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regular-article-logo Sunday, 19 May 2024

Letter to the Editor: Visva-Bharati's answer to critics

Reader writes in from Shantiniketan

The Editorial Board Published 07.03.23, 03:49 AM

Sir —Visva-Bharati is no longer an abode of ideas, claim a set of Bengalis who want to see the university as it was in the past: a pristine campus where many drew inspiration to carve out a new narrative for Bengal and Bengalis. We conveniently forget that this institution is more than 100 years old. Following the momentum of human societies, it does not seem illogical to suggest that it has undergone a sea change. Change is inevitable. The question is whether this change is for the betterment of the institution or otherwise. Therein lies the root of criticisms, predominant among which is the charge that Visva-Bharati has lost its original character because of interventions by the present administration, such as the discontinuation of Poush Mela and Basanta Utsav. Another dimension of the criticism is articulated in the form of challenges against the administrative steps to reclaim Visva-Bharati’s land from land-grabbers.

Let me make it clear that Poush Mela had a purpose. It was introduced by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, in the 19th century to create a space for local artisans to showcase their talents. This was most appropriate then as there was hardly a regular market for selling what they produced. Gurudev was also persuaded and he began holding the Poush Mela in the Visva-Bharati campus. The tradition continued with the building of a space for brokers who purchased the stalls and sold them at a high premium to businessmen who were keen to use the mela to make money. Nobody bothered to stop the middle men presumably because it was a source of benefit for all. The situation changed in 2019 with the instruction of the National Green Tribunal, which restricted the mela for four days. The problem began when it stopped the continuity of the mela beyond the stipulated days as Bhanga Mela.

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In 2022, the mela was discontinued not by the decision of Visva-Bharati but by a high-court decree. Visva-Bharati organised the rituals integrally linked with Poush Utsav introduced by Gurudev. Similarly, Basanta Utsav has been held on Holi for years. 2019 was a watershed since it revealed their real nature to everybody who came to see the morning cultural programme. Basanta Utsav was reduced to Vasanata Tandav by many who did not bother to remain civilised. The situation became such that our security staff was asked to take female students to a protected place. Many women were victims of unruly behaviour. The law enforcement agencies could not control the miscreants as their number was high. The Basanta Utsav of 2019 was a nightmare not only for those who were formally associated with Visva-Bharati but also for the people of Bolpur who suffered because of the high footfall for which the town was not equipped. In order to avoid such a nightmarish experience, VisvaBharati decided to hold the Basanta Utsav in accordance with Gurudev’s conceptualisation of the festival of colour.

There is an explicit tendency among many to attribute the decline of Visva-Bharati to its demand of reclaiming land from Professor Amartya Sen. The facts need to be placed before the readers to clear the confusion. Professor Sen was requested to return the extra 12 decimals of land to Visva-Bharati in 2011. There were many meetings with Visva-Bharati officials during the period between 2006 and 2011 because he wanted to build a toilet and a room on the first floor of the building, Pratichi. The land issue was discussed and he agreed that he had in possession an extra amount of land. In response to Visva-Bharati’s request, he asked the officials to take a portion of land behind his house which was declined as the space was of no use to Visva-Bharati. In 2019, the issue was raised and a letter issued to him. He sent a lawyer’s notice with the threat that he would charge Visva-Bharati with defaming him. In 2022, a letter was issued with the same request since he came to stay in his Santiniketan house. VisvaBharati did not disclose the contents of the letter but it was put out in the public domain. Nobody knows how it happened although it is not difficult to surmise.

With the reiteration of the request by VisvaBharati, many compared the institution with the jokhhopuri of Gurudev’s play, Raktakorobi. This is an unjust comparison. Let us make it clear that VisvaBharati has no intention of humiliating an academic of the stature of Professor Sen. Visva-Bharati’s aim is to stop land-grabbing even by those who are well-known because being well-known in any field of creativity does not allow one to illegally occupy the institution’s land. If a relatively lesser-known individual grabs land unlawfully, he/ she will be punished as per the laws of the land. But if it is a renowned person, one should remain tight-lipped because it is an attack on Bengali sentiments. What a logic! Would the poet have supported this? The answer is not difficult to seek as he himself narrated the difficulties he confronted to safeguard Visva-Bharati from land sharks and those who flourished because of their association with the Nobel Laureate. To reinforce the point, I refer to his letter to Gandhi where he made “a fervent appeal” to the Mahatma “to accept this institution under your protection giving it an assurance of permanence if you consider it to be a national asset. Visva-Bharati is like a vessel, which is carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation.” In his response, Gandhi wrote, “Visva-Bharati is a national institution and… is also undoubtedly international. You may depend upon my doing all I can in the common endeavour to assure its permanence.” Following this line of thinking, Visva-Bharati has embarked on steps to protect this centre of learning by deploying means which may upset many Bengalis who enjoy being, to use Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s expression, “atmaghati bangali”. One should not forget that VisvaBharati is a Central university and is bound by rules governing Central universities. There are instructions from the ministry of education that “illegal encroachment in Higher Educational Institutions should be stopped” (OM of 30/11/2017). Since 2005, an annual audit is being conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General to find out whether Centrally-governed academic institutions have taken adequate steps to reclaim illegally occupied land. Visva-Bharati can avoid this to its peril.

Professor Sen is a well-known person and news-worthy. It appears there’s a conspiracy hatched by those who want to protect partisan interests. Those who are shedding crocodile tears, as Visva-Bharati insists on reclaiming its land, shall also be brought to its net soon. The vicious media campaign only exposes the intellectual bankruptcy of Bengalis who decline to call a spade a spade. Professor Sen is not free from this. This was evident when he claimed that the state government has transferred the land to him before departing for his adopted land, the US. This is contrary to the fact since the next hearing at the land revenue office in Bolpur for ascertaining Professor Sen’s claim is March 15. No comment is required. I leave it with the readers to decide.

Mahua Banerjee, Public Relations Officer, Visva-Bharati University

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