Amartya Sen, the renowned Nobel Laureate, has been granted a reprieve as the Calcutta High Court issued an interim stay order on May 4. This order restrains Visva Bharati University from enforcing Sen’s eviction from 0.13 acres (5,500 sq feet) of his ancestral land in Santiniketan by May 6.
According to the central university, Sen was illegally occupying 0.13 acres of land, and his family had been leased 1.25 acres, not 1.38 acres. On April 19, Visva Bharati sent Sen a final eviction order with the threat that if the land in question was not vacated by May 6, “…all concerned persons are liable to be evicted from the said premises if need be, by use of such force as may be necessary.” The notice came from the office of the Joint Registrar & Estate Officer of Visva Bharati.
Earlier on April 14, the university had pasted a three-page eviction notice on the premises of “Pratichi”, Amartya Sen’s ancestral home, prompting Sen’s lawyers to move a district court in Birbhum, which fixed the date of hearing on May 15. Pre-empting any move by Visva Bharati to evict the Nobel laureate on May 6, before the scheduled hearing date, Sen’s lawyers had moved the Calcutta High Court on May 2. In his order on May 4, Justice Bibhas Ranjan De requested the district judge to hear the stay application on May 10 at 2 p.m, and “till then the order of Joint Registrar Visva Bharati & Estate Officer should not be enforced or till the date of disposal of the stay application, whichever is later”. Sen is currently outside India.
What really happened
The controversy over Sen’s property in Santiniketan began in late 2020 when Visva Bharati included the economist among those who were illegally occupying land that belonged to the university. Sen pointed out at that time that “Pratichi” was built in 1940 and “after 50 years they are saying that there is something wrong with the house. How did you discover that? What is the proof? Do you have the necessary papers?” He also hinted at political reasons behind the behaviour of the university. “I have often been the target of criticism for the political party to whom Bidyut Babu (Bidyut Chakraborty, Vice Chancellor of Visva Bharati) is beholden to,” said Sen.
With the Assembly elections around the corner and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerging as the main opponent of the Trinamool, the matter quickly turned into a political battle. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee put her weight behind Sen and claimed that he was being targeted by the saffron party for his ideological beliefs. “Just because he is ideologically against the BJP, allegations are being made about him. The people of Bengal will not tolerate it. This is not just an insult to Amartya da but all of us,” said Mamata. Subsequently, in a letter to Sen, she wrote, “Some nouveau invaders in Visva Bharati have now started raising surprising and completely baseless allegations about your familial properties, etc. This pains me, and I want to express my solidarity with you in your battles against the bigotry of the majoritarians in this country, the battles that made you an enemy of these forces of untruth.”
Subsequently, the BJP failed to grab power in Bengal, and Visva Bharati became further and further enmeshed in various controversies. The matter of Amartya Sen’s land resurfaced again in January this year when Visva Bharati sent two letters to Sen, claiming that 1.38 acres of land on his property belonged to the university. On January 30, the Chief Minister met Sen and handed over to him the state government’s land records that clearly showed that the land leased out to Sen’s father, Ashutosh Sen, was indeed 1.38 acres and not 1.25 acres as claimed by Visva Bharati. “This is my residence, which was built on land leased from Visva Bharati in the 1940s. The land was leased out to us for 100 years. Some of the land was also bought by my father from the market following all rules and regulations,” Sen had told media.
However, Visva Bharati Vice Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty rejected the claims of the documents presented by the Chief Minister, calling them “irrelevant” and maintained that when Sen had mutated the property, he had paid Rs.5,000 per bigha for 1.25 acres. “He did not pay for 1.38 acres. So how can he claim it?” Chakraborty asked.
Meanwhile, the political battle over the issue continued unabated. In response to the final eviction order by Visva Bharati, Mamata Banerjee said, “If they come to bulldoze Amartya Sen’s house, then I will sit in front of it and see how they can do it.” On May 2, three days before the High Court interim stay order, she instructed several of her ministers to stage a sit-in demonstration outside Sen’s house if necessary. The university officials have reportedly clarified that there is no question of demolition or using bulldozers, as the 0.13-acre land in question is vacant except for a few trees.
Sen’s house “Pratichi” is an institution in itself in Santiniketan, and it is not uncommon for rickshaw and toto drivers to point it out to tourists as “Amartya Sen’s house”. The Visva Bharati authorities’ move to drag it into what many consider an unnecessary controversy is not going down well with the people of the region or with a large section of the teachers and staff at the university itself. “Most people in the university are very upset with what is happening, but they are too scared to voice their protest for fear of action taken by the authorities. People here have been silenced by terror,” a source in Visva Bharati told Frontline.