Violence in Visva-Bharati over building of wall at the traditional Poush Mela ground

Published : August 17, 2020 22:04 IST

Local people gather to protest against the construction of a wall at the Santiniketan Poush Mela ground on August 17. Photo: PTI

Violence erupted in Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan over the construction of a boundary wall by the university authorities around the Poush Mela ground. The three-day Poush Mela held in the last week of December is a traditional annual festival and fair that has been taking place in Santiniketan for over 125 years. It is not just a huge tourist attraction, but also a symbol of Santiniketan’s culture and identity, as envisaged by the founder of Visva-Bharati, the poet Rabindranath Tagore. It has been one of the biggest events in the university’s calendar. In fact, as early as 1888, when the Santiniketan Trust Deed was drawn up by Rabindranath’s father, Debendranath Tagore, a provision was made for a “Poush utsav” (Poush festival). The Poush Mela (Poush Fair) first started in 1894 in Santiniketan.

On August 17, the picturesque university town became a scene of violence and destruction as thousands of local people, along with some students of the university, broke down the boundary wall that was being constructed on the Poush Mela ground. They seized control of a JCB machine at the construction site and reportedly went on the rampage, even destroying university property.

Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar took to social media to condemn the violence and destruction at Visva-Bharati. He also spoke to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, urging her to intervene and put an end to the unrest. “I condemn this organised vandalism that indicates declining law and order in the State. Administration and police ought to have been active and done their duty. Spoke to CM @MamataOfficial and events unfolding leave no doubt that all was well planned with political patronage,” wrote the Governor in one of his posts.

Asked about the situation at a press conference, initially Mamata seemed to want to stay out of the controversy, stating that Visva-Bharati is a Central university and she would not like to comment on the development. However, she soon made it clear that she was against any construction taking place on the Poush Mela ground. “The Governor had first tweeted and then called me… From what I have gathered, some construction work was going on near the Poush Mela ground and certain outsiders were also present there to protect the construction. The students and the local people did not like it and protested. I have told the police to set up a meeting to settle the matter peacefully…. I do not want any construction taking place there,” said Mamata.

The Chief Minister’s statement prompted the Governor to upload a fresh set of messages on social media. “National Green Tribunal in its order had indicated ‘The Visva-Bharati will demarcate the Mela ground and barricade the same so that the Mela ground will be a separate self-contained unit from the university and the locality.’ Stance @MamataOfficial is not in sync with NGT,” said Dhankhar. In 2017 the National Green Tribunal had pulled up Visva-Bharati over pollution caused by the Poush Mela.

According to local residents, tension has been simmering in Santiniketan after the Vice Chancellor of Visva-Bharati, Bidyut Chakraborty, cancelled the Poush Mela permanently in July this year, citing financial losses, legal troubles, and the university being unequipped to handle such a massive event. “As per the Shantiniketan Trust Deed, which Gurudev’s father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, prepared, the trust is the true custodian of the mela, but gradually, the mela unofficially became Visva-Bharati’s responsibility for which it was woefully unequipped. As a result, a specific group with the university was vetted of organising the Mela, and in the pre-2019 years, the university authority remained a mute observer, though the ultimate responsibility rested with the university,” the VC had written in an official missive on July 4.

The university’s decision is expected to impact the economy of the region as the Poush mela is a boom time for tourism in Santiniketan. The local traders under the banner of Bolpur Byabsayi Samiti had reportedly even written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his intervention.

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