The long-drawn ongoing feud between Visva Bharati, a Central university in West Bengal, and the State government, has hit an all-time low with the university launching a direct attack on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee after the latter sided with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in a land-related dispute with the Central institution.
Addressing the Chief Minister, the university said in a release on February 1: “Visva Bharati is the only Central university. We are better off without your blessings as we are used to following the guidance of the Prime Minister. Are most of the universities in West Bengal today as good as they are supposed to be?”
The statement, signed by the university’s public relations officer Mahua Banerjee, elicited widespread outrage from academia and civil society alike.
In a vicious and personal attack on the Chief Minister, unprecedented in the history of Visva Bharati, the letter stated: “We request her honour to make decisions using her mind, not her ears. How is it today that your appointed Minister and vice chancellor are in prison? It is because you listen to flatterers, and now you are under pressure.”
The letter referred to the recent arrest of Anubrata Mandal, a Trinamool heavyweight leader from Birbhum.
The language and tone in the statement led to a flurry of protests and condemnations. Noted academician and writer Pabitra Sarkar called it an “ugly statement”, adding that “no press statement from an institution can be like this”, especially against a Chief Minister. Former Visva Bharati vice chancellor Swapan Kumar Dutta reportedly said: “It is unbelievable that a university has issued such a provocative and politicised statement where it has compared the roles of a Chief Minister and Prime Minister.”
CM meets Sen
Visva Bharati and the State government locked horns when Mamata Banerjee intervened on behalf of Amartya Sen after the university authorities had sent him a letter claiming that the land in which his house, Pratichi, stands in Santiniketan, was slightly more than what was originally leased out to his father, Ashutosh Sen.
Amartya Sen told mediapersons: “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.”
On January 30, Mamata Banerjee visited Amartya Sen at his Santiniketan residence and handed over the land records in possession of the State government. She reportedly told him: “They are lying and you are correct….I was feeling very uncomfortable after the manner in which they disrespected you.”
However, Visva Bharati vice chancellor Bidyut Charkaborty stuck to his guns, stating that the papers and documents that the Chief Minister had given Sen were “irrelevant”. He said that in 2006, Sen had mutated the property and 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.
After meeting Amartya Sen, Mamata Banerjee also met a section of students and teachers who have been protesting against what they said was the autocratic attitude of the Visva Bharati authorities. She came down heavily against the attempt to “saffronise” the institution founded by Rabindranath Tagore. She said: “If someone thinks they can bulldoze students, professors, and employees, of the university for the purpose of saffronisation, remember, I will stand by them even if nobody else does.”