The administrators of Visva-Bharati University, which is a Central University and an Institute of National Importance located in Santiniketan (West Bengal), had shared a list of unauthorised occupants of land in the University campus to the West Bengal government. Amartya Sen’s name was one among several in that list of illegal plot holders.
Visva-Bharati University (VBU) was founded by Rabindranath Tagore in the year 1921. The current campus is situated in the twin towns of Santiniketan and Sriniketan. The campus was built on the land that was given to Devendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore. During its formative years, Rabindranath Tagore and later his son Rathindranath Tagore gave away lands to eminent personalities on a 99-year lease, in exchange for their artistic and monetary contribution to the development of the Santiniketan Ashram and surrounding areas.
Amartya Sen’s maternal grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen (an eminent scholar and a close associate of Rabindranath Tagore) was among several who were given the land on lease. Amartya Sen’s father Ashutosh Sen had built a house on that land and called it ‘Pratichi’. Later, Ashutosh Sen bought some additional free-hold land surrounding that property. Amartya Sen, whose name was given by Rabindranath Tagore, grew up in ‘Pratichi’ during his childhood.
Although the lands belonging to VBU were given on lease to Ashramites (people involved in the establishment of the Santiniketan Ashram), several holders of the lands gave them away to others illegally after the deaths of Rabindranath Tagore and his son. This led to a lot of illegal encroachments on the property. The University has been trying to evict the illegal encroachers over the past few years.
It all started when it was reported that Amartya Sen had spoken to the Vice Chancellor of VBU Vidyut Chakraborty in June 2019 and asked him to not evict the hawkers in his Santiniketan Ashram. The VC alleged that Amartya Sen introduced himself as ‘Bharat Ratna Amartya Sen’ during the call and that he did not want to help the hawkers in the event of their eviction.
A spokesperson for VBU spoke to Times of India and said, “The VC received the call. Prof. Sen started criticising and questioning the VC for demolishing the illegal shops that had mushroomed along the road on which Pratichi was located. He insisted these shops had been there since the days of Tagore and they were part of VB. He illustrated the convenience of having these shops around by giving the example of how he could easily buy vegetables or get his daughter’s cycle’s flat tyre fixed. The VC was subject to this kind of criticism because the administration had, under him, recovered the university’s rightful land by removing illegal businesses.”
The VBU administration also accused Amartya Sen of being an illegal occupant of a portion of the university land. According to VBU, apart from the legally given 125 decimals of land (1.25 acre) by the university to his father, Amartya Sen also occupied an additional 13 decimals of land (0.13 acre) illegally.
Amartya Sen’s rebuttal:
Refuting all the charges, Amartya Sen noted that he had never called the Vice Chancellor of BHU regarding the eviction of hawkers. He wrote, “I was not in India at all in June 2019. I am extremely rarely in India in June. I prefer to come only after the monsoon settles in — so it tends to be July, not June. On your other question, I have talked with the present V-C of Visva-Bharati only once, to the best of my knowledge. This was a few years ago when he was chairing a meeting for the release of a book by Pranab Bardhan. His claim that we have talked on the phone and I introduced myself as Bharat Ratna is tantalisingly untrue.”
He further stated, “On June 2, 2019, I was in France, attending a meeting in Paris. On June 14, 2019, I was in America, at our home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After that I was in England, in the English Cambridge. I came [to India] on the 3rd of July, and went to Delhi first, and then Calcutta and Santiniketan. I was not in India at all in June 2019.”
Regarding accusations of unlawful occupation of land, Amartya Sen wrote an email to the Times of India, in which he said, “The Visva-Bharati land on which our house is situated is on a long-term lease, which is nowhere near its expiry, but the vice-chancellor can always dream about evicting anyone he wants.”
The lawyers of Amartya Sen have sent a legal notice to the VC of VBU. In the notice, they wrote that the allegations are “completely false” and asked the administration to produce documentary evidence to justify their statements.
This controversy over Amartya Sen’s Santiniketan property has led to a war of words between political parties in West Bengal. While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (of Trinamool Congress) extended her support to Amartya Sen’s ‘just war on intolerance and totalitarianism’, the Bharatiya Janata Party accused Amartya Sen as a ‘land grabber’. Read the stories here and here.