. Though the Nizam promulgated Mulki Rules in 1919 reserving certain positions and ratio for the locals, the discontentment led to the movement in 1935 and this university was a major centre. Again in 1938 this university has seen a widespread students’ movement called Vande Mataram movement. At that time the students in their prayer had to sing a eulogy to the Nizam and in 1938 students of Osmania University refused to sing that and instead chose to sing Vande Mataram. The administration expelled more than 700 students for this disobedience. Nagpur University gave admissions to all those expelled students and several political leaders of Hyderabad state like P V Narasimha Rao, Arutla Ramachandra Reddy, Devulapalli Venkateswara Rao were among those expelled.

In 1952 the Central government, particularly Prime Minister Nehru tried to convert Osmania into a Central Hindi university to propagate the language in south India. Hyderabad civil society in general and Osmania University in particular vehemently opposed this proposal. But in the din, slowly Urdu was replaced by English. Apart from this movement against Hindi University proposal, there was another major student movement in Osmania University at the same time, known as Mulki movement, that opposed non-Mulkis (non locals) taking over education and public services.

In 1966, when the then chief minister did not like the incumbent Vice Chancellor, brought in an ordinance changing the tenure of the VC and appointed a new person. Besides the VC challenging it in court, Osmania teachers, non-teaching staff and students laid seize on the campus and did not allow the new appointee to enter the university. He had to sign in his papers in Raj Bhavan and leave without taking charge.

The ideas of Mulki – nativity – continued and resurfaced many a time ultimately leading to the movement for a separate state, popularly known as Jai Telangana movement in 1969. Osmania being the only university in Telangana at that time spearheaded the movement. Beginning from Vice Chancellor Ravada Satyanarayana to the junior-most student, every Osmanian took part in the movement. For over eight months, the entire university came to a stand-still and one academic year was lost.

The betrayal of leadership and consequent failure of Jai Telangana movement resulted in resurgence of left student movement in Osmania and to check the growth of radical politics on the campus, RSS and ABVP killed George Reddy, a Physics research scholar and a pioneer of left student movement here. But the killing did not terrorise the students and the students’ movement affiliated to Naxalite politics grew in strength. Progressive Democratic Students Union and Radical Students Union flourished in Osmania in the aftermath. This university also gave birth to the radical women’s movement in the form of Progressive Organisation of Women. However, Emergency suppressed this radical fervour on the campus and it could be revived only after Emergency was lifted. From 1978 to the late 1980s the campus was very vibrant with radical politics. Osmanians have become leaders of not only the students’ movement, but also of several other mass organizations and even underground Marxist Leninist parties.

Student union elections were banned in all the universities in Andhra Pradesh in 1988 and Radical Students Union was banned in 1992, pushing the campuses into apolitical and careerist atmosphere. Most of the commentators in this period were writing about student activism, even as Osmania campus was somewhat active with left, identity and separate state political movements. Militant activism came back to Osmania in 2009 and till 2014, this campus and this Arts College building were witnessing regular protest demonstrations, slogans, meetings, songs, police lathi charges and teargas shells despite closure of hostels and messes, arrests and false cases. Even after achieving Telangana state, as the powers that be began betraying their own promises, student activism is on the rise on the campus. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leaders, who used to come regularly and stay on the campus between 2009 and 2014, are unable to even enter the campus since June 2014, after coming to power, fearing a backlash from the students.

This is Osmania University.

N Venugopal Rao is editor, Veekshanam, a Telugu monthly journal of political economy and society,