Members at the inaugural debate on 14 MarchMrittunjoy Majumdar

There are some societies in Cambridge that have defined and redefined history over the years. The Cambridge Majlis is one such society. Founded in 1891, the Cambridge Majlis is a historic, prestigious society aiming to strengthen the relationship of South Asians in the city and University of Cambridge with the Subcontinent. A famous forum for debates, cultural events and the promotion of dialogue, it hosted some of the most important leaders from the region in those heady, fateful decades before and after Independence was won, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

It was after the turn of the twentieth century that tremors started to be felt among the Indian students in the University of Cambridge. For instance, in 1909 there were less than one hundred Indian students the University, mostly sons of Indian kings and barristers and civil servants. Cambridge being Cambridge, however, provided fertile ground for the exchange and development of ideas; in this environment, ideas that were often seen to be making `good boys and potential pillars of British rule in India’ were in fact producing potential advocates of independence and against the colonial rule of Britain in India.

This was the place where many of these future revolutionaries first met and brewed the potion of revolution that swept the subcontinent in less than half a century. It became such a point of concern that the then Secretary of State for India Lord Morley gave an order to cut down student numbers. He is said to have described the students as “the extremists, who nurse fanatic beliefs that they will someday drive us out of India”.

“This was the place where many of these future revolutionaries first met and brewed the potion of revolution that swept the subcontinent in less than half a century”

In October of 1905, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, partitioned Bengal into two separate administrative areas: Muslim majority East Bengal, and Hindu majority East Bengal and Assam. This partition would pave the way for divisions that were further reinforced after independence when India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947. This 1905 partition also sparked the swadeshi movement among the Cambridge students before it became a more widespread movement of boycotting the British rule.

The Indian students in Cambridge may have been ambitious and even elitist, but underlying this was a sense of resistance and anti-colonialism which thrived in interactions and debates within the Collegiate University. My father’s family is said to have been part of the landed gentry back in the day (hence the title ‘Majumdar’), who worked with the Raj on the administration of the country.

However little I may associate actively with that classist society today, I do realize that the students who came to Cambridge in the early twentieth century, who often belonged to the upper classes of Indian society, were frequently from families that had either been very close to the Raj or had even benefitted from British rule over the years. Some of these students had even studied in English schools and colleges, such as Harrow and Eton.

“It hosted some of the most important leaders from the region in those heady, fateful decades before and after Independence was won, such as Mahatma Gandhi”

Theirs was a world in a bubble; a bubble far removed from the trials and tribulations of the common man in India during the British Raj. Therefore, for them to stand up against the British rule and actively engage in discussion and debate was quite revolutionary in itself: it was a call for freedom in the minds and hearts of Cambridge students that rallied to a call for freedom among the people on the subcontinent.

With Nehru at Trinity, Syed Mahmud at Christs and Subhash Bose in Fitzwilliam, the student community had many of the to-be-veterans of the Indian freedom struggle (within a few decades) in Cambridge. Even though the Indians (and here I mean those from the subcontinent, since we speak of pre-1947 India) actively integrated themselves with white students, they still maintained a sense of their identity and heritage. And Majlis was the place for not only discussions relating to their apprehensions and worries relating to the British Raj, but also a platform for healthy discussion on a number of topics of relevance and interest to them.

The word ‘Majlis’ is a Persian word for ‘assembly’. The Cambridge Majlis was founded as a social club, debating society and also a platform for activism. It was never formally affiliated to the Collegiate University, and still remains that way. With a number of nationalist agitators having come together within Majlis in those days, it was the platform that linked disparate streams of nationalism into one swelling river of anticolonialism within Britain.

“The student community had many of the to-be-veterans of the Indian freedom struggle (within a few decades) in Cambridge”

The Cambridge Majlis was quite close to the Oxford Majlis, and their events invited speakers like Keynes, C. F. Andrews, E. M. Forster, M. K. Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sarojini Naiduand Lala Lajpat Rai. Members of the early days of Cambridge Majlis included K. L. Gauba, Aurobindo Ghose, Fazl-i-Husain, Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani, Mohan Kumaramangalam, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajni Patel and Shankar Dayal Sharma.

Though the debates were relevant and interesting, and the activities important for the nationalistic movement for years to come, the early days of the Majlis were marked by low membership, since the society seemed to be for a niche cause. After independence, the discussions and debates in the society became more open in the subjects covered and catered to a core audience from across the Indian subcontinent and even from other countries and communities.

The society survived the turmoil of two wars waged by India and Pakistan (in 1947 and 1965) with students from the two countries being able to maintain cordial terms for the society to function. It was only after the 1971 Bangladesh liberation that the society slowly went into a decline, only to be relaunched this year, on 14th March 2019, by a group of students from the subcontinent.


READ MORE

Mountain View

Reviving personal politics

The motion for the first debate was ‘This House Regrets the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War’. We had Mahid Qamar chair the event, with Zachary Zavide, Omar Kidwai and Sahil Baid on proposition and Tohin Munshi, Dhruv Kaushik and I on opposition. Points such as sovereignty being a responsibility and not a privilege, and that people, and not governments or boundaries, make nations, were raised.

The debate was attended by a number of students, academics and members of the Collegiate University and city. We hope that this rebirth shall mark the beginning of a new and meaningful chapter to the journey of the Cambridge Majlis.

Sponsored links