Row over Sen’s home keeps sleepy Bengal varsity town on edge | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Row over Sen’s home keeps sleepy Bengal varsity town on edge

By, Kolkata
May 02, 2023 01:36 PM IST

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is facing eviction from his ancestral home in Santiniketan, West Bengal, over allegations of illegal occupation of public land.

Standing at the far end of a plot of land covered by trees and potted plants, the two-storey house appeared submerged in peace and silence on a sweltering April afternoon in Santiniketan until a policeman emerged from a tent pitched under a mango tree.

Visva-Bharati has accused Sen of illegally occupying 13 decimals of the 1.38 acres covered by his house ‘Pratichi’. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Visva-Bharati has accused Sen of illegally occupying 13 decimals of the 1.38 acres covered by his house ‘Pratichi’. (HT Photo)

“Sir, nobody can step on this land in the absence of Prof Amartya Sen. Santiniketan police station has set up this camp to ensure that. You may see the house from the main road and even take photos. But you can’t cross the gate,” the policeman said, politely asking this correspondent to backtrack.

The house, around 40m away from the mango tree, seemed to be asking for some repairs and a coat of paint. The only soul visible was a middle-aged woman sitting on the open porch in a pale sari. “She is one of two employees who look after the house when Prof Sen is in America,” the policeman said.

Some tourists had already gathered outside the 3-ft tall iron gate to take selfies with ‘Pratichi’, the house built on leasehold land by Sen’s father in the 1940s. With only a rusted wire fence serving as the boundary, virtually every inch of the land is visible to outsiders.

“‘Pratichi’ is attracting visitors ever since the land dispute made headlines,” quipped Ramen Das, the e-rickshaw driver who had ferried tourists from a local hotel.

Sen became a celebrity after receiving the Nobel prize for economics in 1998 and the Bharat Ratna the following year. The current curiosity among commoners is driven by quite different reasons.

An alumnus from Patha Bhaban, the school at Santiniketan, 89-year-old Sen has been accused by Visva-Bharati of illegally occupying 13 decimals of the 1.38 acres covered by the property. The university passed an eviction order on April 19, stating that it would take possession of the 13 decimals, or 5,550 sq ft, on May 6 unless Sen vacates it voluntarily.

The state’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) has alleged that its prime adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is trying to teach Sen a lesson for criticising certain actions of the central government. Sen shared this view during his last stay at ‘Pratichi’ earlier this year.

“There is politics behind this. I am a target because I voice my views on a secular India where Hindus and Muslims should live in peace, what Gandhi and Nehru wanted,” Sen said before returning to the US, where he spends most of his time, in February.

On January 30, chief minister Mamata Banerjee met Sen at ‘Pratichi’ and handed over a state land and revenue department record showing that all the 1.38 acres covered by the property belong to him through a mutation executed in 2006.

Challenging the document, Visva-Bharati went ahead with the eviction procedure against which Sen’s lawyers filed a petition before the Siuri court in Birbhum on April 27.

Gorachand Chakraborty, Sen’s lawyer, said, “Our petition has been listed for hearing on May 15. Since Visva-Bharati wants to occupy the land on May 6, we have appealed to the Siuri court to assign an earlier date.”

Based on Chakraborty’s appeal, the executive magistrate of Bolpur earlier issued an order under Section 145 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) asking the local police to maintain peace and order at ‘Pratichi’.

Sen’s supporters allege that the eviction move is the brainchild of Visva-Bharati vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty whose tenure since 2018 has been marked by unprecedented agitations and court cases in the wake of suspension of several teachers and students on disciplinary grounds. The university also had a faceoff with local traders and artisans over holding the annual fair, Pous Mela, on Visva-Bharati grounds in 2020.

“Chakrabarty has done more damage than good to the BJP. All his actions have antagonised educated voters across Bengal,” said Subrata Bhakat, treasurer of the Bolpur Byabsayi Samity (traders’ association).

In pursuit of ascetisism

A philosopher and one of the founders of the Brahmo religion, Debendranath Tagore moved from Kolkata to Birbhum in 1863 to pursue an ascetic life. Records say that he took around 20 acres of land at Bhubandanga on permanent lease from a landlord. He built a house and named it Santiniketan (abode of peace). The entire area subsequently adopted the name. In 1888, Debendranath formed the Santiniketan Trust which, to this day, is the custodian of 15.3 acres in the core area of the campus.

Rabindranath Tagore, who never underwent institutionalised education as a child, moved to Santiniketan around 1900, five years before his father’s death. He envisioned a unique seat of learning for students from across the globe. Patha Bhaban developed as a model campus where young pupils attended classes in the midst of nature and followed the principles of ashram life.

Visva-Bharati, a similarly designed multidisciplinary campus for seniors, came up in 1921. It was declared a central university through an Act passed by Parliament in 1951, ten years before Tagore died. His son, Rathindranath, became the first vice-vice chancellor in 1951.

Theatre activist Subir Bandopadhyay, 71, whose father Prabhat Bandopadhyay was an art teacher at Santiniketan, said Tagore and his son both wanted talented people from all over to permanently settle down at Santiniketan and live like residents of a huge ashram.

Bandopadhyay said: “Nandalal Bose, who headed Kala Bhawan, the school of art, wanted a colony of painters and sculptors. My father came from Kolkata in 1923 and bought 1.65 acres of land. Bose bought land and so did singer Shantideb Ghosh. Many people took land on lease.”

“Tagore wanted an alternative way of life to develop. He was afraid that bureaucracy might ruin his ideas. Today, you will find gates and boundary walls. Tagore never wanted walls in Santiniketan,” said Bandopadhyay, who used to work for the state agricultural department.

Question of ‘public land’

In 2022, vice-chancellor Chakrabarty claimed that the economist’s father, Ashutosh Sen, who was a development commissioner in Delhi and who also served as chairman of the West Bengal Public Service Commission, rented only 1.25 acres on a 99-year lease in 1943.

Ashutosh Sen married Amita Sen, the daughter of Kshitimohan Sen, a noted scholar and close associate of Rabindranath Tagore. Kshitimohan Sen was the second vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati. Amartya Sen was born at Santiniketan.

Three eviction letters were sent to Amartya Sen since January 24, 2023, and the first eviction notice was issued on March 17. Sen neither replied to the letters and the notice nor appeared in person for the hearings during his stay at Santiniketan earlier this year. Instead of moving court, he sent his lawyers to the university hearings.

The April 19 eviction order was passed by the varsity’s joint registrar and estate officer, AK Mahato, under the Public Premises (Eviction and Unauthorised Occupants) Act, 1971.

Accusing Sen of occupying public land, the eviction order said: “There are directives/advisories from the Gov’t of India/ West Bengal, reports of the expert committees on security and maintenance of assets of Visva-Bharati, and the CAG’s audit observations regarding the necessity and urgency of removing unauthorized occupation or encroachment from the public premises of Visva-Bharati.”

The order said: “Now, the question is which portion covering 13 decimals area in the scheduled public premises may be recovered from Sri Sen. Plots on the west and east sides of the premises are owned by Visva-Bharati. On northern side we have the PWD road. On the southern side, Sri Sen and his family own their private lands. Sri Sen could have participated in joint survey/hearing etc. and indicated his choice.”

“In the absence of such choice, on study of survey reports prepared by estate office in 2006 and considering the fact that Sri Sen’s access to his ancestral house should not be disturbed, it is decided that 13 decimals of land having the dimension of 50 ft. x 111 ft. in the north-west corner of the scheduled premises is to be recovered from him,” the order said.

In reply to the final eviction notice issued by Mahato on April 13, Sen on April 17 wrote: “I am the holder of the land, and it was passed on to me after the death of my parents, Ashutosh Sen and Amita Sen. They also purchased other land in close proximity to the leased land.”

“The use of the land has remained the same over this long period (in fact 80 years). Any contrary claim to this leased land before the expiry of the lease cannot stand,” Sen wrote.

Allegations fly thick and fast

Amartya Sen’s 71-year-old cousin, Shantabhanu Sen, whose father and Amita Sen were siblings, lives on a similar plot of land right next to ‘Pratichi’.

“In 1946, three years after Ashutosh Sen took his land on lease, our grandfather Kshitimohan Sen acquired this plot on similar terms. However, we have not faced any problem so far,” said Shantabhanu Sen, who studied economics at Visva-Bharati and now works for Pratichi Trust that the Nobel laurate has set up at Santiniketan’s Andrews Palli.

“The vice-chancellor is trying to harass Amartya Sen,” he alleged.

Supriyo Tagore, the great grandson of Rabindranath’s brother Satyendranath Tagore, who was the first Indian to become an Indian Civil Service officer in 1864, said, “An attempt is on to wipe out Rabindranath’s legacy from Santiniketan.”

“Whoever speaks against the vice-chancellor is suspended. He could not have done this without the Centre’s support,” the veteran, who spent around half a century on campus as a student and teacher, said.

He said: “The chief minister came to help Amartya Sen because of his stature. What can a state do against a central university? It seems Amartya da (elder brother) is facing the repercussions of what he said against the Centre.”

Anil Konar, 76, secretary of the Santiniketan Trust set up by Tagore’s father, is a former student and administrative officer of the institution.

Konar said: “Except for the trust’s 15.3 acres which cannot be sold or transferred according to Debendranath Tagore’s deed, all the land belongs to the central government since 1951. It is possible that Amartya Sen’s family unknowingly fenced 13 decimals in addition to the 1.25 acres.”

“Sen could have shown a good gesture by giving the land back. Similarly, Visva-Bharati could have settled the dispute amicably or ignored the matter altogether. Not every issue can be dragged into politics. Even the chief minister should not have made political statements,” said Konar.

The vice-chancellor refused to talk to HT on the land dispute despite repeated requests.

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