Visva Bharati University

Snuffing out Dissent


Ever since Bidyut Chakraborty took office as Vice Chancellor (VC) of Visva Bharati University (VBU) in 2018, the university has been witnessing constant agitations. Students and teachers allege that from increasing admission fees, restricting movement of faculty and students on campus to refusing hostel accommodation and indirectly enforcing Hindu religious practices, the VC has employed several harassment tactics.

Professor Sudipta Bhattacharya, president of the Visva Bharati University Faculty Association (VBUFA), who had been vocal against the VC’s actions, was issued a termination notice on December 22, 2022. He had just rejoined service after a 21-month suspension for filing an RTI about irregularities in appointments. On December 23, the university announced the suspension of six students, three of whom were Dalits, and two OBCs. Interestingly, the university had also issued orders to ‘suspend’ another person from Dalit community, who was no longer a student there.

Two weeks ago the University Registrar had registered a complaint at the Santiniketan Police Station, alleging that the Vice Chancellor was injured on December 13 after being hit by stones thrown by miscreants at the entrance of his official residence. Students however denied this and said it was the VC who threw the stone.

The action against the students came a month after they began demonstrating outside the VC’s office raising two key demands. The first of their demands was that the university grant admission to Somenath Sow, a Dalit student who completed his Bachelors in Economics from VBU in 2021, to a Masters course in the university. The VC had done everything in his capacity to ensure that he did not get admission, alleged Somenath Sow. “As I did my undergrad here, I should be considered as an internal candidate and given direct admission to MA Economics. I applied for two other subjects and sat for entrance exams for the same. While the initial merit list contained my name, the university took it down and published a revised list that did not include me,” said Somenath.

Somenath feels he was targeted by the VC because of two social media posts that he put up, condemning the VC’s actions. Last year, Somenath had to face casteist abuse from a faculty member who supports the VC. Sumit Basu, the accused teacher, was in police custody for over two weeks. However, he faced no action from the university and continues to teach there.

Somenath took the issue of his admission to court and procured an order that the university should take appropriate action after he wrote an apology for the social media posts. Despite emailing an apology and later sending a hard copy on the request of the proctor, Somenath has still not been granted admission, in defiance of the court orders.

The agitation, which began on November 23, 2022, also raised the grievances of Minakshi Bhattacharya, a PhD scholar and the VBU unit president of All India Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (TMCP), the student-wing of TMC. Not only were her yearly reports withheld and marked “incomplete”, her request for a two-year extension (which is granted to all female scholars) was also denied, Somenath said. The students are also demanding prompt publishing of exam results, placement assistance and hostel accommodations.

While the VC’s harassment of students and staff is mostly trained at those who oppose his actions, Shaona Barik, a Dalit professor in the English Department, has been allegedly targeted despite not having taken part in any protest activity. “I was the teacher who was never rebellious,” she said. Shaona won the Charles Wallace Visiting Fellowship at the University of Leeds. Even though her Department is ready to relieve her for the period of the fellowship, the VC has been continuously refusing to relieve her, she alleged. “For a Dalit person to achieve what I have is no small task. However, the VC’s irrational actions are posing a roadblock for me now,” she said.

When repeated entreaties to the VC saw no result, Shaona registered complaints with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and with the Human Rights Commission. It’s been over a month since she filed them. However, she has got no response besides a complaint number from both authorities.

Professor Sudipta alleged that the VC is affiliated to BJP and has openly declared that the Prime Minister sent him to VBU with an ‘agenda’. The campus has a meditation hall under the Shantiniketan Trust that holds weekly meditation sessions linked to Brahmoism, a religious movement. “The VC has made evident attempts to Hinduise the mediation sessions. Not only does he meticulously attend them, he also forces faculty members to do so,” Sudipta alleged. He recounted how two professors were denied promotions on the grounds that they did not participate in the meditation sessions. This was later quashed by the High Court.

The VC has also been accused of making inflammatory remarks against the Constitution. A speech he made in the men’s hostel, allegedly, about the “need to rewrite the Constitution in the background of CAA-NRC as the existing one was written by people from minority religions”, was recorded by a student and circulated on social media. The Dalit student who recorded the speech, Bijju Sarkar, was arbitrarily expelled from the hostel soon after the incident. Somenath alleged that the hostels are not filled to capacity. “Only 20-30% of the hostel seats are filled. The VC has ordered that the remaining seats be left vacant as he fears that accommodating more students can lead to more demonstrations and protests,” he said.

He said more than 50% of the students at VBU hail from Dalit families and face financial difficulties. They rely on the scholarships and stipends for SC/ST students. However, the inordinate delay in publishing results has made it impossible for them to apply for the scholarships on time every year.

Several institutes of higher education across the country now have heads who are affiliated to the Right Wing and Bidyut Chakraborty is no different, alleges Sudipta. “He does not even have regard for court orders. The university can go back to some semblance of normalcy only if he is removed,” he said. “Two years back, I was a busy academician. But for the past several months, I have been forced to engage in constant battle. Not everybody can afford to fight like this,” Sudipta said.

According to Somenath, in 2019, around 150 members of the non-teaching staff had staged a 21-day protest against various issues including the sub-standard services offered at the university hospital and the VC’s attempts to hand it over to private parties. They were sent show-cause notices and asked to produce apology letters for protesting. Three leaders who refused to submit apologies were suspended. Sudipta said that the secretary of the non-teaching staff’s association was suspended for over a year.

The demand to remove the VC has been raised in various fora, including in the Parliament on multiple occasions. Both Shaona and Sudipta have written to various authorities including the President of India, Prime Minister and other ministers. Yet, no response has come their way. “If you are vocal against the VCs actions, or if you are a Dalit, you are sure to be targeted and harassed by the VC,” alleges Somenath.

VBU VC Bidyut Chakraborty, however, denied allegations that he discriminated on the basis of caste. Regarding the refusal of admission for Somenath, he said, “I haven’t done anything. He abused me in a social media post and then took advantage of his SC status. In this country, you have no right to abuse anyone,” the VC said. When asked why the university then did not take action against a faculty member for using casteist slurs against Somenath, the VC said, “The professor was in jail for two weeks. However, a proctorial investigation did not convict him for lack of evidence.”

He accused Somenath of misusing his caste status to frame the professor. “When you add a caste connection to frame someone that is abuse and is concocted,” the VC said. He refused to comment on other allegations saying that they were decisions of the university.

TNM also spoke to Mahua Banerjee, the university PRO. She said that the recent suspension of students was a disciplinary action taken by the university for gheraoing the VC and denied any caste prejudice. She also said that hostels weren’t filled to capacity at the moment because UG admissions were delayed.

[Courtesy :The news minute]

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Vol 55, No. 29, Jan 15 - 21, 2023