It was India’s first university to adopt Urdu as the medium of instruction — but with English as a compulsory subject. And, as it turns 100 on Wednesday, Osmania University has blended tradition with modernity to emerge as one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious institutes of higher learning….A special report by Mohammed Shafeeq for Asian Lite News
With President Pranab Mukherjee set to launch the centenary celebrations, the spotlight is on the premier seat of learning, known for its chequered history.
Standing tall on its sprawling and picturesque campus, it bears testimony to the grandeur of the princely Hyderabad state, the tumultuous times before the state’s merger with India and several movements ranging from ‘jobs for locals’ to separate statehood for Telangana.
From its genesis in the rich Muslim legacy to cultural diversity and from its transformation as a modern institution imparting education in English and various branches of science and technology, Jamia-e-Osmania, as it was earlier known, has come a long way.
Its distinguished alumni include former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao; India’s first astronaut, Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma; celebrated film director Shyam Benegal; former RBI Governor Y. Venugopal Reddy; founder and chairman of Cobra Beer and Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, Karan Bilimoria; and Magsaysay awardee Shantha Sinha.
It was on April 26, 1917, that Nizam VII Mir Osman Ali Khan issued a ‘farman’ (royal decree) for the establishment of Osmania University.
“The fundamental principles in the working of the university should be that Urdu should form the medium of higher education, but a knowledge of English as a language should, at the same time, be deemed compulsory for all students,” said the decree.
Within two years of the decree, classes began for the first batch from a building in Gunfoundry area, conservation activist P. Anuradha Reddy pointed out.
Arts and theology were only the two faculties in the first year with 225 students and 25 faculty members. It offered courses in different languages like Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Persian and Arabic besides Urdu and English.
As the ‘purdah’ system was strictly in vogue those days, the classes in the first few decades were conducted separately for boys and girls. A curtain would be hung between boys and girls for a common class or during guest lectures.
Academicians say Osmania University symbolised renaissance in the Indian educational system.
The move to set up the university with Urdu as the medium of instruction was seen as the first step to revolt against the supremacy of the foreign language in India. It was hailed by Rabindernath Tagore.
He wrote to Nizam: “I have long been waiting for the day when, freed from the shackles of a foreign language, our education becomes naturally accessible to all our people. It is a problem for the solution of which we look to our Native States, and it gives me great joy to know that your State proposes to found a University in which instructions are to be given through the medium of Urdu. It is needless to say that your scheme has my fullest appreciation.”
In 1934, the university was allotted 566 acres in the Adikmet area for its permanent campus. The Nizam laid the foundation stone for the iconic Arts College building, which later became the symbol of the university.
Rail tracks were laid to ferry workers and construction material and to speed up construction activity. Four years later, the campus and the Arts College, with its magnificent facade, was inaugurated.
A blend of Qutub Shahi and Mughal architecture, the granite structure was designed by Belgian architect Monsieur Jasper. With 164 vast rooms and a plinth of 2.5 lakh square feet, the Arts College is one the last major structures built by the Nizam.
In the pre-Independence era, Urdu was the medium of instruction in all branches of higher education, including medicine and engineering. Under-graduate, post-graduate and Ph.D. programmes were introduced in almost all the faculties.
Some of the premier institutions started in the city like Nizamia Observatory, Nizam College, Medical College, Law School and Teachers’ Training College were transferred to the university.
One such institute was the Dairat-Ul-Maarif, which was founded in 1888 to collect, preserve, edit and publish rare original and standard works in Arabic on humanities, religion, science and the arts.
The transformation at Osmania was obvious following the merger of Hyderabad state with India in September, 1948, more than a year after country’s independence.
English replaced Urdu as the medium of instruction. Over the next two decades, the university added new disciplines and introduced diploma programmes in foreign languages like French, German and Italian. The Women’s College, which earlier operated from temporary buildings, moved to its present location.
The University permitted a number of affiliated colleges to be started to meet the growing demand. Today, it claims to have 1,000 colleges affiliated to it — arguably the largest in Asia and 550,000 students.
It continued its onward journey in the subsequent decades by giving impetus to research activities and introducing fresh courses to meet the new requirements of the job market.
In order to make higher education accessible to the deprived and disadvantaged, the Centre for Distance Education was established in 1977.
The university currently has 12 faculties and 53 departments with over 10,000 students. It conducts 25 undergraduate programmes and 75 post-graduate courses.
With students coming from different regions and socio-economic backgrounds and even from abroad, the campus is known for its cultural diversity.
While continuing its march for academic excellence since inception, the university also became a nerve centre for various movements, reflecting the country’s socio-political changes.
In 1952, the university students stood up in protest when the central government proposed to take over it convert it into a central varsity with Hindi as medium of instruction. Around same time, the campus was also rocked by protests demanding jobs for locals.
It witnessed massive violent protests in early 1970s during the Telangana movement. In the aftermath of the violent agitation, the employers had even stopped recruiting Osmania graduates.
While the first movement died down in 1971, nearly four decades later the university once again became the epicentre of Telangana movement, which culminated in the formation of the separate state in 2014.