Late last Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Delighted that Santiniketan, an embodiment of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s vision and India’s rich cultural heritage, has been inscribed on the @UNESCO World Heritage List. This is a proud moment for all Indians.”
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee followed minutes later. She tweeted her delight and added: “We from the Government of West Bengal have significantly added to its infrastructure in the last 12 years and the world now recognizes the glory of the heritage place.”
Immediately afterwards, protests came from people like Vice-Chancellor of Visva Bharati, Bidyut Chakraborty, and Dr Anupam Hazra, BJP’s national secretary, who is a former professor of Visva Bharati, who criticised Mamata Banerjee’s attempts to appropriate credit in her tweet.
The actual situation is very different at Santiniketan which houses Visva Bharati, the only national university in West Bengal, which was set up by Rabindranath Tagore at Bolpur in Birbhum district.
Santiniketan, a sylvan abode Tagore created over a century ago as a melting pot of global ideas, is now in the news for the pulls and pressures between the Visva Bharati University authorities under the Central Government and Mamata Banerjee and those part of her Trinamool Congress.
Insiders say that in the past 12 years, Mamata’s Trinamool Congress has systematically assailed Tagore’s legacy and creation. She has even announced the establishment of Biswa Bangla university at Bolpur, to be situated just outside the precincts of the original campus, to compete with the national university.
She also came out in support of economist Amartya Sen when Visva Bharati claimed that the Nobel Laureate had encroached upon the university’s land. Trinamool’s regional satrap, Anubrata Mondal, who enjoyed Mamata’s total confidence, was instrumental in masterminding the attacks on the heritage university. Mondal is in jail now as an accused in many scams, like cattle smuggling, coal scam, sand smuggling, etc., that have come up in the past 12 years.
In August 2020, under Mondal’s leadership, TMC gangs had attacked the heritage institution and had even demolished a heritage gate with a JCB machine in full view of television cameras. Mamata Banerjee had maintained a loud silence when the university was under attack.
Visva Bharati Vice-Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty told The Sunday Guardian: “With the UNESCO recognition, the university and the Central government are not the only stakeholders in the Santiniketan World Heritage Site from now, since the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) also has a stake in it.”
“They have laid down some conditions which we have to follow. One of them is to protect the Ashram area with its open-air classrooms and hostels which means no new structure can come up there. Secondly, we have to maintain the existing structures,” Chakraborty said.
“Thirdly, we have to reduce the tourist flow to the campus as the presence of a large number of people in the Ashram area will have an impact on the fragile buildings. If we reduce the tourist flow, we will have to adopt a new mechanism so that people can see the heritage. We cannot allow tourist activities in every heritage property or those which are in a fragile condition. We have identified such places and have taken the approval of ICOMOS,” he said.
“Our heritage committee will comprise experts and members from ICOMOS. We are yet to receive the official document from UNESCO. Once we get it, we will understand to what extent things will be managed in this regard,” Chakraborty added.
With a team from UNESCO and ICOMOS slated to visit the university within three months, the University authorities are planning steps that should be initiated and how they will be implemented. Since the World Heritage tag has not been bestowed upon the Visva-Bharati University, but on the historical significance of Santiniketan where it is located, it will be expensive to maintain such a large area, university officials feel. “The ideal situation should have been that the Centre and the state government should take the joint responsibility to look into these aspects and promote the place for a wider audience,” said Bidyut Chakraborty. “But the problem is Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is more destructive than constructive. Over the past 12 years, she and her cohorts have always tried to damage Gurudev’s legacy,” he added.
“When I came here as the Vice-Chancellor, I had no idea about the kind of practices prevalent on the campus. I don’t want to go into the details but I can say that outside forces had established control over the university and its properties.
There was also the issue of encroachment of university properties. There was negligence on the part of a section of teachers in taking classes. The atmosphere of learning was compromised. I had to undertake a series of steps to restore normalcy like issuing show-cause notices to teachers and staff, issuing suspension orders and enforcing restrictions on entry to heritage complexes. For that, I have been painted as a villain. My only fault was that I tried to clean up the mess. If you use a stick then you will face the people’s wrath. I actually tried to put an end to it,” rued Chakraborty.
Already some of the heritage sites associated with the Nobel Laureate are in fragile condition and the Archaeological Survey of India has taken charge. The famed houses are in danger of collapse and have been made out of bounds for tourists who stream into the town in their thousands every weekend.
On its part, the ruling Trinamool Congress has sent out a message that it is trying hard to safeguard the heritage of Bengal’s greatest cultural icon from the BJP that seeks to trample on Bengali sensitivities—and that the BJP wants to take charge of Santiniketan.
With battle-lines clearly drawn, at stake is not only the heritage precincts of the Visva Bharati complex, but also the ethos behind it.