We're Live Bangla Thursday, December 02, 2021

Turmoil in Tagore’s ‘abode of peace’

The Bengali Bard’s Legacy And Vision Under Threat From Hindutva

Visva-Bharati students perform at Basanta Utsav in Santiniketan

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

“Where knowledge is free;

“Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls…”

That was Rabindranath Tagore’s dream about India poetically expressed in his most famous work ‘Geetanjali’ (Song offerings in Bengali), which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature at the turn of the 20th century.

But a 20-year-old under-graduate student from Bangladesh at the university that the poet established at Santiniketan or Abode of Peace, found out to her dismay that it was no longer an abode of peace but of Hindutvic intolerance. 

The student, Afsara Anika Meem, was asked to leave India for “anti-government” activities, by India’s external affairs ministry earlier in February this year. Meem’s “crime” was that she had shared pictures on Facebook of the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests that were held at the Visva Bharati campus last December.

A string of spontaneous protests had swept India against the CAA which was passed by the Indian parliament in December 2019. While the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government said that it will provide citizenship to minorities from three Muslim-majority countries-Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, critics said it is a way of discriminating against Muslims.

Meem, a First Year student at the University’s Shilpa Sadan, who hails from Kushtia in Bangladesh, had come to study in Visva-Bharati in late 2018. She had not participated in the demonstrations but had merely posted pictures. 

Hounded by the right-wing students’ organization, Meem, made a quiet exit from the university and returned to Bangladesh in July this year.

Tagore may never have imagined while penning the verse quoted above that almost a century later, a Vice Chancellor of the institute he had established, would build a wall around Santiniketan. The university authority unilaterally decided to scrap two of the most popular and biggest century-old cultural extravaganzas at Santiniketan–the Poush Mela (a winter fair) and the Basanta Utsab (a spring festival of colours). The university’s decision snowballed into a political slugfest that sent shockwave through Bengal, given the importance of the two fairs in West Bengal’s cultural calendar.

The Vice Chancellor’s directive to construct a concrete wall around the fairground ignited the fire of a simmering controversy that is accelerating the decline of the university which once had Indira Gandhi, the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and film maker Satyajit Ray on its rolls.

The Poush Mela has been a site for social and cultural interaction for decades, say students and other stakeholders at Santiniketan. It also attracts thousands of visitors from across the globe, including former students eager to return “home” to pay homage to Gurudev.

Like scores of alumni, former and present faculty and staff—a large number of whom were born and brought up in Santiniketan and who are known as ashramik (members of the ashram) are piqued by the actions of the current Vice Chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty.

Chakrabarty, since his appointment in late 2018, has not only courted controversy but is trying to introduce “ideological changes” they allege. The VC is trying to undermineTagore’s ideas on which Santiniketan is based.

“The VC, who panders to the Hindu right’s ideology, has an agenda to gradually erode Tagore’s ideals,” a former senior professor told South Asian Monitor.

The university’s position under the Indian government’s National Institution Ranking Framework (NIRF) has been steadily sliding. It’s NIRF ranking has slipped 13 notches to 50th, from the 37th position. The Visva Bharati University is gradually slipping into an abyss of decadence. The Hindu right groups in it and outside are against Tagore’s concepts as these are critical of the ‘nationalism’ espoused by the Hindutva brigade in today’s India.

Falguni Pan, a spokesperson of the Visva Bharati Students Unity said: “The university unilaterally increased students’ admission fees to Rs 1,000 from Rs 500 for Indian students, to Rs 5, 000 from Rs 500 for students from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Corporation) countries and to Rs 10,000 up from Rs 1,000 for non-SAARC countries. Furthermore, academic activities are totally neglected in the campus.”

Alluding to allegations that the VC was promoting “saffronization of the campus'', Pan rattled off the “chronology” of events that proved his saffronizing mission. The VC’s decisions and actions seemed to be part of a broader agenda, he added.

On Republic Day this year, a second-year undergraduate student of modern history Bijju Sarkar was expelled from the hostel for shooting and circulating a video of a speech by the vice-chancellor. In the video clip the VC was heard saying: “Those opposing the CAA are reading out the Preamble (of the Indian Constitution). But this Constitution was adopted with minority votes. 293 persons created it sitting in the Constituent Assembly.”

He was further heard saying: “The Preamble has turned into a Veda. But if we, the voters who elect the Parliament, dislike it, we will change it.” 

During the demonstrations against the CAA, a video showed the VC encouraging attacks on protesting students, says the Student Unity spokesperson.“The VC is heard in the video telling a group of ‘goons’ known on the campus as the ‘bike bahini’ or ‘bicycle army’, to attack the protesters. There are many more instances that clearly point at the VC’s and his administration’s inclination towards a particular political ideology which is inimical to Tagore’s ideals of humanism,” Pan said.

There seems to be a concerted move to strip the centenary celebrations of Tagore’s spirit of inclusiveness. Hence, the decision to ban the Poush Mela and Basanta Utsav, writes lawyer and human rights activist Aurobindo Ghose.

“The Poush Mela has been a site for social and cultural interaction for decades. It also attracts thousands of visitors from across the globe, including former students eager to return home to pay homage to Gurudev,” Ghose wrote, arguing that the Visva Bharati University’s decision to scrap the century-old winter and spring festivals was “disturbing”.

“Take out the Basanta Utsav and Poush Mela from Visva-Bharati, and it will become unrecognizable,” Ghose wrote. The rights activist rubbishes the VC’s contention the federally funded Central varsity is “ill-equipped” to hold these festivals.

Chakrabarty had termed the spring festival “BasantaTandav” (spring calamity). It coincides with Holi, the festival of colors. The university’s highest decision-making body had decided to scrap the festival. The Poush Mela too has been discontinued without consulting the Santiniketan Trust, the body officially authorized to organize the fair.

The winter fair commences on the 7th day of Bengali month of Poush (December-January) and lasts for six days, providing a forum for local residents-many of who are tribal people-to showcase and sell their unique handicrafts, handloom materials, locally-made toys and foods. Another key attraction of the fair is the live performances of Bengali folk music, such as Baul, Kirtan and Kabigan.

“The VC maintains that the campus is incapable of holding this event because of its inaccessibility. He also contends that the Mela leads to overcrowding and pollution. However, the Poush Mela’s more than 100-year-old history is a testament to the organizing committee’s acumen in resolving such problems,” Ghose argued.

It’s no coincidence that the Visva-Bharati’s traditions are being undermined at a time when the RSS-affiliated Shiksha SanskritiUtthanNyas headed by Dinanath Batra, has publicly demanded that Tagore’s thoughts - particularly those related to nationalism, the division between religion and humanity, and the limits to patriotism - be expunged from NCERT textbooks, Ghose pointed out.

The NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) publishes textbook for students of India’s Central Board of Secondary Education.

Tagore envisaged the annual event as a bridge for the varsity’s socio, economic and cultural interactions with its neighboring tribal villages. Tagore adopted more than 50 villages around Santiniketan. Over the past decade, Bolpur’s economy has received a boost from what residents call “Tagore tourism”.

The town has become a popular weekend getaway for the residents of Kolkata-many of whom have a second residence on the periphery of the town-which is a four-hour drive away.

Santiniketan, which is on the UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites, has scores of handicraft stores. Home-stays mushroomed to cater to people who came for the Poush Mela and BasantaUtsab.