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'Will Evict Amartya Sen by Force if Need Be': Why Is Visva-Bharati Under Fire?

The university has termed Amartya Sen as 'one of those who belong to the group of landgrabbers.'

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Members of West Bengal's civil society have condemned Visva-Bharati University's attempts to evict Nobel laureate Amartya Sen from a portion of his land at his Santiniketan home.

More than 120 intellectuals, including poets, authors, and artistes, published an open letter on Friday, 21 April, urging the university not to "harass" the eminent economist over the land issue.

The signatories include actors Sabyasachi Chakraborty and Biplab Chatterjee, educationist Pabitra Sarkar, columnist Samik Bandyopadhyay, and writer Bhagirath Mishra.

But what exactly is the land dispute that the intellectuals have referred to in their letter? And what has Amartya Sen said about the allegations of land grabbing? We explain.

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What Has Been Alleged Against Amartya Sen?

Over the past year, the university's vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty has been alleging that the economist is in possession of 1.38 acre of land on the Santiniketan campus.

Chakrabarty said that Sen's father, who was a professor at the university, had rented only 1.25 acres of land on a 99-year lease in 1943, and thus, the remaining portion of the land should be returned to the university, as it has been "illegally occupied by the economist."

On 19 April, the university asked Sen to vacate the 13 decimals of land, which he has allegedly been occupying in an "unauthorised manner" by 6 May or within 15 days of the publication of the last order.

'Pratichi' – Sen's home – is located on the Visva-Bharati campus at Santiniketan in Birbhum district of West Bengal.

Contending that the institution was "in urgent need of getting control of encroachments" as per the Centre's advisories and Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report, the notice stated: "Amartya Kumar Sen and all concerned persons are liable to be evicted from the said premises."

It added that if the need arose, Sen would evicted by "use of force as may be necessary."

"It is decided that 13 decimals of land having the dimension of 50ft x 111ft in the north-west corner of the scheduled premises is to be recovered from him," the notice said.

The notice also specified that Sen can "lawfully" occupy 1.25 acres of land only as leases (for the residual period of lease) on the premises. Sen does not have the authority to occupy 1.38 acres of land in the scheduled premises, the notice added.

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What Else Has the University Said?

Responding to an editorial in The Telegraph, Mahua Banerjee, the public relations officer of the university, wrote that Visva-Bharati had 1,134 acres of land, which it acquired over time via donation by philanthropists and through purchase by the institution.

She alleged that when the new administration took over the reins in 2018, they were informed that land sharks had already grabbed "77 acres of the university's lands."

She wrote that Amartya Sen is "one of those who belong to the group of landgrabbers at the cost of Visva-Bharati."

She went on to add that "we have nothing against him personally. We are also indebted to him intellectually. But does that justify the fact that he can own a piece of land illegally?"

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How Has Amartya Sen Reacted to the Allegations?

In a letter to the joint registrar and estate officer of Visva-Bharati, Sen on 17 April said that the plot has been with his family since 1943.

He added that the plot was passed on to him after the death of his parents, Ashutosh and Amita Sen, who had also purchased the land close to the leased property. 

He also stated that the utilisation of the land has remained the same over this long period (80 years).

"Any contrary claim to this leased land before the expiry of the lease cannot stand. The magistrate of the area has noted that the existing arrangement should be recognised and that no interference or breach of peace should be allowed."

He also said that appropriate authorities should be asked to prevent "arbitrary abuse of power" by Visva-Bharati.

Taking note of the fact that the university has said that it would evict Sen by force, if the need arises he said, "We must take note of this threat of violence and ask the appropriate authorities to prevent such arbitrary abuse of power."

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'Urge PM Modi To Break Deafening Silence on Issue'

The intellectuals, in their letter, called upon Visva-Bharati's authorities to "desist from continued humiliation of Sen." They claimed that he "rightfully possesses the entire 1.38 acres of land" of his plot.

They also urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the chancellor of the university, to break his "deafening" silence on the matter.

The signatories said that the move to evict the economist "has lowered the head of every Bengali, for that matter every Indian, before the entire world."

Madhuri Chatterjee, a former student of the university and a journalist, told The Quint that it is a matter of shame that Sen has been threatened with the use of force if the need arises.

"The notice implies that it will use violence if the need arises. This is very unbecoming of an institute that is globally recognised and goes against the ideals on which the institution was founded upon by Rabindranath Tagore," Chatterjee said.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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