On January 7, 2021, Visva-Bharati University (VBU) suspended professor Sudipta Bhattacharyya, in apparent retaliation for expression critical of the university administration.
Bhattacharyya is a professor of economics who has taught at VBU since 2001. He is also the president of the Visva-Bharati University Faculty Association.
The suspension order was reportedly based on allegations that Bhattacharyyaa “ma[de] derogatory remarks” and “circulat[ed] a complaint against a colleague.” Sources indicate that these allegations relate to expression by Bhattacharyaa on two separate matters.
The first appears to connect to a written complaint about another professor’s hiring that Bhattacharyya had sent to the vice-chancellor (VC) as well as government officials, including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also serves as chancellor of VBU. Bhattacharyya’s complaint reportedly focused on alleged irregularities in the professor’s appointment. The professor in question reportedly countered with their own complaint.
The second matter appears to connect to emails from Bhattacharyya to Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. Bhattacharyya wrote to Sen asking him to clarify a phone call that VBU’s VC claimed to have had with him. The VC allegedly described the call during a virtual faculty meeting, claiming that Sen made comments suggesting that he knowingly occupied university land. Around that same time, the university was apparently disputing or preparing to dispute land claims in the university’s environs, including plots of land that had been leased and bought by Sen’s family. Sen, who is based in the United States, at Harvard University, publicly denied that the phone call occurred and described VC’s comments as “tantalisingly untrue.” Reports of Sen’s comments regarding the VC’s allegations were widely circulated and were apparently a point of considerable embarrassment for the VC and the university administration.
News of the suspension order prompted students protests and a petition signed by more than five hundred academics. Bhattacharyya is reportedly planning to challenge the suspension order in court.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary suspension of a scholar in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to academic freedom — a right that is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. University authorities should refrain from using disciplinary measures to restrict or punish such conduct, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate individual, suspensions intended to retaliate against nonviolent expression undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.