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Bengal: Suspended Staff, Students! Visva Bharati University in Turmoil Over VC's 'Undemocratic Functioning'

Several students and professors are up in arms against VC Bidyut Chakraborty, claiming that he is destroying the university.
Visva Bharati

Representational use only.Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Kolkata: Students and professors are two of the top stakeholders in any university. “In Visva Bharati University, it is the students and the faculty who have suffered the worst in the hand of its present VC, Professor Bidyut Chakraborty,” according to Somnath Sou, a student leader of the university.

Sou, who spoke to Newsclick, claims to have been illegally debarred from the recent admission process due to his part in student movements despite a court order forbidding VBU to do so in this regard.

The Visva Bharati University was established in Shantiniketan by Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore, and it is now a central university of repute. Until India’s independence from British rule,  Visva Bharati was a college; later, in 1951, it was transformed into a university and accorded the prestige of being an ‘Institute of National Importance’.

Sou’s apparent fault is that he was vocal against last year’s suspension of his department Professor Sudipta Bhattacharya, who is also the secretary of VBUFA (Visva Bharati University Faculty Association). As many As 160 faculty and staff members (70 of them academic staff) have been issued show-cause notices between January 2019 and April 2022 on various charges. They constitute about 12% of all staff members on the roster of  Visva Bharati.

The VC Bidyut Chakraborty also suspended the general secretary of the Karmi Sabha (Staff Association). Further, he found faults with words like “Khosgalpo”, a Bengali term for chit-chat, and brought a sexual harassment notice against Prof Bhattacharya for using the term in a written communication to the VC, Bhattacharya told NewsClick.

According to the professor, the VC, on the other hand, faces two molestation charges -- one in his previous workplace at Delhi University and another in Shantiniketan, which is still under police investigation.

Students alleged that the VC sent goons to beat up the Visva Bharati pupils protesting against his “undemocratic” moves. Sou, the debarred student leader who is also a state committee member of the Students Federation of Indi (SFI), was injured in the attacks.

However, the police sprang into action after the incident, and three of the attackers were put in jail for 50 days for causing grievous injury to students. Two of the three attackers had no connection to the university and were found to be hired goons.

Sou told Newsclick, “We don’t know what the central government under the BJP wants to prove by continuing with a person like Bidyut Chakraborty as the Vice Chancellor of this famed university. His stay for one more day also entails a topsy-turvy situation for the university, with teachers and students being served with show-cause and suspension notices and the whip of the VC is aimed at stalling all protests against his undemocratic functioning.” Sou has already lost two years as he was suspended in 2021 and cannot give his BA part 2 examinations in Economics, only to be reinstated following a court order.

Speaking to Newsclick, Prof Sudipta Bhattacharya, who leads the  Visva Bharati  University Faculty Association, claimed he has been at the receiving end of the VC’s wrath and has been served with umpteen show-cause notices. He was suspended till recently, and his room at Visva Bharati is still sealed by the university authority. “My books and reference materials for the students are all in the room, and the VC has sealed it,” he said.

During Chakraborty’s stint,  Visva Bharati has been relegated in the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) from 11th (in 2016) to 98th position in 2022 among the top 100 Indian Universities.

“I have been served with show-cause notices multiple times. My suspension has been recently revoked (as staff strength has reduced and many are suspended) even though the department enquiry against me is ongoing,” he said.

In 2020, during the wave of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens, a seminar was organised on campus on these issues on January 7. The seminar was to be addressed by BJP leader Swapan Dasgupta. Students and teachers of the university held protests against the same. According to Bhattacharya, the VC’s “pro-BJP stance” came out at that time. “His (the VC’s) dictates are demeaning the ashram concept of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and virtually trying to foil the composition of Visva Bharati while trying to make it into an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) den,” Bhattacharya alleged.

The VC also allegedly stopped the salary of one professor Sruti Bandhyapadhya, the relative of a journalist in West Bengal who had reported negatively in a local newspaper on the happenings around the pro-CAA seminar addressed by Swapan Dasgupta, Bhattacharya claimed.

The SFI Central Executive Committee strongly condemned the “undemocratic attitude” of the  Visva Bharati authority and the recent incident of debarring Somnath Sou from the admission process. “We demand that Somenath Sou is immediately re-admitted to the campus and strict action is taken against those who bear a selective attitude while giving admission to students. The Visva-Bharati authority has previously also taken such severe steps against students who open their mouth against anti-student policies. This is alike the feature of all those central universities where the authority sits as a mere puppet of the RSS-led BJP government,” it said in a statement.

Demanding Sou should be immediately re-integrated into the university, the SFI said necessary action should be taken against the “utterly partial and politically motivated activities of the Vice Chancellor”.

“He is without any doubt the worst Vice Chancellor that the prestigious  Visva Bharati has seen over the years; his way of functioning has crossed all social etiquettes,” said Aminul Huda Titu, an artisan who sells his wares on the  Visva Bharati premises. He said, “What the VC did with the poor artisans, who were all bonafide shop holders on PWD land, is unpardonable. During the last Poushmela (a winter season fair that Shantiniketan is famous for), with the help of a group of hooligans, he demolished the stalls of the poor artisans. Furthermore, he had confiscated the security deposit of Rs 8,000 each from the 210 bonafide stall holders of Poushmela. The fair is administered by the Shantiniketan Trust, of which the VC is not even a member,” Titu alleged.

Titu, who is also the Secretary of the Bolpur Artisan handicrafts Unnayan Samity in Bolpur, further alleged, “He (the VC) has crossed his limits by signing the cheques of Shantiniketan Trust by illegally opening up a new account in the name of the Trust in 2021.”

Notably, VC Bidyut Chakraborty is trying to discontinue the Poushmela from happening on the usual Poushmela grounds this year, according to reports in the local media. He has even gotten into hot waters with the Bolpur municipality after it asked the VC to get the accounts ofthe last Poushmela as settled with the artisans of the area.

The Bolpur Artisan handicrafts Unnayan Samity has also written to the Prime Minister regarding the steps taken by the VC against the bonafide poor artisans and his attempt at evacuating them from the PWD-held land, which is not under the university jurisdiction, Titu informed.

Octogenarian Ashramik and former principal of Patha Bhavan school, Supriyo Tagore, who is Rabindranath Tagore's grand nephew, spoke with Newsclick about the current issues. Expressing disdain at the turn of events at  Visva Bharati, he said that the VC was destroying everything that the Shantiniketan ashram and  Visva Bharati, which have been nurtured by the ideals of Rabindranath Tagore for so many years.

"He (Chakraborty) does not know anything about Rabindranath Tagore and is now demeaning the legacy of another famous ex-student of  Visva Bharati, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. In fact, he cannot tolerate the ex-students of  Visva Bharati, and now the university has become the hotbed of vilifying politics and not studies," Supriyo Tagore alleged.

Senior Ashramik Dixit Sinha told Newsclick that the ultimate centralisation of power on the campus happened during Chakraborty's time and his communication skill with other stakeholders of the university is at its lowest.

Prof Pabitra Sarkar, renowned linguist and former Vice Chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, expressed disdain at the turn of events at  Visva Bharati. He said to Newsclick that as the university VC, Prof Chakraborty should take all stakeholders of  Visva Bharati along with him to materialise the future potential of the
institute, which is not happening currently.

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