Visva Bharati receiving the JNU treatment
Punitive action against students was unheard of in Visva Bharati with Tagore having forbidden any punishment to students. What he had visualised was for students & teachers to be close to nature
The last-minute intervention by the Union Education Ministry this week in preventing indefinite closure of Visva Bharati, ordered by the Executive Council headed by the Vice Chancellor, has saved the century-old institution the blushes. The closure on Visva Bharati’s centenary year and for the first time in its history, would have tarnished the image of the institution founded by Rabindranath Tagore in 1921. But the intervention, possibly too little and coming too late, cannot absolve the ministry of the responsibility for allowing the situation to worsen over the past several years and become a political battleground.
The immediate provocation for the latest stalemate was the demand to withdraw the nine-month long suspension of three students, who were charged with an act of ‘indiscipline’ in January, 2020. Nothing could possibly justify the long suspension but when the Vice Chancellor refused to heed the demand, students confined him to his residence and restricted his movement in protest. The administration retaliated by first suspending admissions and declaration of results and by rusticating the three students for three years. Punitive action against students have been unheard of in Visva Bharati with Tagore having forbidden any kind of punishment to students. What he had visualised was for students and teachers to be close to nature and people, to learn from them and lead simple, austere lives.
Capital punishment was forbidden. Idolatory was not allowed and no religion, idea or individual was to be denigrated. Students were allowed to be unruly and encouraged to ask inconvenient questions. The erosion in its distinctive character had indeed begun earlier. But the past few years have seen a steady onslaught on all universities. Conformity and acceptance of rules and hierarchies are now deemed necessary.
Whether the present Vice Chancellor and the administration, backed by the Union Government, have been strict or poor administrators is debatable. But it will be a fallacy to believe that every critic is wrong and they alone are right. The present VC, whose tenure since 2018 has been marked by ugly controversies, seems to have a special talent to have antagonised not just students but also teachers and residents of Santiniketan. He also publicly humiliated Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and allegedly detained the entire faculty of a department in order to find out who among them had signed a petition against him.
He is accused of arbitrarily ordering the office of a Head of the Department to be locked and serving a show-cause notice to teachers for sharing ‘internal’ affairs of the university with the media. Intolerant of any criticism he has often got into an exchange of words with other faculty members in meetings. And while coming out in open support of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was being protested across the country, he closed the door to a working relationship with the state government.
Inviting BJP leaders to university functions and allowing them to share the stage is said to be another indiscretion that riled the state government. While he has vehemently denied telling local BJP leaders to mobilise storm troopers (Bike Bahini) in his support and administer students a ‘dose’ of bitter medicine, the charges have stuck. He clearly belongs to a new breed of Vice Chancellors who forget that universities are meant for students and teachers and not fiefs. The Prime Minister, being the Chancellor, has a responsibility to ensure smooth functioning of the institution and not allow his personal and political differences with the state’s chief minister to colour his judgment.