Whether or not the theft of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel medallion on 25 March 2004 is a national disgrace may be a matter of subjective reflection. Of far greater concern is the reality, specifically that for the past 18 years, Visva-Bharati has been floundering in search of its moorings. The ceremonial chanting of the theme song, Amader Santi-niketan, sounds hollow in context.
The short point must be that if such was the muck, it should be raked as was done by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Tagore’s 161st birth anniversary on 9 May. The confusion over Santiniketan’s identity has been made worse confounded. Central to the dilemma must be the failure to strike the right balance between change and continuity. The first has translated itself to a certain lumpenisation of development in areas that long ago ought to have been declared as heritage zones; the second is arguably symbolized by the manual bell installed in preference to a closed-circuit TV..
Though the state government has at best a tangential interest in a Central university, callous indifference on the part of the university authorities alone accounts for the detection of the crime several hours or even a day after the occurrence. No less disgraceful was the attempt ~ in the immediate aftermath of the robbery ~ to offer Wednesday’s weekly holiday, another Tagore legacy, as a readymade alibi for the delayed detection. The theft was scandalous and remains as such.
Any attempt to search for alibis would be a convoluted exercise in self-deception. Post the collective jaw-dropping, the then Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sujit Bose, had tried to be wise after the event. Uttarayan complex was declared out-of-bounds and traffic curbed on the road that runs through a residential area, in a university town that is now coping with the breathless erection of walls. And in another abuse of Tagore’s legacy, the VC had advanced the saccharine assurance to the criminals that they would be forgiven if they returned the lost treasure. That standing offer deserves to be laughed out of court and the then VC will neither be forgiven nor forgotten for such inanities during his tenure. That said, his successors have done little or nothing to retrieve the medal, not to mention initiate a serious effort to track down the culprits.
Another suggestion is to restrict entry to the sprawling Uttarayan complex. In effect, the garden caretaker may be given the power to pick visitors to a national heritage. The idea may yet be implemented by an administration that has over the years seen a failure in upkeep, as well as the reckless abandon “outsiders” indulge in during Holi or Pous Mela ~ two major events in the university’s calendar that have made a travesty of the certitudes of environmental protection. Such erosion only hastens the so-called abode of peace’s degeneration into a haven for criminals. The so-called traditionalists associated with Visva-Bharati compound the problem with their bizarre ideas such as displaying for public view the mute witness to the vandalism by worthies within the Uttarayan complex. Amiya K Samanta’s article in this newspaper (29 March 2004) provides the shocking data that “Tagore’s room was regularly used by Visva-Bharati guests and his bed was merrily slept on” an outrage that was stopped by Pratul Gupta, a former VC. Startling no less has been the revelation that the poet’s manuscripts were taken to the Upasana Mandir, not to forget the thefts at Kala Bhavan and Central Library.
The CBI, the agency that is invariably summoned whenever the establishment has its back to the wall, may yet come up with suggestions. The university authorities cannot evade the charge of feet-dragging in the face of a crime that was unpardonable. Confronted with opposition from the employees’ unions, it took the authorities quite a while to induct personnel from a private security agency. For quite some time, the negotiations between the employees and the authorities were not dissimilar to the arbitration proceedings in factories. Visva-Bharati ought long ago to have put its foot down in matters of security. It didn’t. In the net, the crime of robbing Tagore’s Nobel medal from Rabindra Bhavan happened when the university’s night staff was on duty inside the complex. Tagore’s legacy has been invoked all too often to ensure that rational recommendations on security are scuttled at the threshold. This central university direly needs to bell the cat, a task more urgent than installing a manual bell in place of more sophisticated gadgets.
The West Bengal Chief Minister has bared her angst on the poet’s birth anniversary. But Visva-Bharati being Visva-Bharati, the CBI may be given the short shrift yet again despite the likes of Miss Banerjee who admittedly has responded with the best of intentions. “It is a shame,” she said that Tagore’s medal has not yet been recovered. “The theft is a big insult. We were the first to get the Nobel, but we lost it after it was stolen. This is shameful for us. It hurts to have lost such a prestigious honour. Kabiguru’s Nobel may be lost, but it is enshrined in all our hearts. Think of the time when Tagore won the Nobel medallion. It was very different from the present day.” The nub of the matter must be that Visva-Bharati has over time been relegated to the foot-notes. CBI has treated the robbery as an open-and-shut case. The Nobel medallion was stolen in March 2004. The CBI was handed over the case, but it was closed in 2007. In 2008, the files were reopened by the CBI. The case was closed in 2009, however. Since then, the Government of India files have been gathering dust. More’s the pity, therefore, that Santiniketan’s predicament is pathetic… even direly comical. The theft of Tagore’s Nobel medal is not a crime that deserves to be raised only on the poet’s birth and/or death anniversary. Alas, there has been little or no consistency in the investigation either by the CBI or the state police.
Hence the somewhat cynical barb that the medal is still very much somewhere in Santiniketan, but unknown to the world. No less pathetic is the silence of the incumbent Vice-Chancellor, who is all too often mired in controversies of a very different kind. The theft of Tagore’s Nobel medallion is a permanent blot on Visva-Bharati University. The bard of the universe must be spinning in his grave.
(The writer is a Senior Editor, The Statesman)