The idea of a university in Assam began gaining ground in the late 1910s. Concerns over administrative inconvenience and demands from the Assamese educated classes drove the political debate on establishing a university in the province. Many lawmakers and publicists considered the university as a tool that would help the Assamese people achieve their aspirations, and the idea of the province having its own university was seen as being inherent in the idea of provincial autonomy that was encapsulated in the Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms of 1919. Yet, financial considerations, and the fact that only a few colleges expressed the desire to be affiliated with a provincial university rather than with Calcutta University, prevented the idea from making quick progress.

The idea gained widespread popular support in the mid-1930s. In 1935, as the Government of India Act was drafted and the movement for provincial autonomy became more popular, the Assamese historian Suryya Kumar Bhuyan prepared a note explaining why a university was needed in Assam. Bhuyan’s note argued that “[T]he absence of a University in Assam has served as a serious obstacle in the realisation” of the goal of “political advancement in India”, which was none other than “complete autonomy in every province”. Bhuyan also noted that the “syllabus of the Calcutta University is chiefly formulated to meet the ideals and needs of Bengal students; but the students of Assam being different on many vital points from those of Bengal the syllabus satisfies but partially [their] ideals and needs”. The public sentiment was clear: “There is no university to represent Assamese culture and civilisation.”

The London University-trained historian was giving an articulate voice to the widespread public sentiment. The university had symbolic importance well beyond the constituency of higher education. On May 22, 1935, as Assamese students in Calcutta celebrated Assam University Day, Assamese scholars and others continued to push the idea of a separate university, Bhuyan being one among them. Many agreed that, given the increasing rivalry between Assam and Bengal, the University of Calcutta failed to fulfil the aspirations of the Assamese, being “specially adjusted to suit the requirements of the province of Bengal”. Bhuyan asked, “Why have not the anomalous relations between Assam and the Calcutta University been [able to] put a stop to by the establishment of a separate University in the province? . . . No University is successful if its roots do not penetrate the life of the people.”

Assamese students had succeeded in reaching out to India’s leading scientists and scholars to support their cause. One of them, the Nobel Laureate CV Raman, agreed that “the natural desire of the Assamese people to have a university of their own will, I am sure, receive universal support”. The Sanskritist and Indologist from Assam, Krishna Kanta Handiqui, who studied modern history at Oxford University, asserted that the “establishment of regional universities on a linguistic basis has been a prominent educational feature of our times”. Others prepared an elaborate scheme outlining the academic courses and programmes for the future university.

Parallel to this, the idea of a university in Assam, however, was contested by a few in Bengal; a young historian wrote a lengthy essay in the Modern Review highly critical of the idea. Anyway, Assamese nationalism had long sought to emerge from Bengal’s deep shadow. This aspiration was now being realised through the establishment of a university. A majority of the Assamese lawmakers firmly shared the public sentiment, and so did Assam’s hill leaders, who stood by the Assamese public opinion. Political and bureaucratic initiatives began to take shape in 1940. Assam’s premier Saadulla tasked historian Bhuyan to prepare the blueprint for the university. A bill for a separate university for Assam – which did not mention the location of this university – was introduced in the provincial assembly in 1941.

The Assamese leaders wanted the university to be established in the Brahmaputra Valley, while popular public opinion in Sylhet – driven mainly by a competitive economic and cultural environment – was against this. Disapproval of this bill for a university came from Bardoloi but for other reasons. He insisted that the “right type of university” must be established in Guwahati. Bardoloi, then in prison and deeply doubtful about the government’s political steps, reminded his countrymen that “it is very important that our educated young men should be men with full knowledge of the needs and necessities of our masses and means to satisfy them”. The lack of political consensus and wartime financial contingency did not favour the legislation. An unfavourable political atmosphere, however, could not halt the campaign for a university in Assam.

A trust board – comprising Assamese philanthropists, political leaders and scholars, among others – was formed in 1944. Over the years, it collected funds worth Rs 6 lakh, with donations pouring in from a cross-section of society. A sprawling and picturesque location outside the city was selected by the trust board. Maheswar Neog, a trust board member, felt it desirable that the university should remain free of urban influence. For Neog and others, a university would provide the Assamese with “real strength” and a “true weapon” to accomplish its goal as a nation. Guwahati was also considered as the “centre of the localities inhabited by almost all the tribal people of the hills and plains”. As the university began to take a concrete shape, the trust board communicated with several Indian universities as well as Ceylon University for guidance on its plan and structure.

The birth of its first university on January 1, 1948, was a joyous moment for Assam. Bhuyan proposed master’s classes on the culture and civilisation of Assam, a course that was expected to “constitute a special feature of the Gauhati university”. The course outline had papers on Assam’s tribes and races, social and religious history, Assamese literature, folk literature, Assam’s archaeology and its economic resources. This course had the sanction of leading scholars and also the premier, Bardoloi. It would show that “Assam’s civilisation is not a growth of the namby-pamby order; it has evolved out of the twin threads of Aryan and Non-Aryan culture”, Bhuyan was confident.

The course would form part of the training of future public servants and would inspire Assam’s philanthropists to donate to the cause, which would empower the university materially. Bhuyan was of the firm opinion that “state aid should be accepted on an irreducible minimum basis and, if possible, it should be eliminated for, however autonomous a university may be, a patron-state will always try to exercise some degree of interference”. But the hopes held out by this proposed course turned to dust with the appointment of KK Handiqui as the first vice-chancellor of the university. Handiqui was picked by Bardoloi from a list of several probables. Handiqui’s uncompromising attitude was well-known. He had espoused his vision for a university on earlier occasions when he said that the German ideal was the most desired goal for an academic institution. “Germany was doing in the intellectual sphere what England was doing in the political,” Handiqui wrote in 1928, referring to the French philosopher and orientalist Ernest Renan. Handiqui further quoted Renan, “Whenever in Germany one speaks of a scholar, it is at once asked: in which university is he? . . . when one speaks of a professor, it is at once asked: what has he written, what has he accomplished in the domain of science?” When Handiqui gave his first convocation address in 1951, he emphasised both these aspects, but he added that “the proper function of a university is to teach.”

The first task of the university was to conduct examinations, which had so far been held by the University of Calcutta. While the idea of a university for Assam had not gone down well with Calcutta University, and its vice-chancellor, PN Banerjee, had expressed his displeasure to Bardoloi, it soon extended administrative support. Despite some initial hiccups, in 1949–50, more than 800 students were enrolled at Gauhati University. A few classes on economics and labour problems were taken by visiting foreign teachers. Master’s classes began in subjects including history, philosophy, economics, Assamese, mathematics, statistics, and botany. As the university began to find its feet, two other academic programmes were given high priority – medical and agricultural science. In 1961, the university had 1468 students; by 1963, the university and its affiliated colleges had enrolled more than 30,000 students. But towards the end of the 1950s, the university had got embroiled in a wide range of controversies – including financial mismanagement and unfair appointment of teachers. A commission appointed to look into these issues described “the moral atmosphere” of the university as “very depressing.”

Though Bhuyan’s proposed course on Assam’s civilisation and culture did not materialise, the university did not ignore regional needs. Handiqui agreed that the university should “harmonise and give due recognition to the legitimate interests of all such groups who, in their turn, are expected to regard the University as their own”. The university gave importance to regional linguistic aspirations; of the many subjects passionately taught and pursued, Assamese language and literature were foremost.

Excerpted with permission from The Quest for Modern Assam: A History (1942-2000), Arupjyoti Saikia, Penguin India.