Visva-Bharati Land Row: This Is Why Amartya Sen, Far From Being Wronged, Is Actually In The Wrong

Visva-Bharati Land Row: This Is Why Amartya Sen, Far From Being Wronged, Is Actually In The WrongAmartya Sen.
Snapshot
  • Amartya Sen’s decision to disparage Visva-Bharati University vice chancellor, after being accused of encroaching on varsity land, rather than wait for investigation to take its course is questionable.

A major row has erupted in Bengal after the Visva-Bharati University (VBU), founded by Rabindranath Tagore in December 1921, reportedly named economist Amartya Sen for having encroached on varsity land.

The varsity authorities had reportedly written to the state government stating that many parcels of land owned by Visva-Bharati had been recorded wrongly in the name of many people, including Sen.

The media reported the VBU’s communication to the state government last Thursday (23 December), the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the centenary celebrations of the varsity.

The media reported that the VBU administration had complained that many of the people had encroached on land belonging to the university and had also opened commercial enterprises like hotels, shops and restaurants as well as private schools and coaching centres on such land.

According to the media reports, the VBU authorities have said that while 125 decimals of land (one decimal=436 square feet, or 40.5 square metre) was originally leased to Sen’s maternal grandfather Kshitimohan Sen by the varsity, the economist now occupies 138 decimals of land.

Hence, contends the VBU authorities, Sen occupies 13 decimals of land (5,668 square feet or 526.5 square metres) that belongs to the university, illegally.

The VBU administration holds that the 13 decimals had been wrongly registered in Sen’s name, and has requested the state government to investigate the matter through its land records office.

Kshitimohan Sen, a renowned Sanskrit scholar, was invited by Tagore to Santiniketan in 1908 and he played a key role in setting up the VBU.

Like many other associates of Tagore, Kshitimohan Sen was also given land belonging to the varsity on long lease as reward for his services. The varsity charged a token amount from such eminent people as lease amount.

Kshitimohan Sen, like other lessees, constructed a large bungalow on the sprawling plot of land. Amartya Sen’s mother inherited the property and it passed on to him later.

Amartya Sen says in his defence that his father Ashutosh Sen, a professor of chemistry at Dhaka University who later became the chairman of the West Bengal Public Service Commission, had bought some additional freehold land adjoining the plot leased out to his grandfather by the VBU.

This freehold land that falls in Surul mouza of Bolpur subdivision of Birbhum district was duly registered with the land records office, says Amartya Sen.

Amartya Sen may well be right and the VBU administration wrong. But that is a matter to be decided through a proper investigation by the state land records officials.

It would have been proper for an eminent person like Sen to simply put forward his version and await the outcome of the investigation that has been requested by the VBU administration.

Instead, Sen issued a statement full of vitriol against the present VBU Vice Chancellor Bidyut Chakraborty who is also an accomplished academic.

Sen’s disparaging comments against Chakraborty, who was a professor of political science in Delhi University and obtained his PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science, was in extremely bad taste.

Sen told a local English daily: “Having been born and brought up in Santiniketan, I could comment on the big gap between Santiniketan culture and that of the VC, empowered as he is by the central government in Delhi, with its growing control over Bengal”.

It must be remembered here that the VBU administration has not issued any statement regarding this issue, nor has any VBU official gone on record on this matter.

To issue statements and make disparaging politically-laced comments based on media reports is not only improper and immature, but also smacks of intolerance.

Sen is well within his rights to position himself as a trenchant critic of the BJP, but to accuse the Vice Chancellor — a fellow academic — of kowtowing to a political party is grossly wrong and callow.

There was no need to bring in any politics into this and Sen could have simply issued a clarification stating his contention.

Instead, by suggesting that the VBU Vice Chancellor was acting at the behest of the central government and adding that the Centre was trying to tighten its grip over Bengal, Amartya Sen was being unfair.

Sen was clearly speaking the same language as Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee who has been accusing New Delhi of trying to exercise undue control over the state administration in violation of the spirit of federalism.

It is evident that by adopting an anti-Centre stance, even though it was completely unnecessary, Sen was looking to Banerjee for support.

And things played out exactly according to Sen’s script with Banerjee issuing a statement in Sen’s support and even writing to him “as a sister”.

Banerjee quickly launched a tirade against the BJP accusing the saffron party of “insulting Bengal’s icons” (like Amartya Sen).

It was of little consequence to Banerjee or Sen that the BJP had nothing to do with the matter. Banerjee also got her pet ‘intellectuals’ to express solidarity with Sen and criticise the BJP and the Union government.

In what can be nothing but a staged drama, Sen wrote a gushing letter to Banerjee on Sunday (27 December) thanking her for being a “tremendous source of strength”.

Amartya Sen crossed swords with Chakraborty early this month as well. At a meeting with the university faculty on 9 December during which the issue of illegal encroachments by traders and vendors on varsity land was being discussed, Chakraborty said that Amartya Sen had called him up and requested him not to evict hawkers from the vicinity of Sen’s house (named Pratichi).

Sen got to know about Chakraborty’s allegations, he issued a statement flatly denying that he made a call. And, then, unnecessarily went on to attack the VBU and its Vice Chancellor.

“Visva-Bharati often interferes too much with the normal life of ordinary people, of which setting up walls to interfere with ways and passages of people is a good example,” said Sen, dubbing Chakraborty’s statements as “absurd”.

Sen was referring to VBU’s move to construct boundary walls and fences to demarcate its properties which has been severely encroached upon over the last many decades.

Sen is no stranger to controversy. As chancellor of the fledgling Nalanda University, he was accused of making controversial appointments and mismanagement (read this and this).

The latest land row has raised questions over the propriety of Amartya Sen continuing to occupy a large bungalow on sprawling grounds far away from his place of work at Harvard University.

Sen visits Santiniketan just about twice a year for short periods. “The land was leased for 99 years for a token sum to his maternal grandfather who was instrumental in establishing the VBU. Even though the lease period has not expired, it would have been in the fitness of things for Sen to surrender the land since he does not stay in Santiniketan. He could have requested the VBU authorities to set up a centre at ‘Pratichi’ (his house) in the name of his maternal grandfather,” said a senior faculty member of VBU.

The faculty member, who did not wish to be named, said Sen and many others who stay on lands leased to them by the VBU (they call themselves ‘ashramites’) exert a lot of undue influence on the varsity administration.

Amartya Sen was the recipient of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 1988 (and NOT the Nobel prize in economics, as is commonly and mistakenly propagated).

“However, he frequently and deliberately refers to himself as a Nobel laureate when he is not one. And he does not discourage others from referring to him as such. That provides an inkling to his character,” said another  long-time associate of VBU who has known Sen since the latter’s childhood.

Sen is reportedly close to Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, and had termed Narendra Modi as an ‘unsuitable’ prime ministerial candidate before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Since then, he has been criticising Modi and the BJP relentlessly and has often parroted the Congress line.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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