Visva Bharati University Vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty must reflect on the distance between that vision and the ongoing tussles — and course correct.
A battle for control is playing out at yet another public university. The Visva Bharati university’s decision to expel three students last month for “disorderly conduct” during a protest in January has led to the most recent round of student agitations on the campus. The university administration responded to the standoff by moving the Calcutta High Court, asking for deployment of police personnel to quell the protest. While the court had earlier prohibited protests by students near academic blocks in the university, on Wednesday, it revoked the rustication orders against the three students, finding the punishment “excessive and disproportionate”. It also remarked on the dissatisfaction among the faculty members over the “high-handedness” of the vice-chancellor.
The university administration headed by vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty has, indeed, shown an unwise appetite for confrontation with students and faculty. Since November 2019, 22 staff members (faculty members and non-teaching staff) have been suspended, and 150 show-cause notices issued to employees. The reasons for disciplinary action have ranged from faculty members writing a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against alleged irregularities at the central university to visiting the house of a fellow teacher. Since he took charge in 2018, Chakraborty’s decisions — from scrapping the Poush Mela held every winter to declaring Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen an encroacher and requesting the deployment of CISF on a university campus whose beginnings lie in Rabindranath Tagore’s expansive vision of openness in learning — have only sharpened the fault lines. The vice-chancellor’s office has refused the task of moderation and negotiation; instead, it has played a role in turning disagreements into a question of order and security. The dissent of faculty members and students has been met with a heavy hand. Disputes have been sought to be framed as a face-off between a “tough” administrator, backed by the Centre, holding out against an “unruly” campus. Given the long history of politicisation of higher education in Bengal, it is not hard to spot the proxy battle between the BJP-ruled Centre and the state government. But given the consequences of a similar playbook of confrontation at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, it is safe to say that it is the university that will pay a price.
Besieged they might be, but public universities still play a vital role in shaping citizens in a democracy. Tagore’s ambition for Santiniketan was to create an institution of free spirits, where learning was not deadened by fiats of authority or a homogenising ideology. Vice-chancellor Chakraborty must reflect on the distance between that vision and the ongoing tussles — and course correct.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 10, 2021 under the title ‘The uneasy campus’.
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