Visva Bharati: New BJP vs TMC Battleground Ahead Of Bengal 2021?

It is important to note that Visva Bharati is Bengal’s only centrally-run university.

4 min read

As a state that quotes Rabindranath Tagore at the drop of a hat, West Bengal sure has a weird way of honouring the literary stalwart. On 17 August, the Visva Bharati University in West Bengal, an institution envisaged and built by Tagore to uphold his values of world peace, saw massive violence.

Two gates of the university, in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, and construction material that was being used to build a wall on the university grounds, were vandalised as mobs running into thousands went on a rampage inside the university campus.

The point of contention?

The legendary Poush Mela, a fair held at the Visva Bharati university grounds, which has been a tradition for over 125 years now. This year, the event has been cancelled by the university administration which said it was “woefully inequipped” to conduct the event. It was in the process of constructing a wall to barricade the university grounds to enforce this decision. This led to the furore and violence.

Poush Mela & Pollution Woes

The Poush Mela was started by Rabindranath Tagore’s father Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, who embraced the Brahmo Dharma on the 7th day of the month of Poush in the Bengali calendar. To mark the occasion, he started the Poush Mela where young artists could meet local people and exchange ideas.

Over the years, the fair has been organised jointly by the Visva Bharati and the Santiniketan Trust, which was set up by Debendranath Tagore. However, the Trust says that it was not consulted by Visva Bharati before taking the decision to cancel the fair.

Last year too the University had expressed that it was not adequately equipped to organise the fair. This year, in a missive, that was uploaded on the website which announced the cancellation of the Mela, the university said:

“As per the Shantiniketan Trust Deed which Gurudev’s father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, prepared, the Shantiniketan Trust is the true custodian of the Mela, but gradually the Mela unofficially became the Visva-Bharati’s responsibility to hold for which the university was woefully unequipped. As a result, a specific group within the university was vetted for organising the Mela, and in the pre-2019 years, the university authority remained, in general, a mute observer, though the ultimate responsibility rested with the university.”

As the fair grew over the years, its management fell apart, raising many concerns, environmental ones being foremost. The 3-day affair often extended to the end of the month causing massive pollution problems. From 2015 onwards, on the basis of petitions submitted before it regarding pollution caused due to the fair, the National Green Tribunal has pulled up Visva Bharati several times. In 2017, the NGT asked the University to: “demarcate the Mela ground and barricade the same so that the Mela ground will be a separate self contained unit from the university and the locality.”

The Wall & The Controversy

In a statement the university cited this 2017 judgement of the NGT to justify the construction of the wall and said that it was a barricade which does not go against Tagore’s principles who thought that enclosed spaces like classrooms are nothing but prisons for the mind.

Locals, however, already agitated at the Poush Mela being cancelled, took special objection to the construction of this wall and called it an attempt by the university to undermine Tagore's values.

Why The Violence Is Political

In the midst of this, it is important to note that Visva Bharati is Bengal’s only centrally-run university.

The prime minister is the chancellor of the university.

Over the last couple of years, Vice Chancellor of the university, Bidyut Chakraborty, has been accused by student organisations of working at the behest of the central government and the BJP. This reached an ugly turn when BJP MP Swapan Dasgupta was gheraoed at the university, and when masked goons went on a rampage inside the university campus earlier this year.

This dynamic makes this issue a political one. The biggest case in point is the fact that TMC MLA from Dubrajpur Naresh Bauri was seen leading the mob of protestors that later turned violent.

According to local sources, traders’ associations aligned to the TMC were also a part of the protests and subsequent vandalism as well.

As soon as news of the vandalism broke, Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, in his usual Twitter style, attacked Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and blamed alleged police inaction. Reacting, Chief Minister Banerjee said:

“I have heard there was some construction activity going on where Poush Mela happens. There were people there who should not be there. They are outsiders. They were protecting the construction. Students and people of Bolpur did not like this. They registered their protest. I don’t want a construction there. It will ruin the natural beauty of the place.”

Meanwhile, the university has demanded a CBI enquiry into the matter and has shut down indefinitely. It has also registered an FIR against TMC MLA Bauri and 12 others.

After the likes of Jadavpur University and Presidency University, is Visva Bharati the new flashpoint in TMC vs BJP battle ahead of the 2021 polls?

Well, as the university gears up to celebrate hundred years starting December this year, there is no doubt that this is not how the stalwart would have liked to see his prized sanctum of education.

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