As Visva-Bharati VC Bidyut Chakrabarty's Term Nears End, a Look at His Controversial Legacy

Across the state, Chakrabarty has become persona non grata. The opposition to his actions can be gauged from the fact that he has been disapproved not just by Birbhum BJP leaders but also the governor.

Kolkata: A social media post by a senior official has once again thrust Visva-Bharati University, established by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan, West Bengal, into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Nilanjan Bandyopadhyay, an associate professor and a scholar on Tagore and Japan, took to Facebook last week to disclose that senior faculty members, allegedly under the directive of a high-ranking official, had advised him against attending work. He also voiced apprehensions about potential threats to his safety at the university, expressing fear for his life. Speaking to The Wire, Bandhyopadhya, a cancer patient, blamed the outgoing vice-chancellor (VC) Bidyut Chakrabarty for his distress.

“Killing someone doesn’t always involve physically shooting or slitting their throat, it can also be achieved through psychological torture. The VC is fully aware of my condition as a cancer patient, yet subjecting me to extreme mental torture,” stated Bandopadhyay. 

Bidyut Chakrabarty’s last five years as VC have been marred with serious concerns about the management of Visva-Bharati and the erosion of academic freedom at the university. The controversies have snowballed into a political row, with the VC and the West Bengal government trading accusations. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had to intervene, summoning Chakrabarty over contentious remarks about Durga Puja. Over the past year, several scholars accused him of suppressing cases related to sexual harassment and caste discrimination and protecting the perpetrators.

Plaque row: Visva Bharati administration writes a bitter letter to chief minister Mamata Banerjee over the plaque dispute.

The latest allegation against the VC has come from the authorities of the Santiniketan Trust, established by Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. On Saturday, Anil Konar, the trust’s secretary, filed a complaint with Santiniketan police, alleging that the VC had installed a plaque on the trust’s land without prior permission. According to the FIR, the plaque, placed in front of Upasana Griha (the prayer hall), has posed a threat to the peace and tranquillity of the area.

The plaque. Photo: X/@jawharsircar

The plaque was recently erected to commemorate Santiniketan’s UNESCO heritage site designation. However, it drew statewide outrage as it bears the names of Prime Minister Narendra Modi [who is also the chancellor] and VC Chakrabarty while omitting the name of Rabindranath Tagore, the founder of Santiniketan and Visva Bharati. 

Derogatory remarks: Santiniketan Trust complains to the PMO about VC Bidyut Chakrabarty’s “insults” to the campus community.

Salary issue: Human rights activist accuses VC and associates of creating unrest by withholding salaries and pensions.

Land controversy: VC faces backlash over notices to Amartya Sen over alleged illegal land holding.

Sexual harassment case: Several scholars and professors complained to the President, the PMO and the education ministry, accusing the VC of suppressing cases related to sexual harassment and caste discrimination. Despite these allegations, the VC and the University have failed to address or take appropriate action on these matters.

Instances of transfers or suspensions have become routine. He has also enforced regulations that prohibit any faculty member from engaging with the media, threatening to suspend those who do not comply. As his tenure approaches its conclusion, there have been allegations that he is actively seeking an extension. 

“Never in the past has such a terrible situation been created in Visva-Bharati. Bidyut Chakrabarty is practically running a dictatorship by leveraging his position as the vice-chancellor. He claimed that Visva-Bharati gained UNESCO recognition during his term, therefore he must get an extension. We, as teaching and non-teaching staff, are being urged to write to the chancellor and the education ministry in support of extending his tenure. But no one wants him here,” expressed a professor who does not want to be named.

Across the state, Chakrabarty has become persona non grata. His actions have drawn disapproval not only from Birbhum BJP leaders but also from the governor, who compared Visva-Bharti without Rabindranath Tagore to Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

Anirban Ganguly, the BJP’s candidate for Bolpur, under which Santiniketan falls, was forthright in his criticism of the VC: “If this man is the representative of the Union government, it will be disastrous for the party.”

Anupam Hazra, the BJP All India Secretary and former Bolpur MP, stated, “University workers are currently reaching out to the education ministry, expressing that the VC is exerting pressure on them to march in his favour. Chakrabarty is attempting to present himself as an ultra-Modi supporter, but in reality, he is a hypocrite.”

“Under this VC’s governance, the fundamental academic activities of the university have been disrupted. Many of our teachers are fearful of attending classes. The once simple and ordinary life associated with Santiniketan is over. When he leaves, it will be good for Santiniketan,” said a student. 

Ainul Haque, a local handicraft trader in the Santiniketan area, said, “The VC is the most violent and ugly personality I have ever encountered. He has stopped celebrations for most festivals, including the Vasant Utsav and Poush Mela. He has not spared anyone: housewives, students, teachers, and the local business community, everyone is affected.”

Throughout the history of Visva Bharati University, many VCs have faced periods of unrest. However, they upheld the values of Santiniketan, respecting both the teachers and students, despite the controversies. Bidyut Chakrabarty’s five-year tenure has disrupted the tradition.

Tagore’s great-grandnephew Supriyo Thakur summed up the feeling: “The sooner he departs, the better it is for Santiniketan.”