Visva-Bharati suspends student for Facebook posts supporting Amartya Sen
Visva-Bharati has been in news since 2018 when Chakrabarty took over as vice-chancellor.
Visva-Bharati, West Bengal’s only central university, has suspended a post-graduate student for a full semester for allegedly writing three social media posts earlier this year in support of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.
Sen has been accused by the institution of illegally occupying 13 decimals of the 1.38 acres of land his father took on lease on the campus in Birbhum district in 1943.
Somenath Sow, a student of rural management, wrote the Facebook posts on January 28, February 8 and February 9 following which a show cause notice was issued to him on February 13.
The notice accused him of attempting “to denigrate, defame and derogate Visva-Bharati as an institution and also its functionaries/officials and staff.”
This was the second disciplinary action against Sow. He was suspended last year for taking part in agitations against vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty. Sow then moved the Calcutta high court and got admission in the post-graduate programme after the court passed an order on September 30, 2022.
The July 26 suspension order, a copy of which was seen by HT, addressed Sow as “Dear student” and said: “As per the unanimous recommendation of the Standing Students’ Disciplinary Committee (SSDC) which was approved by the competent authority, you are hereby suspended for one semester (3rd Semester, MA In MRM) from academic activities of the Department of Lifelong Learning and Extension, Palli Samgathana Vibhaga (PSV), Visva-Bharati.”
Neither the show cause letter nor the suspension order mentioned Sen.
Sow, who wrote in his posts that Visva-Bharati should produce the 1943 records to prove its right on the disputed land, claimed on Friday that the university neither gave him a copy of the charge sheet nor allowed him to explain his stand.
“The suspension order was passed unilaterally. This was done on purpose to damage my career,” Sow said.
The Prime Minister is the chancellor of Visva-Bharati, which was set up by Asia’s first Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore in 1921.
The vice-chancellor could not be contacted but Mahua Banerjee, the Visva-Bharati spokesperson, said Sow was summoned thrice by the SSDC.
“The decision to suspend Somenath was taken by the SSDC,” said Banerjee, refusing to comment on Sow’s allegation that the disciplinary action would damage his career.
Visva-Bharati has been in news since 2018 when Chakrabarty took over as vice-chancellor. The campus has witnessed a number of agitations following disciplinary action against teachers and students, most of whom moved the Calcutta high court, petitioning against those actions. Several court orders went in favour of the petitioners.
On January 17, for example, the Calcutta high court said in an order that “stigmatic aspersions” led to the summary termination of service of Sudipta Bhattacharya, an economics professor in December last year. He is also the president of the teachers’ association.
On April 3, a high court division bench upheld a December 2022 order of a single bench that imposed a fine of ₹1 lakh on Visva-Bharati for initiating disciplinary action against another professor, Debotosh Sinha, who recommended child care leave for a teacher in 2021.
HT has seen copies of both court orders.
In 2022, vice-chancellor Chakrabarty claimed that Sen’s father, Ashutosh Sen, who was a development commissioner in Delhi and also served as chairman of the West Bengal Public Service Commission, rented 1.25 acres on a 99-year lease in 1943.
The 99-year-old lease at the centre of the controversy was executed in 1943. The university passed an eviction order against the 89-year-old economist on April 19, stating that it would take possession of the 13 decimals, or 5550 sq. feet, unless Sen vacated it voluntarily. The dispute is being heard by the Birbhum district court following orders by the Calcutta high court passed on May 4 after Sen’s lawyers challenged the eviction order.
A few hundred scholars from India and abroad, including linguist Noam Chomsky, economist Joseph Stiglitz and former economic advisor to the Indian government Kaushik Basu have spoken out in Sen’s support and written to President Droupadi Murmu.
The state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has alleged that its prime adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is trying to teach Sen a lesson for criticising certain actions of the Centre.
Sen, too, has shared this view on the controversy. “There is politics behind this (the land dispute). I am a target because I voice my views on a secular India where Hindus and Muslims should live in peace. Gandhi and Nehru wanted that,” Sen said in Bolpur in February before returning to the USA where he spends most of his time.
The student’s suspension has triggered a fresh political slugfest.
TMC state vice-president Jay Prakash Majumdar said: “We condemn the vindictive action the vice-chancellor has taken against the student. Tagore believed in education for all. The current regime at Visva-Bharati, led by the vice-chancellor and the chancellor, who is also our Prime Minister, is obliterating Tagore’s legacy. India has lost her face before the world because of the land dispute Sen has been dragged into.”
Bengal BJP’s chief spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya described the student’s suspension as an internal matter of Visva-Bharati.
“How discipline should be maintained on the campus is Visva-Bharati’s prerogative. It is their internal matter. As far as Bengal is concerned, the education system has collapsed during the TMC regime,” said Bhattacharya.