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Thursday, May 06, 2021

In battle for Bolpur, future of Tagore’s legacy & Visva-Bharati in focus

In Bolpur, which goes to the polls in the last phase on April 29, a controversy surrounding Visva Bharati University (VBU) and its vice-chancellor seems to be on the lips of voters.

Written by Santanu Chowdhury | Bolpur |
Updated: April 29, 2021 9:13:22 am
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a rally in Shantiniketan. (Express Photo: Partha Paul)

It was the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore that made both Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Union Home Minister Amit Shah make a beeline for Santiniketan in Birbhum district’s Bolpur town and hold roadshows and public meetings as the long campaign period for the Assembly elections began.

In Bolpur, which goes to the polls in the last phase on April 29, a controversy surrounding Visva Bharati University (VBU) and its vice-chancellor seems to be on the lips of voters. From the scrapping of the annual “Poush Mela [winter fair]” to declaring Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen one of the illegal occupants of land belonging to the university, VBU Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty has invited a lot of criticism since assuming charge in 2018. In the recently concluded election campaign, the focus was on the welfare of the central university set up by Tagore in 1921 and the financial stability of local traders badly affected by the institution’s decision to scrap the fair.

“The vice-chancellor has hurt the sentiment of the people by stopping the Poush Mela which is an integral aspect of Santiniketan and part of its 100-year-old tradition. It adversely affected the local trade and commerce. Whoever wins the Bolpur seat, preservation of Tagore’s values and Bengali culture should be his top priority,” said Santiniketan resident Dhrubajyoti Nandi.

Last July, breaking the 125-year tradition, the VBU Executive Council (EC) decided to scrap the fair, with Bidyut Chakrabarty claiming that the university was “ill-equipped” to handle such an event.

In August, the university shut down till further notice following vandalism on the campus triggered by a row over fencing around the Poush Mela ground. A large group led by Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders demolished the university’s gates and ransacked construction material brought to build the wall around the fairground. In a bid to reach out to Bengali intellectuals and shed the “outsider” tag given by the TMC, Amit Shah spent over two hours at Visva-Bharati last December to pay homage to Tagore. Shah also held a roadshow in Bolpur. Days later, Mamata Banerjee held a “padyatra [march]” on the same route.

According to local resident Mrinal Sinha, 58, winning the Bengali sentiment by paying homage to Tagore is the key to success in Bolpur. “The livelihoods of a lot of people are dependent on Visva-Bharati. Its welfare must be taken into account. We cannot let anyone tarnish Tagore’s legacy,” he added.

Local trader Babu Roy said traders want the Poush Mela to resume once the Covid-19 crisis subsides. “This is the only time in the year where local artists make profits. By stopping the fair, the financial aspects of our community have been affected. The candidate who will win from here must address this issue,” he told The Indian Express. For the last few days, a section of students, university teachers and non-teaching staff “arbitrarily” suspended by the authorities have been on an indefinite sit-in on the campus.

“The vice-chancellor needs to go. We have expressed our views to candidates of all major parties … The v-c suspended eight teachers, 10 non-teaching staff and three students. About 150 employees were show-caused notices and another 150 were transferred for protesting against the the university. Two teachers were terminated for the same reason. The V-C must resign or else the standard of Visva-Bharati will deteriorate further,” said a professor.

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