Explained: Fresh stand-off between Visva-Bharati University students and VC

The university was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1921. It is one of the oldest central universities in the country

The Calcutta High Court, in an interim order on Friday, directed that there can be no protest by the students within 50 metres of academic buildings at Visva-Bharati University, and asked the police to ensure security to its Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty.

The directive from the High Court came after Chakraborty filed a writ petition, seeking ‘normalisation of the situation’ inside the campus. The move from the university authorities came following students’ protest outside VC’s residence since August 27, demanding revocation of the expulsion order for three fellow students.

The university was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1921. It is one of the oldest central universities in the country. In May 1951, it was declared a central university and ‘an Institution of National Importance’ by an Act of Parliament. The PM is the Chancellor of this university.

Why did the students’ protest erupt at Visva-Bharati?

On August 23, the university rusticated three students – Somnath Sow, Falguni Pan and Rupa Chakraborty – for “disrupting the academic atmosphere in the university compound by assembling at Chhatimtala on January 9 and being involved in disorderly conduct in the name of protest”.

According to an enquiry committee report, the students were accused of attempting to vitiate the “calm ambience of Visva Bharati”, and “besmirch the university’s administrative decisions and universal high reputation”.

The same day, the university also suspended two professors for “gross indiscipline and misconduct”, taking the total number of suspended teachers and non-teaching staff to 20.

Following the expulsion, a section of students on the night of August 27 started a sit-in outside the VC’s residence, seeking revocation of the expulsion order. They also demanded removal of the VC. Members of the Visva-Bharati University Faculty Association (VBUFA) also joined in the students’ protest which continued for the seventh straight day on Friday.

Meanwhile, civil society members and VBU students and teachers participated in a rally in Bolpur last Monday and demanded that the university withdraw the rustication order and restore normalcy on the campus.

What was VBU’s response to it?

University authorities temporarily suspended its admission process saying that the “physical presence of the V-C is necessary”. It also announced that “publication of results will not be possible till the situation becomes normal”.

On Wednesday, varsity authorities filed a writ petition before the Calcutta High Court, to quell the ongoing protest and restore normalcy on campus through the deployment of police personnel. On the other hand, the VC wrote to the Prime Minister, seeking his intervention in ending the protest. The authorities also denied allegations made by the students and teachers that the VC is trying to “saffronise” Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati.

Past controversies at Visva-Bharati

From scrapping the annual Poush Mela (winter fair) to declaring Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen as one of the illegal occupants on VBU land, the university has seen several controversies after Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty took charge in 2018.

In January 2020, BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta, who was scheduled to deliver a lecture at the university on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), faced protests by SFI activists and also stalled the event. He was also confined to a room for seven hours.

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In July last year, breaking the 125-year tradition, the Executive Council (EC) of the university decided to scrap Poush Mela altogether with the Vice-Chancellor claiming that the university was “ill-equipped” to handle such an event.

In August, the university had shut down till further notice following vandalism inside the campus over fencing around Poush Mela ground. A large group led by TMC leaders demolished the VBU gates and ransacked construction material brought to build a wall around the ground that hosts the annual Poush Mela. Eight people were arrested in connection with the incident. The university later sought a CBI probe into it.

In the same month, Chakraborty courted controversy after he called Tagore an “outsider” in Santiniketan. After facing criticism, the VC tendered an apology.

In December last year, Chakraborty, in a letter to the state government, had named Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen among those who have “illegally occupied plots on the campus” – a charge denied by the Nobel laureate who has said that the land in question was registered in records on a long-term lease.

According to the Visva-Bharati estate office, it had recently prepared a list of illegal occupants that includes the name of Sen, as his house – Pratichi – occupies around 138 decimals while the original lease was given on 125 decimals.

The university alleged that Sen has reportedly occupied 13 decimals of land, in addition to the 125 decimals of legally leased land given to his father by the university.

In March this year, the vice-chancellor triggered another controversy after he reportedly threatened to “shut down” the central university before his term ends. In a virtual meeting with teachers and non-teaching staff on March 15, Chakraborty reportedly said that he was not being allowed to work properly and therefore he would ensure the closure of the institute before his term ends. An audio clip of his purported speech went viral online.

In May, university authorities cancelled a virtual lecture on ‘Why BJP failed to win the West Bengal Assembly election’ by Niti Aayog Joint Advisor Sanjay Kumar hours after announcing it.

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