Saturday, November 27, 2021

Shantiniketan, Tagore’s heritage, is being looted of its vitals in political jockeying

Santiniketan, a sylvan abode Rabindranth Tagore created over a century ago as a melting pot of global ideas, is now discussing illegal land grabbing and cut-money economy that is unique to Bengal.

The charges are serious, now probed by a committee appointed by the Calcutta High Court.

On Sunday, September 20, 2020, a four-member team appointed by the court reached Santiniketan to probe allegations of violence in Visva Bharati University, the institution located inside Santiniketan, over construction of a wall around a fairground and find a resolution involving all the stakeholders.

The committee headed by Justice Sanjeev Banerjee includes Justice Arijit Banerjee, advocate general Kishore Datta and additional solicitor general YJ Dastoor as members. A Calcutta high court division bench headed by Chief Justice TBN Radhakrishnan had set up the committee.

On August 17, 2020, Santiniketan saw unprecedented violence when locals—allegedly backed by some political parties—demolished a wall authorities at Visva Bharati were erecting around the fairground that hosts two of the university’s—and the town’s—biggest festivals, the Poush Mela (a winter fair) and Basanta Utsab (a spring festival of colours).  Thousands throng Santiniketan to participate in the fairs, where students in yellow robes and girls in marigold flowers dance merrily to Tagore songs while shopkeepers hawk food and decoratives.

Santiniketan is special, its alumni list includes Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

The decision to build the ten feet high wall followed a decision of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The NGT did not specify the height of the wall. In 2018, the NGT had fined Visva Bharati Rs 25 lakh after people damaged the fairground. Visva Bharati spent an additional Rs 1 crore to clean up the fairground.

Far Removed from Tagore’s Vision

In short, everything was not as holy and sublime in Santiniketan as Tagore had once envisioned. There was politics in the air, also financial disruption.

The controversy over the proposed wall was just the trigger, the university has been on the boil ever since Bharatiya Janata Party Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta was harassed and locked on January 8, 2020, for four hours when he had visited the Sriniketan campus to deliver a lecture on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Viswa Bharati insiders told me that Dasgupta’s illegal confinement—watched by silent cops who did not intervene—was actually the tip of the iceberg. The state government had actually disliked the appointment of Bidyut Chakrabarty as the vice-chancellor of the university and was trying hard to keep BJP leaders, including the party’s MPs, out of the campus.

Last week, Dasgupta told the Rajya Sabha that deployment of central forces at Santiniketan was imperative and he was worried about the developments at the university. “It was apparent that behind the façade of heritage protection, the state government was using Visva Bharati to fight a proxy battle against the Centre,” Dasgupta wrote in the Kolkata-based Telegraph newspaper.

Locals say the matters at Visva Bharati could turn worse in coming days and there are high chances of violence between the student wings of the BJP and TMC at the campus.

“The TMC has sent out a silent message that it is trying hard to safeguard the heritage of Bengal’s greatest cultural icon from the BJP that seeks to trample on Bengali sensitivities. The TMC is worried that the right wing was slowly taking charge of Santiniketan,” said Sushobhon Banerjee, who lives in Bolpur, the district of which Santiniketan is a part.

“Whatever the vice chancellor is doing is being viewed with total suspicion. It is sad, it is unfortunate. Viswa Bharati is a unique institution where the country’s Prime Minister is the chancellor,” said Banerjee, who studied in Santiniketan.

Of course, there is a money angle  

Insiders say Chakrabarty, who took charge in November, 2018, has not played ball with local politicians. On paper, no one says anything to him at Visva Bharati, a public research and central university. In reality, he is disliked by many, including students and those owing allegiance to political parties rival to the BJP. They feel he has been planted by the BJP, and that he has a right-wing agenda. As a result, there has been routine tensions and clashes between Chakrabarty and those running Viswa Bharati, the latest being the dustup over the fairground.

It was not the wall around the fairground but the economics of the show, dominated by the TMC and its leader Anubrata Mondal, was something that promoted Chakrabarty to intervene. His own calculations showed stalls for vendors, sold by Viswa Bharati for Rs 2,000 per shop, were being allegedly cornered by the TMC workers who, in turn, were hawking it for anywhere between Rs 25,000 and 45,000 per shop. So for Viswa Bharati, the earnings were roughly Rs 25 lakh but for the middlemen, the earnings were around Rs 4 crore.

This, in short, is one of the biggest crises.

Worried about what he called illegal money dealings and land grabbing, Chakrabarty, has stuck to his stand on fencing, claiming it was necessary to keep out the land grabbers while people supported by Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress resist the move. He even threatened to cancel the fairs, his men sliced off portions of a huge banyan tree, always seen as the ubiquitous symbol of Santiniketan’s culture of outdoor classes.

This was not a good move, especially in a state where sentiments have always ruled high over rules and economics. It was like asking the Bauls, mystic singers of Santiniketan, not to smoke the pot. Residents of Santiniketan and Bolpur saw it as intervention from an outsider (read Chakrabarty). There was widespread opposition to the move that ranged from cultural anguish to worries over local commerce.

“I have been advised by the committee members not to talk on the issue,” Chakrabarty told me.

If the rates for shops in Santiniketan is one issue, illegal construction around the campus is another. Chakrabarty has stirred a hornet’s nest by challenging the local real estate mafia, and also the local politicians who exerted considerable influence in and around the university campus.

Chakrabarty has informed top officials in the Ministry of Human Resources Development about large-scale land grabbing by the local real estate mafia, one has learnt. The vice-chancellor identified that around 172 acres in Santiniketan were now under the control of outsiders who weigh tremendous political clout in the area. The cost of the land runs into more than Rs 150 crore. Viswa Bharati’s is sprawled across 1,128 acres, according to an estimate drawn up in 2016.

“Outsiders are steadily encroaching in Santiniketan. It is a serious issue here,” says Dr Ujjal Majumdar, who did his doctorate from Visva Bharati. Dr Majumdar said there are many in Santiniketan who had taken land at Rs 1 for a 99-year lease from the Tagore family. “The Visva Bharati University wants them to renegotiate the lease but they are not keen.”

Chakrabarty wanted to change many things he felt were wrong, illegal. He wrote countless letters to students, teaching staff and administrative staff, asking them to work in tandem to push the standards of the university.

One has copies of the letters, titled Missives. In the letters, Chakrabarty has lamented how the ranking of the university has been on the decline since 2016. As per the National Institutional Ranking Framework, the university – placed 31st in 2018 – has now dropped to 50th.

“It is difficult to work in this current environment. Time and again, students and teachers demonstrate in front of my office, locking me for 24 hours. Teachers who have taken advance salaries are annoyed if asked to return the same, those who have taken leave travel concession beyond their limits are not happy if they have been asked to return the cash. A segment of teachers drawing cash more than their salaries for years are now protesting because I have asked them to regularise their salaries. Nearly 24 teachers appointed out of turn are unhappy because they could be fired. Guest house workers who have always taken away the earnings of the guest house are revolting because I have told them the cash belongs to the university,” wrote Chakrabarty in one of his letters.

There are multiple groups rallying against Chakrabarty; they have called the vice-chancellor names, even Taliban. Among his detractors are a section of the alumni Left activists, local residents and businessmen, the last-named part of the Bolpur Station Road Byabsayee Welfare Samity (a traders body which has backing of the ruling TMC). It is clear that the TMC is using this agitation to consolidate its support among Bolpur’s craftsmen and small business owners.

“We are trying to save Santiniketan. The VC knows nothing of Tagore and his ideals. He is changing the landscape of Shantiniketan, pushing the right wing agenda,” says local TMC leader Anubrata Mondal.

Mondal, in an interview, said Chakrabarty would have earned praises if he had taken the locals along with him in shaping Visva Bharati. “The wall is a symbol of divide— Tagore broke barriers to create Santiniketan.”

In view of the tensions and the clear collusion of the local administration with the local TMC, Chakrabarty called for an emergency meeting of the university executive council and decided to close Visva-Bharati for the foreseeable future.

Education goes for a toss

Education, naturally, has taken a backseat. Politics now rules in Santiniketan where Chakrabarty is considered by many as the Intruder. Locals say they do not care if the vice chancellor is trying to stem the rot in the university, opposition against Chakrabarty has worked like the proverbial jungle drums of Phantom: Everyone says Chakrabarty is the enemy of the masses, literally translated in Bengali as Ganashatru

“He has two options,” says Subhabrata Bhattacharya, a veteran journalist. “Either he remains silent and allows corruption to breed in Santiniketan. Or else he must fight like a lone ranger. It is sad Santiniketan is making news for all wrong reasons.”

Last year, a court found former Visva Bharati vice-chancellor Dilip Sinha and registrar Dilip Mukherjee guilty of criminal charges related to conspiracy and forgery. A former mathematics lecturer, Mukti Deb, was found guilty of producing forged documents to land the job.

There are other issues. The locals, egged on by the TMC, have made it clear that they are not keen on the Central government project to have a satellite campus of Viswa Bharati in Ramgarh in Uttarakhand where Tagore lived in phases with his family, and started work on his iconic Geetanjali. The project has the blessings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the TMC is not liking it.

But the Ministry of Human Resources has started work at the site, 36 km from Nainital, where once leopards and leeches were permanent partners. There are plans to set up a university, introduce special courses and create a tourist zone.

It wants to rebuild and recreate everything, including a Tagore museum and big stones on which India’s most famous bard used charcoal to pen some of his classy songs. The state government also wants to recreate a place where Tagore and his terminally ill daughter Renuka used to gaze at the stars.

“Let us abandon our egos and carry forward the legacy of Tagore,” Chakrabarty wrote in his last Missive. 

But Visva Bharati has not responded. For them, Chakrabarty is not a professor, not a vice chancellor. He is BJP.

(This piece is a reprint from MoneyControl).

Shantanu Guha Ray is a Wharton-trained journalist and award-winning author. He lives in Delhi with his wife and two pets.  He won the 2018 Crossword award for his book, Target, which probed the NSEL payment crisis.

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