The authorities of Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal on Monday decided to shut down the institution until further notice after a large group led by TMC leaders demolished gates of the campus and ransacked construction material brought to build a wall around the ground that hosts the annual Poush Mela.
According to police, eight people have been arrested in connection with the incident. “We have arrested eight people. The situation is under control,” said a senior police officer.
The incident has drawn sharp reactions from Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who has urged Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to “take exemplary steps ignoring political flavour of those involved in vandalism”. Banerjee, on the other hand, has spoken against the construction of the wall, saying it goes against the culture of Visva-Bharati.
Visva-Bharati is Bengal’s only central university and has the Prime Minister as its chancellor.
Behind Monday’s incident is the ongoing tussle between university authorities and local traders over Poush Mela. A key attraction of Santiniketan, the fair is held on the campus every December. The people of Birbhum and neighbouring districts set up stalls of handicraft products during the fair. First held in 1894, Poush Mela draws people from across the world.
In July, the Executive Council — the university’s highest decision-making body — decided to scrap Poush Mela with Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty claiming that the university is “ill-equipped” to handle such an event. The university had been pulled up by National Green Tribunal in 2017 for violation of environmental guidelines during the fair.
Recently, authorities decided to construct a wall around the ground and work began Monday morning. The authorities had roped in guards to ensure construction proceeds smoothly.
However, hundreds of people under the Poush Mela Math Bachao Committee and led by TMC MLA Naresh Bauri entered the campus around 9 am. They first ransacked a temporary office set up to monitor the construction. Later, they damaged construction materials and then got a loader to demolish two gates to the campus.
MLA Bauri said people will not allow the university to be “caged”. “The authorities are trying to raise walls around the ground to turn it into a jail. This goes against the vision of Rabindranath Tagore who wanted this to be an open-air institution. It is a spontaneous response from local people,” said Bauri, a resident of Bolpur and MLA from Dubrajpur in Birbhum.
Local traders have been staging demonstrations over the issue since Saturday. “This is against the culture and heritage of this institution. This can only be resolved through discussions,” said Sunil Singh, secretary of Bolpur Byabsayi Samiti, a traders’ outfit.
Susovan Banerjee, a member of the Visva-Bharati executive council, said there was nothing wrong in the university trying to stop encroachment by constructing a wall. He also said they have written to the Ministry of Education and the Union Home Ministry regarding Monday’s incident.
“We have also drawn the attention of the Chief Minister and the Governor. The university will remain closed till normalcy returns,” he said.
He alleged that police did not come to their aid when they informed them about the incident. “I sought help from the SP, but it is unfortunate that no help came,” he added.
The vice-chancellor and a spokesperson for the university could not be contacted.
Expressing concern, the Governor criticised the administration for “failing to take timely pre-emptive steps”.
“Am distressed at rampant vandalism at Viswa Bharati with administration @MamataOfficial failing to take timely pre-emptive steps…. Appeal for peace to all,” he tweeted.
“Shameful vandalism at Visva Bharati today exposes partisan stance of administration and police @MamataOfficial… I am sure administration and police @MamataOfficial will evince regard to law and take exemplary steps ignoring political flavour of those involved in vandalism,” the Governor added.
Chief Minister Banerjee said she had a talk with the Governor after the incident. “As far as I am informed, construction work was going on the campus and some outsiders were present to give protection to the construction workers. Locals and students were opposed to this idea and staged a protest. I have asked the police and DM to convene a meeting to resolve this issue. I will request the vice-chancellor to talk to the DM and SP to settle this issue peacefully,” she said.
“I do not want to see any construction there. Any type of construction which barricades the natural beauty of this place is not desired. It goes against the very thought of Rabindranath Tagore behind setting up this university. I will appeal to the vice-chancellor to ensure that Bengal’s tradition, heritage and Tagore’s ideals are protected.”
Responding to the Governor’s intervention, state education minister and TMC secretary general Partha Chatterjee said, “Raj Bhavan has become the party office of the BJP. Sitting inside, the Governor is giving instructions to an elected government. I don’t know whether it is justified.”
West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh alleged that TMC leaders are trying to encroach on university property. “A lot of Visva-Bharati properties have been encroached upon. Maybe that is why the authorities wanted a wall constructed. The TMC has some hidden agenda, they have intentions to encroach,” said Ghosh.
On the Chief Minister’s instructions, Birbhum District Magistrate Moumita Godara Basu has convened a meeting between all parties on Wednesday to resolve the issue.
“We have convened a meeting at the SDO office and requested the vice-chancellor to be present. Once we get his response, we will ask others to join,” she told the media.
Late in the evening, SFI supporters among the students staged a protest outside the vice-chancellor’s residence against the decision to shut down the university.
“It is a non-academic issue involving university authorities and traders associations. It has nothing to do with students and their academic interests. We strongly oppose the decision to shut down the university,” said SFI leader Somnath Sau.