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Kolkata: Harassment of VBU Faculty and Students Continue as High Court Opines on VC's Removal

Around 260 university professors, researchers, and journalists wrote an open letter to Indian President Dourpadi Murmu, urging her to revoke the suspension of Somnath Sou, a dalit student activist.
Visva Bharati University

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Kolkata: Around 260 university professors, researchers, and journalists spread across the US, the UK, Colombia, Canada, and France wrote an open letter to Indian President Dourpadi Murmu, urging her to revoke the suspension of Somnath Sou, a dalit student activist associated with the Student Federation of India (SFI). 

Sou was suspended for standing up to the draconian rule of the vice-chancellor of Visva Bharati University and his design to malign Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. 

The petition read, "Somnath Sou, a first-year post-graduate (MA) dalit student at Visva-Bharati. Somnath was suspended for expressing support on social media for Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen in a land controversy. In an interim verdict, District Judge Suri recently issued a stay order and affirmed that Visva-Bharati had failed to produce any evidence supporting their claim. This essentially validates Somnath's stance. Ironically, Somnath's suspension lacked a formal letter of complaint and chargesheet, raising concerns about due process. Somnath has faced consecutive punishments and has had to knock at the doors of the Court multiple times. In protest of Somnath's suspension, a petition addressed to the Hon'ble President of India was submitted in the online portal (Registration No. PRSEC/E/2023/0043933 dated October 16, 2023)." 

The 260 signatories include distinguished academics such as Amit Bhaduri, Utsa Patnaik, Akeel Bilgrami, John Harriss, James Boyce, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Prabhat Patnaik, P. Sainath, Jens Lerche, Jayati Ghosh, Nibedita Menon, Sunanda Sen, Pulin Nayek, Harbans Mukhia Tanika Sarkar, Supriyo Tagore, Sabujkoli Sen, Supriya Chaudhuri, Anthony D'Costa, Pronab Sen, CP Chandrasekhar, Aditya Nigam, Jawahar Sircar (MP), among others.

The petition further remarked, "Somnath was suspended without any formal complaint lodged against him, and Visva-Bharati authority did not issue any chargesheet. Despite this, the Proctor initiated a disciplinary proceeding against him, which is both prejudicial and unlawful. Somnath appeared before this "Kangaroo Court" on March 24, 2023, and requested access to the complaint letter and the charges against him. (Annexure-3) Unfortunately, they were unable to provide any answers. Four months later, he received a suspension letter dated July 26, 2023, from the Proctor for the third semester. The loss of the third semester means, in effect, the loss of one academic year. The suspension was issued three days before his semester examination, seemingly intended to demotivate, harass, and hinder him academically."

The petition noted that the statutes of Visva-Bharati do not provide the University with the power to suspend students, a stance confirmed by the Kolkata High Court. 

"Despite this, Visva-Bharati suspended Somnath on July 26, 2023, making a mockery of the Court's decision. As previously mentioned, Somnath Sou has been repeatedly targeted due to the personal vendetta held by VC Bidyut Chakrabarty. He was earlier rusticated following nine months of suspension, along with two other students, an action that was invalidated by the Hon'ble bench of Rajashekhar Mantha at the High Court in September 2021 (WPA/13553/2021). The VC's personal grudge became apparent in a complaint filed with the Coordinator of the Admission Coordination Cell (ACC) on June 24, 2023, where he recommended the halt of Somnath's admission. (Annexure-4) In spite of the fact that VC himself was the complainant, he approved an eight-member enquiry committee against Somnath, violating the principle of natural justice." 

Despite a favourable verdict from the Calcutta High Court, the University failed to comply. It took the intervention of the High Court once again to compel the VC to grant admission to Sou; otherwise, the VC was about to face a personal appearance in Court. Apart from court interventions, when students rallied to support Sou, the VC's response was the suspension of seven students, including four from the Scheduled Caste and two from the OBC category.

Meanwhile, Kolkata High Court Justice Abhijit Ganguly, hearing the case of Prof. Manas Maity of the Physics Department, has commented, "I wonder how such a person can continue as Vice-Chancellor of a University who himself wants to damage the University's beneficial attainments. The Ministry of Education is not a party in this matter, but because of such a damaging letter from his own University, I am of the view that Bidyut Chakrabarty should be removed from the post of Vice Chancellor of the University as he has categorically written a letter to the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India for which not only the University would be deprived (and has been deprived until now) but also the interest of the country in the field of Science and Technology has been jeopardised."

Talking to NewsClick, Prof. Manas Maity gave a long list of harassment that he and His colleagues had to endure at the hands of the VC, starting from his unethical removal from the post of departmental head of the Physics department. 

Interestingly, Maity, who is associated with the CERN project, is one of the few Indian scientists associated with the project. The VC had given a letter to the Department of Science and Technology to cancel the science project being conducted by Maity.

The Court directed the University to reissue the endorsement certificate by seven days from the date of communication of the order. Furthermore, the Court criticised the letter written by Bidyut Chakrabarty, which it held was "against the interest of the university founder, who is none other than Rabindra Nath Tagore."

Meanwhile, Sou has urged the University to stop defaming a world-renowned Nobel laureate figure like Sen.

"I have been singled out for a supportive post for Prof. Sen as I belong to the scheduled caste (SC) community. This VC is dangerously racial in mindset, and though many more student activists had posted in support of Prof. Sen, I was singled out. Just before our second-semester examinations, I was served with a suspension notice barring me from attending the third semester," Sou said. 

Talking to NewsClick, Sou, pursuing his Master's in Rural Management, claims to have been illegally debarred from the admission process earlier due to his involvement in the student movement. This happened despite a court order forbidding VBU to do so. 

VBU was established in Shantiniketan by Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore. It was given the status of a central university in 1951 and accorded the prestige of being an 'Institute of National Importance."

Sou was also targeted because of his vocal opposition to last year's suspension of his department professor, Sudipta Bhattacharya, who is also the secretary of the Visva Bharati University Faculty Association (VBUFA). 

As many as 160 faculty and staff members (70 academic staff) have been issued show-cause notices on various charges between January 2019 and April 2022. They constitute about 12% of all staff members on the roster of VBU.

VC Bidyut Chakraborty also suspended the general secretary of the Karmi Sabha (Staff Association).

Sou lost two years as he was suspended in 2021 and could not appear for his BA part 2 examinations in Economics, only to be reinstated following a court order. 

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