September 19, 2021

The Visva Bharati Fiasco: A Struggle to Protect Tagore’s Ideas

Srijan Bhattacharya

"Where the mind is without fear

and the head is held high

...where the mind is led forward by thee

into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom my father

Let my country awake "

Tagore's verse is the greatest metaphor that this diverse country can ever be adorned with. Bulldozing his inclusive ideals by playing the lapdog of sectarian forces is the last thing the VC of Visva Bharati should resort to. Arguably, the finest intellectual this civilization has ever produced, Tagore nurtured Visva Bharati as a counter cultural sapling opposed to the colonial yes-men breeding institutions of the time. This sapling has withstood many a storm; Tagore's personal bereavements, financial crises and the relentless taunts of pro-status quo Indians who refused to accept the fact that Macaulayan education was being challenged in the shade of a 'Chhatim' tree.

Rabindranath, a man of fortune, never lost sight of the plight of his countrymen. Rabindranath Tagore is not only a name we associate with literature, art and music, but he is also considered to be the pride of Indians and Bengalis alike. Rabindranath Tagore is the Renaissance man of modern India, a cultural icon who transcended the social barriers of our country by synthesising his art with politics, albeit from a humanitarian approach. He was born in a family who found themselves drawn into the heated debates of those times on religion and politics. As a communist, I feel duty bound to mention Tagore's opinion regarding fascism which is enough to make the RSS nervous and angry because it stands antagonistic to the imperialistic, sectarian and fascistic worldview of the RSS . Tagore, in one of his autobiographical writings says, “...Whatever may be the case, the methods and principle of...fascism concern all humanity , and it is absurd to imagine that I could ever support a movement which ruthlessly suppresses freedom of expression, enforces observances that are against individual conscience and walk through a blood stained part of violence and stealthy crime... It would be most foolish, if it were not almost criminal, for me to express my admiration for a political ideal which openly declares its loyalty to brute force as the motive power of civilization. That barbarism is not altogether compatible with material prosperity may be taken for granted, but the cost is terribly great – it is fatal this worship of unscrupulous force as the vehicle of nationalism keeps ignited the fire of international jealousy which is for universal incendiarism , a fearful age of devastation".

This makes it amply evident why the RSS, which wooed Europe's fascists in the same period these words were written, are so reluctant to include his works in the curriculum.

Recently, Rabindranath Tagore's Visva Bharati University has been grabbing  the headlines for not so welcome reasons . VBU's VC Bidyut Chakrabarty's flirtations with fascists sitting at the helm has not only besmirched the image of the university globally, it has also alerted us to the dangers that lie ahead of the student community in Bengal, and put into question whether their democratic rights will remain intact. Bidyut Chakrabarty's political expediency has evoked derision. In recent times, we have seen that the RSS has been relentless in trying to impose their fascistic ideology amongst the students through the saffronisation of the syllabus. It has left no coins unturned in turning campuses into breeding grounds of RSS cadres. Today, Visva Bharati is in great peril because it is run by the lapdogs of the RSS-BJP combine. Its appointed VC Bidyut Chakrabarty has almost acted as a partisan of the BJP regarding every matter in the university. He is not only a new addition to controversies, he was accused of sexual harassment during his tenure as the head of the political science department at Delhi University. The charges against him surfaced in 2010. The apex complaints committee (ACC) of DU had found Chakrabarty guilty of sexual harassment.

A man never missing out on controversy invited trouble in the campus by constructing a boundary wall around the Poush Mela Ground. Poush Mela is a three day long annual festival held in the last week of December in Santiniketan for over 125 years. It is considered to be a symbol of culture and identity, as envisaged by the founder of the university, Rabindranath Tagore. Angry mobs got hold of a JCB machine, demolished the wall and some properties of the university. Then on, tensions simmered. Bidyut Chakrabarty cited financial losses, legal troubles as hindrances to staging the festival. It impacted the economy of the region as it is considered to be the prime time for business by local artists, small traders, handicraftsmen etc.

The Visva Bharati administration in its spree of bludgeoning Tagore's legacy bulldozed the 'Ghonta Ghor', of great historical significance. VC Bidyut Chakrabarty cooked up controversies by subverting the accepted practices of this Tagorean space. He got into confrontations with senior academicians of the institute and instead of respectful disagreements, he attempted to gag the dissenting voices. Two senior professors were suspended on trivial administrative issues – clearly, the VC sought to create an ambience of fear among the academic and administrative staff of the university. He even was seen at loggerheads with the local 'Ashramiks' and residents on various issues, and went to the extent of making the bizarre claim of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen forcibly occupying a piece of land that supposedly belongs to Visva Bharati!

The students rose up in rage against such nonsensical and undemocratic practices.

Visva Bharati and its administration was put into question again, as it had taken the decision to rusticate three students of the university – Falguni Pan, Somnath Sow, and Rupa Chakraborty. On August 23, they were rusticated as they had taken part in a campus protest in January 2020. Charged with gross discipline, and misconduct, they were already in suspension for about nine months. Students of the university erupted in protests and gheraoed the VC's residence. During his tenure as VC in the university, Professor Chakrabarty has literally been acting as a mouthpiece of RSS-BJP and has resorted to anything and everything to ensure assault on students’ fundamental and democratic rights. The university, working in liaison with the PMO, did not stop after rusticating these three, they went ahead, and suspended a large number of employees, and issued showcase notices, a few professors have been suspended too, as mentioned earlier.

Students who were rusticated, had emailed the proctor of the university on September 9 and urged him to allow them to rejoin classes at the earliest. But, the rustication orders were kept in abeyance, despite the High Court’s revocation order.

The agitating students shifted their protests 60 metres away from the main gate of the vice chancellor's official residence since September 3.

The members and leadership of the Students' Federation of India, were present at the agitation site, and expressed solidarity with the agitating students. Several posters, graffiti were seen at the protest site. The most notable of them saying "No Pasaran", the famous slogan coined by Spanish anti-fascist icon, Dolores Ibarruri.

The Students’ Federation of India will stand by the agitating students, faculty, and general staff of the varsity. The students’ unflinching voice of resistance cannot be suppressed, so also their indomitable spirit to resist any and every fascist manoeuvres in the varsity. We want to remind the incompetent authorities and the VC of VBU, that the students’ agitation will only increase manifold in reaction to every authoritative undemocratic steps taken.

The Students' Federations of India, inheriting the rich legacy of struggles, stands in unconditional solidarity with the students of VBU.

We resolve to strengthen our fight along with the student community to prevent the university from becoming a political playground of the RSS.