Oxford Union


The Oxford Union is a student debating society that was established in 1823. As a forum for political (and non-political) debates, it has attracted a number of high-profile speakers and bred a number of international politicians.

Student members of the university could join the Oxford Union, and hence a number of South Asian students in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were members who attended the debates. Many of these debates related to Indian issues, including a debate during the First World War about the deployment of Indian troops. A number of South Asian students also tried (with varying degrees of success) to become a part of the Union Society committees, all of which were decided by election.

M. C. Chagla was elected to the Library Committee in 1921. In Michaelmas 1923, Solomon Bandaranaike was elected Secretary of the Union, and Treasurer in Trinity 1924. He stood for presidency of the Union but was defeated. Some believed that many old life-members turned out for this election specifically to defeat Bandaranaike. Humayun Kabir was elected to the Library Committee in 1929, was elected Secretary in 1930 and then Librarian in 1931. He was also unsuccessful in standing for President.

The first Indian President of the Oxford Union was D. F. Karaka. He was elected in November 1933 and so was President in the Hilary Term of 1934. He had been Secretary and Librarian previously. As Secretary of the Union in 1933, Karaka was present at the controversial debate: 'That this House will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country'. The motion was carried and Karaka's minute book was torn through this date. In the final debate under his presidency, Karaka launched a scathing attack upon the colour bar with particular reference to the Oxford Carlton Club.


Oxford Mail, 9 March 1934

Secondary works: 

Hollis, Christopher, The Oxford Union (London: Evans Bros., 1965)

Karaka, D. F., I Go West (London: Michael Joseph, 1938)

Karaka, D. F., The Pulse of Oxford (London: J.M. Dent, 1933)

Symonds, Richard, Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? (New York: St Martins Press, 1986)


A report on Karaka's last debate as President of the Oxford Union.

Date began: 
01 Jan 1823

Mr Karaka’s attack on his traducers, particularly his effective conge on the newspaper correspondent, who wrote: “Now that an Indian has been elected to the office of President of the Union, it no longer will be held in such high esteem”, brought a crowded house to his side at once.
“It was ungracious of that paper to make such a remark of any person before he had been tried in that office” was his quiet comment which evoked a torrent of cheers.

Archive source: 

Oxford Union Archives, Oxfordshire Record Office

Oxford Mail, 9 March 1934


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Cambridge Majlis


The Cambridge Majlis was founded around 1891 for Indian students at the university. In its early days it met at the home of Dr Upendra Krishna Dutt. The society became a debating organization where Indian students at Cambridge could reason and practise debates, as well as socialize and discuss political matters. It was named after the Persian word for assembly. A number of Indian nationalist politicians came to Cambridge to address the Majlis. The Cambridge Majlis had close links with its Oxford counterpart, founded in 1896, with various joint dinners and debates.

Secondary works: 

Deshmukh, C. D., The Course of My Life (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1974)

Khosla, G. D., Memory’s Gay Chariot: An Autobiographical Narrative (New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1985)

Kiernan, V. G., ‘Mohan Kumaramangalam in England’, Socialist India, (23 February 1974), pp. 5-7, 36; (2 March 1974), pp. 13-17, 24

Lahiri, Shompa, Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian Encounters, Race and Identity, 1880-1930 (London: Frank Cass, 2000)

Mukherjee, Sumita, Nationalism, Education and Migrant Identities: The England-Returned (London: Routledge, 2009)

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto Press, 2002)

Date began: 
01 Jan 1891
Precise date began unknown: 

Members included: Subhas Chandra Bose, K. L. Gauba, Aurobindo Ghose, Fazl-i-Husain, Mirza Abol Hassan Ispahani, Mohan Kumaramangalam, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajni Patel, Shankar Dayal Sharma.

Notable speakers included: C. F. Andrews, E. M. Forster, M. K. Gandhi, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sarojini Naidu, Lala Lajpat Rai.

Archive source: 

Cambridge Majlis Minute Book, 1932-7, Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

Programme cards and menus, Saroj Kumar Chatterjee Collection, King’s College, Cambridge

L/PJ/12/4, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

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Oxford Majlis


The Oxford Majlis was a debating society founded in 1896 at the University by Indian Students. Following the format of the Oxford Union, and the Cambridge Majlis (founded 5 years earlier), Indian students would meet on Sunday evenings to hold formal debates. They would also hold other social events such as music, dancing and lectures from invited speakers. Each year they would hold a debate against the Cambridge Majlis.

Before Indian Independence, the Oxford Majlis would often take up debates of a political nature relating to empire and Indian’s relationship with Britain. The majority of Indian students at the University felt compelled to be part of the organization and take part in these political debates, even if they were intending to take up positions sympathetic to the British in India such as in the Indian Civil Service. The Majlis was not only restricted to Indian students; Sri Lankan and Burmese students were an integral part of the ‘Indian student’ community before 1947. The India Office and New Scotland Yard kept an eye on the Majlis in the early part of the twentieth century and were particularly concerned about their Communist sympathies in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Published works: 

Bharat [journal]

Secondary works: 

The Majlis Magazine (Hilary 1986)

Chagla, Mahomedali Currim, Roses in December: An Autobiography, 1st edition 1973 (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1990).

Chettur, G. K., The Last Enchantment: Recollections of Oxford (Mangalore: B. M. Bookshop, 1934).

Kirpalani, Santdas Khushiram, Fifty Years with the British (London: Sangam Books, 1993)

Lahiri, Shompa, Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian Encounters, Race and Identity, 1880-1930 (London: Frank Cass, 2000).

Menon, K. P. S., Many Worlds: An Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1965)

Mukherjee, Sumita, Nationalism, Education and Migrant Identities: The England-Returned (London: Routledge, 2009)

Symonds, Richard, Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? (London: Macmillan, 1986)

Date began: 
01 Jan 1896
Archive source: 

K. P. S. Menon papers, Nehru Memorial Library, Delhi

L/PJ/12/4 & L/PJ/12/252, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

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