Professor Bidyut Chakrabarty has been at the centre of recurring controversies ever since he assumed the Vice Chancellor's post at the Visva-Bharati university in October 2018.
Over the past five years, the reputable university founded by Rabindranath Tagore has hurtled from one squabble and strife to another.
A former professor of political science at Delhi University, Chakrabarty has crossed swords with students, faculty members, non-teaching staff, Ashramites (long-time residents of Santiniketan who, or whose parents, were associates of Tagore), and the state government, among others.
The Vice Chancellor, an appointee of the Union government, has been blamed often for wading into unnecessary rows that have tarnished the fair name of the varsity.
The latest is the row over the three plaques installed by the varsity authorities in the sylvan campus to commemorate the UNESCO’s inclusion of Santiniketan in the 'World Heritage Sites' list.
The authorities installed three plaques commemorating the significant development. However, the plaques left out the name of the university’s founder, Rabindranath Tagore, and carried the names of only the Acharya (Chancellor), Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Upacharya (Vice Chancellor) Bidyut Chakrabarty.
According to Visva-Bharati statutes, the President of India is the university’s ex-officio Paridarshak (Visitor), while the Prime Minister is the ex-officio Acharya and the Bengal Governor the ex-officio Pradhana (Rector).
The omission of Tagore's name sparked a row, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee demanding that the marble plaques be removed and new ones featuring Tagore’s name be installed.
The Trinamool Congress launched an agitation, still underway, in support of this demand.
Many others, including Visva-Bharati teachers, students, employees, and Ashramites, as well as the social and cultural organisations of the state, have criticised the exclusion of Tagore’s name from the plaques.
The Chief Minister posted on X: “Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore created a world heritage site (now recognised by UNESCO) at Santiniketan - Visva Bharati, but the current institutional authorities there have arranged site memorial plaques on this occasion which display even the Vice Chancellor's name but not the name of Gurudev.
“This insults Tagore and belittles the anti-colonial heritage-creating efforts of our Nation's founding fathers. The central government will be well advised to remove this narcissistic display of arrogant self-exhibitionism forthwith and to give Gurudev the tribute that the country owes to him."
In response, Chakrabarty penned a scathing letter to the Chief Minister in which he said that “a plaque retaining UNESCO's declaration of Santiniketan as a world heritage site and in adherence to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guidelines” is underway and will be installed in place of the existing plaques.
The Vice Chancellor went on to make political comments and accusations in his letter, and, in doing so, crossed a red line.
This has led to more outrage not only against Chakrabarty, but also against the Union government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Vice Chancellor’s frequent disputes with local authorities, Ashramites, faculty members, students, and others have triggered a sense of acute antipathy among Bengalis, especially the "bhadralok" class (genteel, educated middle-class), towards the often combative Chakrabarty.
And that antipathy has started affecting the BJP, as well. That is because Chakrabarty is an appointee of the Union government and is perceived to enjoy the patronage of the saffron party.
The BJP has been trying to woo the Bengali middle class, and Chakrabarty’s actions and conduct have not gone down well with most Bengalis.
“Chakrabarty has come to be closely identified, by default, with the BJP. That’s because his disputes with faculty members, the state administration, and Ashramites — the most prominent among them being Amartya Sen — was perceived to have the blessings of the BJP-led central government.
"The plaques which mentioned (Prime Minister) Modi’s name but left out Tagore’s was perceived to be a blatant attempt by the Vice Chancellor to please the BJP. That has hurt Bengali sentiments,” said sociologist Ratnadeep Gupta.
Realising this sentiment, the Bengal BJP is trying to dissociate itself from the Vice Chancellor.
Leader of Opposition and senior BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari came down heavily on Chakrabarty and urged him to set aside his ego and correct the mistake of omitting Tagore’s name from the plaques.
“I saw (the pictures of) the plaques and the Vice Chancellor should not have let his ego get in the way of correcting those, with the name of Tagore. As Indians and people of Bengal, we have sentiments and emotions about our respected personalities like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Swami Vivekananda, and Rabindranath Tagore,” Adhikari told reporters.
“There should be no controversy over this issue as the subject is to acknowledge Rabindranath Tagore. If the Vice Chancellor made the mistake, he cannot be stubborn about this. He should set his ego aside,” the BJP leader added.
BJP national general secretary Anupam Hazra, an alumnus and former teacher of Visva-Bharati, was more critical.
“Whatever Bidyut Chakrabarty is doing as the Vice Chancellor of the university is wrong. He is trying to project himself as more BJP than any BJP leader, and in this effort, he is harming the party,” Hazra said last week.
He added: “The Prime Minister is the Chancellor of Visva-Bharati university. And Bidyut Chakrabarty is the VC (Vice Chancellor). There is a perception that he has the approval of the top brass of the Union government and the party for all his misdeeds. He has stopped famous festivals that were part of Visva-Bharati's heritage."
Hazra said Chakrabarty’s actions have created a false perception that he has the blessings of the BJP. This perception, he said, needs to be corrected immediately.
Professor Chakrabarty’s tenure as Upacharya of Visva-Bharati ends on 8 November. "Maybe to get an extension, he is trying to project himself as an ardent BJP leader," said Hazra.
This feeling was echoed by many others, including faculty members and Ashramites. “The Upacharya’s actions seem to be aimed at getting an extension,” said Tagore scholar and well-known Visva-Bharati alumnus Supriya Majumder.
The Union government should take note of these sentiments and not only refuse to grant an extension to Chakrabarty, but also remove him from his post before his term comes to an end.
By doing so, the BJP will demonstrate to the people of Bengal that Chakrabarty’s controversial actions don’t have the BJP’s blessings.
This message needs to go out loud and clear to the people of Bengal, especially the middle-class Bengalis that the BJP is so desperately wooing.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!