Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has said that he was not in India in June 2019 when, according to Visva-Bharati University’s vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty, the globally acclaimed economics professor made him a phone call, introducing himself as a Bharat Ratna, and urged Chakrabarty not to proceed with the varsity’s hawker eviction plan.
Sen (87), who was born and brought up in the quaint university town of Santiniketan and is an alumnus of the university founded by Asia’s first literature Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, is at present a Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy, at Harvard University in the United States.
On December 16, the V-B authorities issued a statement saying Chakrabarty was returning from New Delhi in June 2019 by an Air India flight (AJ0020) that took off from Delhi at 2pm and reached Kolkata al 4.30pm on June 2 or June 14. Upon boarding the university car from the airport, Chakrabarty received a call, with the caller informing him that Sen, who was introduced as a Bharat Ratna, wanted to speak to him over the phone.
“The Vice-Chancellor received the call. Professor Sen started criticizing and questioning the vice-chancellor for demolishing the illegal shops that had mushroomed along the road on which Pratichi, Prof Sen's ancestral home, is located. In order to defend his point, he insisted that these shops had been there since the days of Tagore and that they were part of Visva Bharati. He illustrated the supposed convenience of having these shops around by giving the example of how he could easily buy food-stuff like tarkari (vegetables) or get his daughter’s punctured flat tyre fixed,” the Visva-Bharati’s statement read.
The authorities also accused Sen, whose family has been one of the early settlers of Santiniketan, of illegally occupying 13 decimal of university’s land.
The authorities also shared a phone number from which they claimed the call came. Outlook found out the number belonged to Aurobinda Nandy, an associate of Sen who lives in Santiniketan.
While Nandy said that Sen does use his number to call people when in India, he clarified that he had not been abroad in June 2019 and Sen said that he had not been in India in June 2019.
“On June 2, 2019, I was in France, attending a meeting in Paris. On June 14, 2019, I was in América, at our home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After that I was in England, in the English Cambridge. I came (to India) on the 3rd of July, and went to Delhi first, and then Calcutta and Santiniketan. I was not in India at all in June 2019,” Sen wrote in a letter to Sudipta Bhattacharya, the president of Visva-Bharati University Faculty Association, on December 29.
Bhattacharya shared this letter with some of his colleagues at Visva-Bharati, one of whom shared its contents with Outlook. The letter came from Sen’s official email id.
When contacted, Bhattacharya refused to comment, saying he was not authorised to speak to the media.
“I am extremely rarely in India in June. I prefer to come only after the monsoon settles in - so it tends to be July, not June,” Sen wrote in that letter.
“I have talked with the present VC of Visva Bharati, Bidyut Chakravarty, only once, to the best of my knowledge. This was a few years ago when he was chairing a meeting for the release of a book by Pranab Bardhan. His claim that we have talked on the phone and I introduced myself as Bharat Ratna is tantalizingly untrue,” Sen wrote.
The V-B authorities have been facing charges of “saffronisation” since Chakrabarty took charge in 2018. The university is centrally-funded and the Prime Minister is its chancellor.
After this controversy around Sen, chief minister Mamata Banerjee wrote a letter of solidarity to Sen, stating that the government stood by one of Bengal’s brightest sons.
The BJP’s state unit president, Dilip Ghosh, however, took digs at Sen, calling him a “land-grabber”.
While the TMC has taken digs at Ghosh for insulting one of the state’s most-acclaimed sons – with Mamata Banerjee alleging that Sen was targeted by the VB authorities because of his views critical of the central government – the Congress, too, has joined the bandwagon in slamming the BJP for insulting Sen.
In a Facebook post on January 1, Bengal Congress president and the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, blasted the Centre and the VB authorities.
“If Amartya Sen is a ‘thief’, why isn’t Visva Bharati taking possession of the land? Do they have the guts? Why can’t they conduct a ‘land-strike’? The Prime Minister is Visva-Bharati’s chancellor. Why is he silent? Such a huge land scam! No, the likes of Amartya Sen never lower their head. Many may dislike, but not everyone has mortgaged their spine, not everyone bows,” Chowdhury wrote.