There’s a bit of irony in a place named Shantiniketan – Bengali for “abode of peace”– making headlines for turmoil and unrest. However, that is what happened at the Visva Bharati University on Monday, when a mob vandalised part of the campus as a reaction to the Vice Chancellor’s attempt to build a boundary wall around the ground that hosts two of the university’s – and the town’s – biggest festivals.

Visva Bharati was established by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore a century ago as part of a unique experiment to have classes not indoors but outside in nature. Tagore’s institution is also critical for the cultural and economic life of the city of Bolpur – which houses the university town of Shantiniketan – since it hosts two major cultural events: the Poush Mela (a winter fair) and Basanta Utsab (a spring festival of colours).

In July, however, Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty announced that the fairs would be cancelled, sending shock waves through West Bengal given how important the fairs are to the state’s cultural calendar.

While the university claims that it is implementing an environmental court’s order by building the wall, residents see it as the final step to end these fairs. As a result, the move has seen strident opposition, ranging from cultural anguish to anxiety at what this would mean for local commerce.

A student watches during the celebration of Basanta Utsab at Shantiniketanin 2006. Credit: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

Controversial tenure

Since his appointment as Vice-Chancellor two years back, Bidyut Chakraborty has courted controversy. For one, the university has undergone a slump in the National Institutional Ranking Framework rankings. From being at the 31st place only two years back, it has now dropped to 50th. Meanwhile, earlier this year, the university evicted a student for recording the vice-chancellor’s speech where he remarked that the Constitution was “brought into effect by minority votes”, while during the demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a video showed him encouraging attacks on protesting students.

While these didn’t snowball into any mass protests, his administration’s unilateral decision to scrap the two festivals put the university at the centre of a raging controversy. The university’s decision to wall off the fairground from the rest of the town has seen four specific groups up in arms.

First, a section of the alumni, former professors and staff, many of whom were born and brought up in the vicinity and referred to locally as ashramiks (ashram members), have taken a strong stand against this wall-building exercise, arguing it goes against the very ethos of Tagore’s plan of taking education out of the confines of walls and into the lap of nature.

Secondly, left activists see this as a collision between the ideas of Tagore and the Bharatiya Janata Party with regard to ideas of nation state and the role of religion in it. The protagonist Nikhil in Tagore’s novel Ghore Baire concluded: “To worship my country as a god is to bring curse upon it.” About religion, he wrote, “Those who in the name of faith embrace illusion, kill and are killed.”

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas, had in 2017 recommended removing Tagore from National Council of Educational Research and Training textbooks, claiming “an attempt has been made to show a rift between nationality and humanity by citing thoughts of Rabindranath Tagore”.

Third, many of Shantiniketan’s residents also consider this to be an unnecessary move. However, given the pandemic, their reaction has remained somewhat muted.

‘Tagore tourism’

The most vocal opposition to the university’s move came from a fourth group, consisting of the town’s businessmen. Over the past decade, Bolpur’s economy has received a boost from what locals call “Tagore tourism”. The town has become a popular weekend getaway for the residents of Kolkata, which is a four-hour drive away. Handicraft stores and home-stays have mushroomed, with Poush Mela and Basanta Utsab being the main fulcrums of Bolpur’s emerging economic prosperity.

“Bolpur Station Road Byabasyee Welfare Samity” or the traders’ association was one of the parties even in the 2016 National Green Tribunal trial that delivered a verdict ordering Visva-Bharati to “demarcate the Mela ground and barricade the same so that the Mela ground will be a separate self contained unit from the university and the locality”.

It is this sentence that the university has used to back up its construction of the 10-foot wall. However, the judgement doesn’t make clear what the nature of this demarcation was to be. Protesters believe a low, token wall, as envisaged by former Vice-Chancellor Rajat Kanta Ray (2006-2011) would have been more than enough, since there was never any real threat of encroachment.

Credit: @jdhankhar1

This complete separation of town and university also goes against the spirit of a 2005 Supreme Court judgement, which argued: “If by reason of any activity, the tradition and special features of Visva Bharati are not preserved, the very purpose of the enactment would be defeated.”

Till Monday, none of the first three white-collar groups could muster up any noticeable resistance against the recent alterations to the locality. Any resistance was confined to social media or petitioning the university administration. It finally fell to the town’s working class, who arrived at the spot in thousands from nearby areas and with the presence of some well-known local politicians. However, this protest soon spiralled out of control, resulting in violence and vandalism.

The events also had political implications. The ruling Trinamool Congress covertly backed this agitation given that it consolidates their support among Bolpur’s craftsmen and small business owners. But the fact that the agitation soon descended into vandalism makes the ruling party lose the moral high ground and has rubbed the local elites the wrong way. Thanks to the events on Monday, what could possibly have been a fight for Shantiniketan’s soul, now looks like a regular muddled Trinamool Congress–BJP power struggle. Which it was anything but.