Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
Established by nobel laureate, savant and litterateur Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) as an abode for students from around the world, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan (VBU, estb.1918) has been mired in controversy and continuous turmoil since Dr. Bidyut Chakrabarty, former professor of political science at Delhi University, assumed office as vice chancellor in November 2018.
The charges levelled against Chakrabarty — an alumnus of the London School of Economics who taught at Delhi University for 20 years — include autocratic decision-making, destroying cultural and social communication between VBU and Santiniketan residents, sustained endeavour to alienate, exclude and ostracise people from beyond Bolpur district by labelling them outsiders, routinely delaying salaries and pensions of 4,000 present and past employees of this Central government-funded varsity, and attempting to “saffronise” VBU.
Simmering unrest on the VBU campus boiled over on August 23, when varsity authorities rusticated leaders of Visva-Bharati Student’s Unity (VBSU), a students’ organisation, for “gross indiscipline and misconduct”. Besides three student leaders, two professors have also been suspended. After suspension of these professors, the number of teachers and staff under suspension at the university during Chakrabarty’s tenure has risen to 20.
According to VBU insiders, the roots of the latest protests that have disrupted the peace in Santiniketan, can be traced back to the suspension of Dr. Sudipta Bhattacharya, professor of economics at the university and president of the VBU Faculty Association, on the flimsy charge of ‘maligning’ the university, against which the professor has filed a writ petition pending in the Calcutta high court.
“We earned the wrath of the VC when we spoke against the suspension of over ten professors on the charge of airing individual opinions over the state-of-affairs at the university under Chakrabarty’s leadership and organising a protest when BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta was invited to VBU campus in January 2020 to speak in support of the anti-minorities Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019,” says Somnath Sow, a suspended VBSU leader.
Since August 28, 40 Visva-Bharati students have gheraoed VC Bidyut Chakrabarty’s residence to protest the rustication of the three VBSU students. Supporting them, the Students Federation of India (SFI) — students’ wing of the CPM — called a two-day protest across the country from August 31, and the Bengal chapter of the All India Students’ Association (AISA) staged statewide protests for two days from September 1. In Kolkata, the Democratic Students’ Federation and the Presidency University Students’ Council also staged a protest rally on September 1.
In support of their allegation that Chakrabarty is hell-bent on “saffronising” VBU, the students say that starting from 2019, several RSS/BJP ideologues have been invited to the VBU campus to address students and faculty. On August 9, 2019, ABVP national-secretary Sunil Ambekar was invited to the halakarshana (pastoral livelihood) ceremony started by Tagore in 1929. Two months later on October 19, the VC permitted the Rashtriya Kala Manch, an RSS-backed outfit, to hold a workshop in the varsity’s journalism school. On January 14, 2020, Chakrabarty invited BJP ideologue Swapan Dasgupta to speak in support of the Citizenship Amendment Act which blatantly discriminates against the country’s Muslim minority. “Since Chakrabarty came here as the VC, he has been proactively trying to promote the saffron agenda… a calculated programme to ruin the inclusive, secular, cosmopolitan, global culture of VBU, built painstakingly by Tagore,” says a senior varsity professor, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As the impasse at the sylvan Central university founded by Tagore a century ago, continues, more people, including teachers, local traders, long-time residents of Santiniketan have joined the students’ protest against Prof. Chakrabarty. There’s a general consensus that he doesn’t respect the culture and traditions of this 103-year-old university with glorious antecedents.
Unfortunately, for 6,500 students of VBU, this impasse is likely to become integrated with the bitter enmity between the BJP government at the Centre and the ruling Trinamool Congress party in Kolkata.
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