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Friday, January 22, 2021

Explained: Why is Amartya Sen’s house in Santiniketan at the centre of controversy?

On the campus, several plots were given to many eminent persons on 99-year lease since the time of Tagore. Sen grew up in Pratichi, the house built by his father in Santiniketan, and visits it frequently.

Written by Santanu Chowdhury , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata | Updated: January 1, 2021 12:40:54 pm
Prof Amartya Sen. (File Photo)

On Friday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee wrote a letter to Amartya Sen after Visva-Bharati University (VBU), a central university, named him in its list of illegal occupants on the campus.

Expressing solidarity with him, Banerjee highlighted Sen’s deep ancestral roots with Santiniketan (a neighbourhood of Bolpur in Birbhum district where Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore had set up Visva-Bharati in 1921) and said some “nouveau invaders” in VBU are raising question on his familial properties.

How did the controversy begin?

During a meeting with faculty members on December 9, VBU vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty claimed that Amartya Sen had identified himself as “Bharat Ratna Amartya Sen” and requested that hawkers around his house not be evicted as his daughter, who visits Santiniketan often, would be inconvenienced. The vice-chancellor further claimed that Prof Sen suggested giving space to the hawkers inside his property in Visva-Bharati University campus upon which the Nobel Laureate hung up the phone.

Visva-Bharati University Faculty Association (VBUFA) president Sudipta Bhattacharyya, who was present during the virtual meeting, wrote an email to Sen to find out if what the V-C said was true.

In reply to the mail, Sen denied making any phone call to the vice-chancellor. Prof Sen wrote, “I am very surprised to hear about what the Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati apparently has declared in an online faculty meeting. I do not think I have had such a conversation with him. I should also mention that I have never referred to myself as ‘Bharat Ratna.’ I also don’t think I could have referred to my daughter buying vegetables from the hawkers and that being a reason for keeping the hawkers undisturbed. I don’t know where my daughters buy vegetables! That would be no reason anyway to bring in the question of how the hawkers should be treated. Finally, there are no hawkers outside my home in Santiniketan.”

The Indian Express had reported the news.

Prof Sen further said in his email, “I do think, however, that Visva-Bharati often interferes too much with the normal life of ordinary people, of which setting up walls to interfere with ways and passages of people is a good example. I remember once writing about that some years ago in a newspaper. I also remember my mother, who of course lived in our home (Pratichi), did try to help hawkers from eviction, not outside our home (since there are no hawkers there), but near Pearson Palli. All this is, of course, quite unrelated to the absurd statement that the Vice-Chancellor has allegedly made.”

Amartya Sen’s link with Santiniketan

Rabindranath Tagore had invited Kshitimohan Sen, the maternal grandfather of the economist and Sanskrit scholar of repute, to Santiniketan in 1908 and he had played a key role in building the Visva-Bharati along with Tagore. Visva-Bharati was set up in 1921.

It is well-known that Sen, born in 1933, was named Amartya by Tagore. On the campus, several plots were given to many eminent persons on 99-year lease since the time of Tagore. Sen grew up in Pratichi, the house built by his father in Santiniketan, and visits it frequently. In May 1951, Visva Bharati was declared a central university and an institution of national importance by an act of Parliament.

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The fallout of the controversy

VBU issued a show cause notice to the president of its faculty association, Sudipta Bhattacharyya, for allegedly violating the varsity’s code of conduct by reaching out to the media with internal correspondence. University authorities, through the notice issued on December 19, accused Bhattacharyya of interacting with the media (about VBU vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty criticising Amartya Sen on December 9) without the approval of the university authorities.

On Thursday, VBU authorities wrote to the West Bengal government alleging that dozens of its plots have been recorded wrongly and that the list of unauthorised occupants includes eminent economist Amartya Sen.

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, occupying 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.

On Friday, chief minister Mamata Banerjee wrote a letter to Sen to express solidarity with him and said that she would always be by his side as his sister. Banerjee also claimed that such allegations were being made against him as he “is not inclined towards BJP’s ideology”.

Sen, Nobel laureate and the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor at Harvard University, has been a vocal critic of some of the policies of the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre.

Addressing Sen as “Respected Amartya da”, Banerjee wrote in the letter, “We are all aware about your family’s deep and organic linkages with Santiniketan. Your maternal grandfather, the revered scholar Kshitimohan Sen, was one of the early leading settlers in Santiniketan, while your father Ashutosh Sen, a noted educationist and public administrator, had his famed house Pratichi built up in Santiniketan about eight decades back. Yours have been a family weaved in the culture and fabric of Santiniketan, inalienably.”

Response from Amartya Sen

Speaking to an English language newspaper (The Telegraph), Sen has said that a big gap exists between the Santiniketan culture and that of the VBU vice-chancellor.

“Having been born and brought up in Santiniketan, I could comment on the big gap between Santiniketan culture and that of the VC, empowered as he is by the central government in Delhi, with its growing control over Bengal. I would prefer to use Indian laws as they exist,” said Sen.

The Nobel Laureate further said, “We are being told by Visva-Bharati university that its vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty is busy arranging the ‘eviction of unauthorised occupation’ of leased land on the campus and that I have also been named in the ‘list of occupants’, even though Visva-Bharati has never complained about any irregularity of landholding to us.”

“The Visva-Bharati land on which our house is situated is entirely on a long-term lease, which is nowhere near its expiry. Some additional land was bought by my father as free hold and registered in land records under mouja Surul.”

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