Tagore betrayed: Santiniketan unlikely to qualify for the World Heritage Site
Indiscriminate construction has destroyed Tagore’s vision and put paid to efforts to preserve Santiniketan as a World Heitage Site, laments Dr Partha Ghose, eminent Science communicator
Towards the end of his life Rabindranath Tagore was growing anxious about the future of his unique creation, VisvaBharati in Santiniketan. At the end of Mahatma Gandhi’s last visit to Santiniketan in February, 1940, when he was bidding farewell, the poet pressed into his hand a letter in which he wrote:
“…And now, before you take your leave of Santiniketan I make my fervent appeal to you: Accept this institution under your protection, giving it an assurance of permanence if you consider it to be a national asset. VisvaBharati is like a vessel which is carrying the cargo of my life’s best treasure and I hope it may claim special care from my countrymen for its preservation.”
Gandhiji’s replied the same day (19-02-1940):
“The touching note that you put into my hands as we parted has gone straight into my heart. Of course, Visva-Bharati is a national institution. It is undoubtedly also international. You may depend upon my doing all I can in the common endeavour to assure its permanence.” The historic correspondence eventually led the first Education Minister of independent India, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, to present the Visva-Bharati Bill to Parliament in 1951. During the Parliamentary Debate, the Maulana remarked, “Nature has provided it with the canopy of the sky and the open places and they do not want to make any additions in the form of brick and stone.”
Jawaharlal Nehru added, “I entirely agree with Dr. Mookerjee (Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee) when he laid stress on certain factors that may be called external if you like, but, nevertheless, which must have a very powerful influence in moulding the student there and creating a new environment, whether it is teaching in the mango grove or doing anything like that. I entirely agree with him that we should not spend our money on a large number of brick structures as we unfortunately still do…”
While winding up the debate in Parliament, the Maulana observed: “…In January 1947 Mahatma Gandhi had told me that Gurudev had left a great trust with him. The Government of India by introducing this Bill, has tried to preserve that trust and the passage of this Bill does not mean that …any attempt will be made to change the very ideals for which this University had stood all along. Doing that, I feel, will instead of preserving it mean sheer dishonesty and a betrayal of the trust.”
Parliament passed the Bill, and the 1951 Act declared Visva Bharati an “institution of national importance” and constituted it as a unitary, teaching and residential University. This ensured Visva Bharati’s permanence as an institution but, alas, it also killed its soul.
It was the very ‘betrayal of the trust’ that the Maulana had been repeatedly warned of by learned speakers in Parliament and was so anxious to avoid. The great physicist Satyendranath Bose, who was Vice Chancellor of Visva Bharati for a short while, once remarked, “After Visva Bharati turned into a University, it is futile to look for Rabindranath there.” Tagore himself had warned: “We must beware even of calling it a University. For the name itself is bound to rouse an irrepressible tendency to comparison and feeble imitation.” The Poet had realized that practical men would surely ask with pitiless gravity – “All that you discuss and describe may be true, or what is far worse, beautiful—but is it possible”.
His answer was unequivocal: “Whatever is true is real. Reality is related to truth, as the canvas to the picture—it must be there at the back. And if my Ideal of the centre of Indian culture has any truth, it can be, and therefore must be, realized at all costs.” (The Centre of Indian Culture, section XVII)
But, as the Upanishads warned, the face of truth is hidden by the golden orb (hiranmayena paatrena satyasyaapihitam mukham). The ashramites fell prey to immediate gains: secure jobs and lavish funds.
The only practical way to keep the ambience of the place intact, immune from the whims and fancies of individuals and governments, is to declare it first as a national heritage and then a World Heritage, which it richly deserves to be. Curiously, in 2010 Visva Bharati, together with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Santiniketan Sriniketan Development Authority (SSDA) did nominate Santiniketan to UNESCO as a World Heritage site. In the nomination dossier Visva Bharati’s territorial jurisdiction was divided into a Core Area and a Buffer Zone .
In October 2010 the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) sent a technical evaluation mission to Santiniketan. One finds in its report that conservation measures had already been initiated in a systematic way since 2007. Several agencies were involved, namely Visva Bharati, ASI, CPWD and INTACH. Many heritage buildings and landscape areas (like the Japanese garden adjacent to Udayan) were restored to their former glory.
The report however warned that existing development pressures on the property and its buffer zone may seriously threaten its integrity and significance, and recommended that the ‘vision’ for the buffer zone needs to be revised in that light. Importantly, it mentioned that on 27 September 2010 Visva-Bharati formally adopted the Managemant Plan included in the nomination dossier. Therefore, all projects and pressures should have been stopped with the adoption of the plan. But were they?
It also stated that on 25 January 2010 the Urban Development Department of the Government of West Bengal (UDDGWB) pointed out that 11 mouzas surrounding Santiniketan - nine of which constitute the buffer zone - require preservation and conservation for historical, architectural, environmental and ecological purposes.
Finally, ICOMOS observed that, since the University is a functioning institution, it might possibly require further expansion for its longterm sustenance. To ensure that no such expansion affects the heritage properties created during the life time of the Poet himself, they suggested that all future expansion must be restricted to the Buffer Zone. Incidentally, the 1951 Act empowers Visva Bharati to acquire land anywhere within its territorial jurisdiction. This was followed by a meeting at the ASI on 11th August 2011, which the Vice Chancellor of Visva Bharati himself attended for drafting legislation for better protection and management of the core area and the buffer zone.
Then followed a deafening silence! Was it that, like all good intentions, this one too got buried under more ‘pressing’ problems or by changing guards with other priorities? Or, is there more than meets the eye?
Meanwhile, going by media reports, the brick and mortar lobby is back in business.
(The author is Distinguished Fellow, Tagore Centre for Natural Sciences and Philosophy, Kolkata)