T wo weeks after violence erupted at Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan on August 17 over the construction of a boundary wall around the Poush Mela (fair) ground, the impasse continued (as of September 1) with the university authorities threatening to keep the institution closed until they felt it was safe to reopen it. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has made it clear that she is against any kind of “construction” around the Poush Mela ground. The issue is thus a political one now with the ruling Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on two sides of the divide. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the Chancellor of the Central university.
The Poush Mela ground is the site for the annual fair that Visva-Bharati holds in the last week of December. The fair has been a traditional event in Santiniketan for around 125 years.
On August 17, a mob of more than a thousand people, allegedly led by local Trinamool leaders (including Naresh Bauri, the legislator from Dubrajpur), went on a rampage in and around Visva-Bharati. The mob not only pulled down the wall that was under construction, but also destroyed university property with a bulldozer. West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar condemned the violence and said on social media that there was “no doubt that all was well planned with political patronage”. That day, Mamata Banerjee said at a press conference: “I do not want any construction taking place there.” She said that setting up a boundary wall would go against Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of Visva-Bharati and Santiniketan. However, she instructed the police to “set up a meeting to settle the matter peacefully”.
The university has asked for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the violence. (Surprisingly, the Enforcement Directorate was making enquiries on the developments.) In a press release, Visva-Bharati condemned the ruling party for the unrest, criticised the police for their alleged inaction, and named Naresh Bauri as the instigator of the vandalism. The release said: “Unless the miscreants who committed vandalism with TMC [Trinamool] leaders at the lead are booked and until we are at ease on the campus through the creation of conditions in which the members of the Visva-Bharati Parivar will be absolutely free from bodily harm and humiliations perpetrated by outsiders instigated by unforeseen forces, Visva-Bharati will remain close.”
The university has said that the boundary wall is being built to “honour” the National Green Tribunal’s direction. It has also claimed that the wall would keep “miscreants” out. In a press release dated August 19, it said: “A casual stroll in the Poush Mela ground will result in one seeing liquor bottles, used condoms (as parts of the Mela ground appear to be a site for sexual activities, especially prostitution), remnants of drugs like ganja, food waste, discarded plastics and cardboards and even human excreta.”
Vice Chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty and the university authorities refused to attend a meeting called by the district administration on August 27. Hence the issue remained unresolved.
According to some local residents, the August 17 violence was the culmination of simmering discontent following the Vice Chancellor’s decision in July to cancel the Poush Mela permanently. Bidyut Chakrabarty cited financial losses and legal troubles to explain his decision. In an official note dated July 4, he said that over the years the Poush Mela had become the responsibility of Visva-Bharati, instead of the “Santiniketan Trust” (as was set down in the Santiniketan Trust Deed drawn out by Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath). He said that it was a “responsibility for which it [the university] was woefully unequipped”.
The Poush Mela is a sensitive issue. The fair is undoubtedly a part of the tradition and culture of Santiniketan and is a huge tourist attraction. Local artisans, small businessmen, and the area’s tourism industry look forward to it. But, as many local residents aver, it is also a chaotic time, and the three-day event is sometimes extended by several days. In 2017, the National Green Tribunal pulled up Visva-Bharati for the pollution caused by the Poush Mela.
A large number of local residents also feel outraged by the construction of the boundary wall, and many in the university town’s close-knit community feel that the university should have consulted the local population before taking a decision. One of the teachers told Frontline : “As a result of the perceived attitude of the university authorities, the local people are turning against us.”
Mamata Banerjee has alleged that “outsiders” were brought in to guard the boundary wall. The Vice Chancellor did not help matters by countering this with the remark that Rabindranath Tagore himself was an “outsider” in Santiniketan. In a missive uploaded on the university website, he wrote: “Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore was an outsider himself; had he not taken a liking to the area, Visva-Bharati wouldn’t have evolved.” A local resident told Frontline that people of the region had not taken kindly to this comparison. “But what has divided the opinion of the community is the issue of the boundary wall. There are some who are for it, and some are against it,” the local resident said.
With the Assembly election less than nine months away, it came as no surprise when the matter became an issue for the Trinamool and the BJP to cross swords over. The State BJP has moved cautiously, in view of how emotive a subject Visva-Bharati, with its Tagore connection, is for Bengalis. Nevertheless, while observing that the Vice Chancellor ought to have been more “prudent” in his actions and words, the BJP has attacked the ruling party over the law and order issue . Joyprakash Majumdar, vice president of the State BJP and chief of the party’s political analysis wing, told Frontline : “The VC failed to connect with the people of the region. But the ruling party and the administration cannot shrug off the responsibility that they had to reach an understanding with the university. From the way the ruling party went on a rampage, it is clear that they decided to completely destroy the legacy and culture of Rabindranath Tagore. It seemed as though their purpose behind attacking a Central university was teaching Narendra Modi a lesson.”
On August 28, Agnimitra Paul, senior BJP leader and president of the Mahila Morcha of the party, started a fresh war of words when, after a meeting with the Vice Chancellor, she repeated the allegations raised by the university “that sex-racket, ganja and charas rackets were taking place” in the mela ground after dark. Anubrata Mandal, president of the Trinamool’s Birbhum district (where Santiniketan is located) unit, responded: “She knows nothing about Visva-Bharati and its ideals, and that is why she can make such statements. If anyone is solely responsible for the problems, it is the VC himself.” Anubrata Mandal alleged that Bidyut Chakrabarty was “100 per cent a BJP man”.
Within the university people have questioned the necessity of building a boundary wall. One professor said, on the condition of anonymity, that most of the staff felt that creating an issue over the boundary wall was just a tactic to divert attention from the confusion prevailing in the university over academic and administrative issues for the last one and a half years. “There was really no need to build a wall around the Poush Mela ground at a time like this, particularly when serious academic and administrative issues remain unresolved. The VC is willing neither to listen to us nor to include stake-holders from outside in dialogue,” said the teacher.
A leader of one of the teachers’ unions said that there was “complete” lack of democracy in the university. “Any voice of dissent is either not heeded by the VC or is suppressed by threats of official action and show-cause notices,” the union office bearer told Frontline .
The Vice Chancellor, however, has supporters both within and outside the university. The university authorities are still in the process of thinking over whether there will be a fair this year. But they remain firm that the ground will be walled in. So, the impasse continues.