Over the last fortnight, the Visva-Bharati University was again rocked by protests — this time, over the rustication of three students on August 23. While the Calcutta High Court on Wednesday allowed them to rejoin classes, paving the way for return of normalcy, there have been frequent protests — by both teachers and students — since Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty took charge in October 2018.
Faculty members point to the unusually high number of suspensions. Since November 2019, a 22 staff members – 11 faculty members, 11 non-teaching employees — have been suspended and over 150 showcause notices have been issued.
Some of the suspended faculty members said they faced action for various reasons including writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against alleged irregularities at the central university. Others alleged that they were suspended on trumped-up charges including negligence of duty and financial irregularities. Five have challenged their suspensions in court.
While The Indian Express spoke to some of the suspended professors, both V-C Chakraborty and the university’s PRO, Anirban Sarkar, did not respond to calls or text messages.
“The university suspended me for making derogatory remarks against a female colleague, which is a baseless allegation, and for circulating a complaint. Some of us had written a mail to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the Chancellor of Visva-Bharati, President Ram Nath Kovind and West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar against the V-C. These are not offences which can be grounds for suspension,” said Sudipta Bhattacharya, president of the Visva-Bharati University Faculty Association (VBUFA) who is among those suspended.
The suspension order, seen by The Indian Express, cites “misconduct by mass circulating a complaint and derogatory/ defamatory/ baseless remarks against a fellow employee and also forwarding copies of the same to high dignitaries by email.”
The order was issued on January 7 this year, days after Bhattacharya wrote to the PM alleging irregularities in the appointment of a principal of Patha Bhavana, part of the university. While the suspension was initially for three months, it was extended twice — for another three months and then for two months.
“Those who didn’t toe the V-C’s line or spoke against his functioning were at the receiving end,” alleged Bhattacharya, a professor of Economics. “A Physics department teacher was suspended for visiting a professor who was heading a committee probing allegations against me. Can this be a reason for suspension? Both the teachers are close friends.”
When contacted, the Physics professor, who did not want to be named, said: “I was suspended on March 6 after I visited the house of a fellow teacher. I have nothing more to say on this. Everyone knows the reason why I was subjected to such action.” The suspension order cites “attempt to influence the enquiry officer”.
Bhattacharya alleged that a bio-technology department professor, Tathagata Choudhuri, was suspended after an altercation with the principal of an institute who was close to the V-C. The suspension order dated December 2, 2019, seen by The Indian Express, said the decision was taken after “having considered the report of the one-man enquiry committee on the complaints lodged by Prof Kashinath Chatterjee, Principal, Siksha Bhavana.”
Choudhuri has challenged the suspension order in the Calcutta High Court.
Three principals of Bhasa Bhavana – Abhijit Sen, Kailash Chandra Pattanaik and Narottam Senapati – have also challenged their suspensions, on June 4, 2020, for alleged financial irregularities. Sen has since retired from service.
An assistant professor who did not want to be named said he was suspended on March 13 this year for “negligence of duty at his department”.
“The official showcause letter says that I visited the academic and research section almost everyday between 3.30 pm and 6 pm, neglecting my duties. Being a teacher, I have the freedom to visit such sections, and I did so after my classes. This can never be a cause for suspension. The real reason was that I refused to sign against a colleague, when the university wanted to impose an embargo against her. I also protested against the ill-treatment meted out to her. I told the V-C that I will not sign against any of my colleagues. On March 13, I was suspended for three months, it was later extended by another three months,” he said.
“Tomorrow, I will complete six months of suspension. Six months back, they gave me a showcause letter; I replied. They formed a one-man inquiry committee and then suspended me. I got only 50% of my monthly salary. Three months later, they sent me a notice saying the inquiry had been initiated and suspension extended by three more months. But there was no inquiry, no hearing. I was not called by anyone… They robbed me of my freedom to teach. I was supposed to get 75% of my salary after three months, but I got it in only for August,” he said.
Another Physics professor said he and a colleague were suspended after they lodged a formal complaint against the V-C with the local police. Their suspension order cites “gross indiscipline and misconduct”.
“I and my colleagues had rushed to the aid of English department teachers who were wrongfully confined in a room by the university authorities. Later, we lodged a complaint against the V-C at the local police station. We had also written to the Prime Minister and the President against him. On August 23, we were suspended for an indefinite period,” said the professor, who did not want to be named.
VBUFA president Sudipta Bhattacharya admitted that the allegations against some of the suspended professors could be true. “It is a matter of investigation to find out whether all are guilty. But a large number of them have been wrongfully suspended, which is pretty clear from the causes cited by the authorities in such suspension orders,” said Bhattacharya.
Besides the suspensions, nine teaching and non-teaching staff members have been sacked, including former officiating V-C Sabuj Koli Sen.
Along with former registrar Saugata Chattopadhyay and former finance officer Samit Ray, Sen was removed from service on August 28, 2020, just two days before retirement, on charges of tampering with the minutes of a council meeting in order to extend the term as officiating V-C.
The university authorities are also alleged to have stopped the retirement benefits of two teachers and another two non-teaching staff members; and the salaries of three teachers and two non-teaching staff. Some other faculty members have also faced action, including their removal as principals, vice-principals and heads of department.
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 Chakraborty took charge as V-C.
Criticising the V-C’s actions, noted historian Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri said: “Teachers and students are an integral part of any academic institute. The V-C has made them angry with his decision on suspensions. He has failed to take them into confidence and resolve the issues through dialogue and discussion. He is not a good administrator and is acting like a dictator.”
“One cannot antagonise everyone in a university. The V-C has to handle issues delicately, taking into confidence all persons concerned. No university can run by antagonising both the teacher and student communities. A university is not a factory where one issues strict guidelines. A V-C should stay in regular touch with teachers and students. He can never take the situation to a point of no return,” said Pabitra Sarkar, educationist and former V-C of Rabindra Bharati University.