The origin of the Zakir Husain Delhi College can be traced to the closing years of the 17th Century, with the founding of a Madrasa by Ghaziuddin Khan, one of the Emperor Aurangzeb’s leading Deccan commanders and the father of the first Nizam of Hyderabad. The complex containing his tomb, a mosque and a Madrasa, can be visited today outside the Ajmeri Gate near the Dargah of the 13th century Sufi, Hazrat Hafiz Sadullah.
The upheavals that weakened the Mughal empire during the 18th century, resulted in the closure of the Madrasa in the early 1790’s, but, with the support of the wealthy citizens of Delhi, an oriental college for literature, science and art, was established at the site in 1792. Instruction was provided in prose, literature, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, jurisprudence, astrology and medicine.
In 1824, Delhi College was engrafted onto this institution by the British East India Company’s government. Nawab Itmad udduala, the Oudh Vazir, provided an endowment of Rs. 1,70,000 in 1829 for the promotion of oriental learning. Instruction was imparted chiefly in Persian and Arabic, and there was also a Sanskrit department.
However, Urdu or Hindustani soon gained importance in this unique institution. It became the principal medium of instruction, not only for oriental sciences and literature, but also for the study of astronomy and mathematics on European principles, which had been introduced and enthusiastically received by teachers and students as early as 1827. The translation of scientific treatises, Greek classics and Persian works into Urdu was taken up by the Vernacular Society which was set up in 1832. Within the space of two decades it published works covering a range of subjects including mathematics, science, philosophy, history, surgery, geography, political economy, civil law and principles of legislation. Its remarkable achievements were later supplemented by the Society for the Promotion of Knowledge in India.
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century a vibrant multi-denominational and multi-racial community evolved around Urdu culture and etiquette. The Delhi College was the focus of this composite urbanity in northern India’s premier city. A distinguished group of its teachers and students – educationists, mathematicians, historians and literatures – became the center of a scientific and literary flowering that would be referred to as the `Delhi Renaissance’. They founded schools, wrote books and textbooks, translated works into Urdu and edited journals.
The college attracted the traditional elite and also imparted training in the English language. One of the early institutions with which the British were associated, it provided for a constructive engagement between the oriental and western intellectual traditions, particularly before the 1857 revolt. Students flocked to the college. In 1845, of a total strength of 460 students, 418 were studying in the Oriental Section, while 245 students were also learning the English language. They included 299 Hindus, 146 Muslims and 15 Christians, demonstrating even then, that the college answered to the needs of the city as a whole.
On May 11, 1857, the revolutionaries plundered the college, then located at Kashmiri Gate, because it provided western education. However, British authorities closed it down after the defeat of the Revolt because they suspected the loyalties of its teachers and students. In 1862 the institution once again sent up candidates for the entrance examination of the Calcutta University. Between 1864 and 1871, intermediate, B.A. and M.A. classes were started with creditable results. However, the imperial government decided to close down the institution, transferring its staff and library to Lahore, despite vociferous protests from the citizens of Delhi.
In 1924, the Anglo-Arabic Intermediate College was started almost fifty years later to answer the “very definite loss to this city occasioned by the transfer of the Delhi Oriental College to Lahore in 1877.” The college was affiliated to Delhi University in 1925, and became one of its constituent degree colleges in 1929.
Following the partition of India, the college was attacked and set on fire by incendiary mobs. Courageous staff members managed to save the Library and office records. Supported by Dr. Zakir Husain and others, the Delhi College was revived as a non-denominational institution in 1948. As principal, the legendary Begg Saheb moulded the institution with a deep sense of its historical past, and a culture that even today gives it a distinctive quality.
In 1975 the College, now managed by the Zakir Husain Memorial Trust, was renamed Zakir Husain Delhi College. It shifted to the new campus outside the Turkman Gate in 1986.