01 January 1970

Santiniketan’s UNESCO World Heritage Tag Comes At One Of Its Darkest Hours

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Santiniketan’s UNESCO World Heritage Tag Comes At One Of Its Darkest Hours

The recognition comes at a time when the Rabindranath Tagore-founded Visva-Bharati University has sunk deep in chaos and controversy

Upasana Griha, Shantiniketan
Upasana Griha, Shantiniketan Indranil Bhoumik/Mint via Getty Images)

On September 17, hours before the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared Santiniketan, the West Bengal town known for the Visva-Bharati University (VB), as a World Heritage Site, the university authorities issued a press statement that exemplified the dark hours the famed institution is undergoing. 

The press statement issued in Bengali starts with an incorrectly written sentence, missing two commas, and then launches a tirade against teachers, accusing them of neglecting their academic duties and engaging in criticism of the administration. 

It accused “many teachers” of not taking classes, of being incapable of teaching in English medium, and argued that students did not complain because they benefit from these teachers in many ways. 

“We can say it from our experience that those whose only aim is to harass the administration – of course, against a fat monthly salary that they receive – have no research work in the first place, and whatever is there includes such writings that can in no way be treated as research work,” said the statement signed by the chief public relations officer. 

In December 1961, Vittorino Veronese, the then Director-General of UNESCO, highlighted one of Tagore’s declarations in his message on the occasion of Tagore’s birth centenary: “He who wishes freedom for himself yet fears freedom for his neighbour is not worthy of freedom.” Veronese then declared Tagore as “a Guru to UNESCO.” 

But at present-day Visva-Bharati, the authorities have barred every teaching and non-teaching staff from speaking to the media or expressing opinion in the public, on matters concerning the institute, without written, prior permission from the authorities. They can, if they wish, communicate with the media only through the PRO. Students have been show-caused for making social media posts criticising the authorities. Teachers and students known to be critical of the authority have been handed suspension notices and even rustication. The varsity has about 470 teachers, 750 non-teaching staff, and around 15,000 students.

While Tagore envisioned the awakening of the country, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,” an atmosphere of fear looms large on the campus. 

According to a professor who spoke on condition of anonymity, more than 300 teaching and non-teaching staff and students have faced show-cause, suspension, or termination notices on a range of issues since Bidyut Chakraborty took charge as vice-chancellor in 2018. 

The authorities are currently engaged in more than 100 litigations filed by teaching and non-teaching staff, students, and others challenging various moves of the administration – all of them during Chakraborty’s tenure. 

Ensuring the staff’s silence, VC Chakraborty and the PRO keep posting long statements on the varsity website. 

Chakraborty calls his thousands-of-word statements ‘missives’. They are full of allegories, mostly without names, and replete with political overtones. They target teachers, student organisations, the state government, and politicians belonging to the state’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), and the chief minister as well.  

“We live in a state that has fascist leanings,” Chakraborty wrote in his 8,942-word ‘missive’ dated September 11. He, of course, meant the state government. Or, did he mean the people of the state? For a whole state to have fascist leanings, the majority of its people must have so. But Chakraborty’s writings are written in such English that keeps one guessing. 

He criticised the “relentless attack especially on Visva-Bharati’s authorities, especially the Vice-Chancellor,” claiming that “he is engaged in cleansing the campus of the rogues.” He wrote that “land sharks, the truant teaching, and non-teaching staff members” were “under the scanner and the authority follows zero tolerance vis-à-vis them regardless of the deployment of means by the fascist state.” 

The varsity was duty-bound “to ruthlessly weed out the bad/evil/pernicious/venomous elements from within the campus,” he said and added, “Visva-Bharati is a peculiar space located in an equally peculiar ecosystem for many reasons which cannot be enumerated with adequate explanation in one missive. I need missives after missives in one go which is not a pleasant task.” 

Visva-Bharati is a Union government-funded institution, having the Prime Minister as its chancellor and the President as a ‘visitor’. Chakraborty has quite generously spared the Union government and people associated with the party ruling at the Centre of its criticism.  

According to teachers and students who spoke to Outlook, Chakraborty became vengeful after teachers and students resisted his plans to “saffronise the campus.”

Soon after he took charge, the Rashtriya Kala Manch, a wing of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh student arm Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), published a cultural workshop to be conducted on the campus. The authorities had to withdraw permission for the event in the face of protests from student organisations and a section of the teachers.

Nevertheless, the campus has still seen BJP Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta being invited to deliver a lecture on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the BJP’s Birbhum district unit president occupying a chair on the dais during a visit by Union minister Subhas Sarkar. 

A number of his decisions have faced legal hurdles. In January, after economics professor Sudipta Bhattacharya was served a termination notice, over 250 academics, including American linguist Noam Chomsky, wrote to President Draupadi Murmu, seeking her intervention. The Calcutta High Court, though, stayed the Visva-Bharati order. 

“Prima facie, it appears that though the petitioner is a permanent ‘adhyapak’ (professor), the university sought to throw him out by termination of his service following the decision of the executive council taken completely behind his back leveling various stigmatic aspersions against him,” Justice Kaushik Chanda wrote while staying the order. 

After the chief minister spoke in support of Bhattacharya, the PRO launched a scathing attack on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, alleging that the chief minister "sees through her ears", and reminded her that the state's former education minister and the former vice-chancellor of a state-run university were in jail on corruption charges, and categorically said, "It is better for us if we do not get your blessings, for we are used to following the Prime Minister's guidance."

Trampling of a unique space and values 

One of the UNESCO world heritage criteria under which India applied for the status is Criteria VI, which demands the nominated space to “be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.”

The management plan submitted by the government of India includes “the university community as well as the Ashramites connected with the University. Development of a trained volunteer force among Ashramites and other civilian populations.” Ashramites refer to old-time Santiniketan residents. 

The management plan speaks of ‘innovating partnership’ with government and non-government organisations related to museum, library, and architectural restoration as well as “the Core Residents (the Alumni Associations, Ashramites, Students, faculty and Administrative staff), and other community groups (living in Bolpur).”

“The preservation of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Visva-Bharati and Santiniketan is a pressing common concern of the governments at the central and state levels, and also of cultural organisations and institutions related with Visva-Bharati, the communities living in this area, and the alumni,” the management plan says. 

VC Chakraborty, however, has frequently branded the alumni, Ashramik/ Ashramite, and other residents as ‘jonjal’ or trash. He has not spared the local small traders who have traditionally been considered integral to the Visva-Bharati atmosphere. 

He is fighting a lone battle against all these evils to help the famed institution resurrect, Chakraborty has repeatedly contended. 

“Here, the self-proclaimed Rabindriks, the deceptive Ashramites, the local people with the intention of making illegal money out of Visva-Bharati by resorting to means which are everything but not legally endorsed. But these deviants happily indulge in these practices because the law-enforcing agencies are adept in reinventing strategies in accordance with political directions or those of Bahuwali,” he wrote. 

He has been consistently referring to economics Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, one of Santiniketan’s most famous children, as ‘land-grabber’ for several months now. 

“I get all these talks about Sen being an intellectual and Nobel Laureate but does it give him the right to steal?” VC Chakraborty asked while speaking to a TV channel hours after the UNESCO declaration. 

Chakraborty’s administration has accused the Sen family, resident of Santiniketan for nine decades, of illegally occupying .13 decimal land, a charge that the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has categorically refuted after examining the land records available with the state government. Banerjee has contended that Sen is being targeted for being critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindu nationalist politics. 

Sen is fighting Visva-Bharati’s eviction notice in court. 

Under Chakraborty’s aegis, shops have been evicted from the Ratanpally market, authorities have tried to oust handicraft shops from Kobiguru market and raised walls at multiple places. Many Santiniketan old-timers, including Tagore family member Supriyo Tagore, had resented the building of these walls, alleging that it contradicted Tagore’s very idea of the space. 

Supriyo, a former principal of Patha Bhavan, the secondary school of Visva-Bharati, has repeatedly alleged that the varsity was being run in complete contravention of Rabindranath’s ideas. 

Chakraborty’s understanding of Indian history also starkly differs from that of Tagore. 

“The Muslims invaded India and established a trend of ruling India as unassailable rulers. India was now beginning to lose her identity; she became a place for the outsiders to mold the country in every respect in accordance with their priorities,” Chakraborty wrote, adding, “Muslim rulers had adopted a strategy to completely destroy the inner courage that Indians had before they became victims of whimsical governance at the aegis of the conquerors.” 

To clarify, this is not part of his research paper or any scholarly work that he penned. It is from another of his ‘missives’ available on the varsity’s website.  

Chakraborty may well be advised to read Tagore’s book, ‘Bharat Pathik Raja Rammohun Roy’, to have a better understanding of India’s history through Tagore’s eyes.  

Chakraborty, nevertheless, has his no-nonsense way of shutting down critics. 

“When Visva-Bharati authority talked about the Mela ground being used for anti-social activities and stopped them by an iron fist, many of these Bengalees thought that the Rabindrik traditions were guillotined. When many structures which functioned as canteens were demolished because flesh trade was going on under its cloak, many of these self-proclaimed custodians of Bengalee heritage under the protection of political Dadas raised hue and cry,” he wrote in an August 20 post. 

For a site to be declared as World Heritage, it has to have “Outstanding Universal Value.” What Outstanding Universal Value Chakraborty has been preaching remains the subject of a deeply disturbing question.

Response to a sexual harassment charge 

In August, when an anonymous social media post on a Facebook page named ‘VB Confessions’ alleged that the female student behind the post had faced sexual harassment from a section of teachers, and it got reported in the Bengali media, VB authorities rushed to call it an attempt to malign the institution. 

“The anonymous post is a fake one and the university has a specific mechanism to deal with the cases of harassment if they are genuine,” a press statement issued by the PRO on August 13 read. It requested editors of media outlets not to publish such “concocted” and “false and fabricated stories.” 

Anonymous social media posts and letters alleging sexual harassment have led to multiple investigations in the past but there was not a single word of assurance for the purported victim nor any word of encouragement to come forward and share more details with the authorities. 

Instead, they issued yet another statement the next day, criticising the media for publishing the allegations without verifying their authenticity but also announced a daylong hunger strike at Sangeet Bhavana “to silently protest against these activities which are continuously going on in the social media and are being used by news agencies to ruin the culture, tradition, and image of Visva-Bharati in the public domain.” 

“In order to reinforce the voice of protest, the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Bidyut Chakraborty, decided to remain silent during the period (8 am to 5 pm),” the statement added. 

In a separate press statement in Bengali issued the same day, authorities questioned the media’s role in publicising an anonymous post and contended that the media was serving its interest by maligning Visva-Bharati. 

Following this, Kaushik Bhattacharya, a Santiniketan resident and Visva-Bharati teacher, lodged a police complaint at Santikinetan police station, urging the police to investigate the allegations and file cases against Chakraborty for trying to protect suspected violators. 

“I apprehend, by mobilising a huge number of teachers and officers at Sangeet Bhavana will definitely create panic in the mind of the victims,” he wrote in the complaint, which the police subsequently turned into an FIR.    

On August 20, Chakraborty furthered his argument in his ‘missive’, saying that “the timing of this seemingly false Facebook post is also indicative of a design” and that he suspected it was aimed at diverting public attention from the debate around ragging and the death of a student at Jadavpur University.