The British government used their Cambridge University as a means by which they could form the future base of their rule in India. He offered admission to his universities to students from India who were the children of kings, officials, merchants and lawyers. They gave this covet to the Indians only so that they could find their capable assistants and they could speak the dialect of their colonial masters.
However, Cambridge University, like any other important educational institution, promoted open-mindedness and one such forum was the ‘Cambridge Majlis’, established in 1891. This prestigious society has provided an excellent platform for debate, discussion and cultural programs to the students of the Indian subcontinent.
As a result, relations between the university and South Asians grew stronger in the city. In the early days, Dr. Upendra Krishna Dutt became a part of this Majlis, which had a deep impact on Indians living in Britain. ‘Majlis’ is originally a Persian word, which , means ‘assembly’. It was formed as a society club and debate club, so that students from the Indian subcontinent could engage in some level of activism. The Society had no formal association with the University.
students exceeding expectations
The British government hoped that the university would produce loyal bureaucrats to consolidate their colonial powers, but societies like the Cambridge Majlis, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (Trinity College), Subhas Chandra Bose (Fitzwilliam College), Aurobindo Ghosh( King’s College), Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew (Peterhouse), Syed Mahmood, Gurusday Dutt (Emmanuel College), Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma (Fitzwilliam College), Mohan Kumaramangalam, Fazal-e-Husain and KL Gauba, Who later shook the foundation of the British rule in India.
The Cambridge Majlis hosted many prominent leaders, writers and thinkers such as economist John Maynard Keynes, EM Forster, Mohandas Karam Chand Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Sarojini Naidu, Lala Lajpat Rai and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
The Independent Student Newspaper of the University of Cambridge wrote in a note, “It was the place where future revolutionaries first met and in less than half a century created the spirit of revolution in the Indian subcontinent.”
A partition gave birth to the Swadeshi movement
In fact, the partition of Bengal proved to be a turning point for the members of the Cambridge Majlis. The then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, divided Bengal into two separate administrative regions, the Muslim majority East Bengal and the Hindu majority West Bengal, as part of his divisive policies. This partition gave birth to the Swadeshi movement, later it was also the centerpiece of Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement.
The Partition of Bengal in the year 1905 also inspired the Indian students studying at Crambidge University for the Swadeshi movement and many students jumped into the freedom struggle to get India independence from the British. It is said that by 1909 there were less than a hundred Indian students left in this university, which became a matter of serious concern for the British.
In March 1909, Lord Morley, the then Secretary of State for India, wrote a letter to the Master of Downing College, Cambridge, warning of the increasing number of university students in India’s fight for independence.
“Fundamentalist minded extremists will force us to leave India someday”
In this letter, he wrote, “If this issue was not serious from the point of view of the Government of India, I would not have dared to write you such a letter.” Three weeks before writing this letter, he had warned the House of Lords, “Extremists who have fundamentalist thinking will someday force us to leave India.” So Marley wanted to root out this serious problem with the help of British universities.
As noted in this note, “Some left the university as a revolutionary, some as an advocate of freedom. Even if it was considered sedition from a university perspective in the 1930s and 40s. This elite group, which spread across the Indian subcontinent, was first found in Cambridge.
Who were these students?
At that time most of the Indian students who came to Cambridge to study came from the upper class. They used to come from those families which had some or the other connection or benefit from the British rule. In other words, these students had no understanding of the challenges faced by the common Indian public and the brutality of the British.
However, he decided to challenge and debate a lot to understand the challenges and dangers of British rule in India. The seed of freedom was sown in him in the Cambridge Majlis. At the same time, it is also important to note that through this forum he not only discussed the concerns of the British Raj, but also discussed many other topics of relevance and interest.
Jatindra Mohan Sengupta was one such student. He was originally from Chittagong and belonged to a large landlord family. His father was also a member of the British Legislative Council.
Who was Edith Ellen Grey, who came to be known as Nelly Sengupta?
Jatindra was 2 years older than Pandit Nehru and he became the President of the Cambridge Majlis in 1908. During his tenure as the President, he gave a new edge to the discussion of British rule over India. After which the police arrested him in Grays Inn.
In the year 1909, Jatin returned to India as a barrister and started practicing in the Calcutta High Court. In 1911, he joined the Congress and in 1921, quitting his practice, completely jumped into the freedom struggle. He was an important link in Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement and on his shoulders was the responsibility of the Bengal issue. In this he got the full support of his British-born wife Edith Allen Grey, later known as Nelly Sengupta.
Many freedom fighters came out of the society
Jatindra Sengupta, always worked for the interests of the workers and played a remarkable role in many strikes. Apart from defending revolutionaries like Surya Sen in court, he supported the Indian National Congress during the Second Round Table Conference in 1931 and presented evidence of police brutality during the Chittagong Rebellion. After which he was taken prisoner in 1932 and after a year and a half he died in Ranchi Jail on 22 July 1993. Then he was only 48 years old.
However, even after her death, Nellie remained active in the Indian freedom struggle and played a notable role in many social works after independence. After independence, students from many countries continued to meet in the Society. This continued even during the two wars between India and Pakistan (1947 and 1965). But, during the 1971 Liberation War, the situation got very bad and it collapsed.
However, in March 2019, the society was revived and re-launched.
Whether we know it or not, this society has provided a platform for many of our great freedom fighters.
Original article: Rinchen Norbu Wangchuck
Editing – G N Jha
Also Read – Dr. Kitchlew: Who was that hero, whose people had reached Jallianwala Bagh to protest against his arrest?
If you’ve been inspired by this story, or want to share any of your experiences with us, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook and Twitter. Twitter Contact on