Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared the stage with Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at the 49th convocation of Visva-Bharti University on Friday.
This is Modi's maiden visit to the varsity after becoming the prime minister. The last time a chancellor was present at a convocation at Visva-Bharati, which was founded by Rabindra Nath Tagore, was in 2008 when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister.
Addressing the students, the PM first apologised to them. “First of all, as the chancellor of Visva Bharati University, I apologise. When I was coming here, some students were telling me with gestures that there is no arrangement of drinking water. I want to apologise for all the inconvenience caused to you.”
Invoking Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who founded the central university, and his iconic short story Kabuliwala, Modi said he felt privileged to spend time on “Tagore’s soil”. “Tagore was a global citizen and wanted Shantiniketan to be a home for the world... Tagore wanted students in India to have a wider global view and always gave priority to the identity of India,” the PM said.
The convocation ceremony served up the historic moment when Modi took the dais with Banerjee and Hasina. But the convocation missed out on an important tradition as the PM did not award ‘Desikottam’, the university’s highest accolade. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) did not give clearance for the same citing the PM’s tight schedule, officials said.
The Visva Bharati academic council had recently cleared the names of actor Amitabh Bachchan, painter Jogen Chowdhury, lyricist Gulzar, author Amitav Ghosh, writer Suniti Kumar Pathak, singer Dwijen Mukherjee and scientist Ashok Sen for the honour.
“The names were sent to the HRD ministry and the PMO, but we have not received any communication. Therefore, this year ‘Desikottam’ will not be awarded by our PM,” a senior university official said.
The PM arrived in Shantiniketan around 10:30am and was greeted by Banerjee. Modi, who is the 'acharya' or chancellor of the central university, will inaugurate the 'Bangladesh Bhavan' — a "symbol of cultural ties between India and Bangladesh" — with Hasina and hold a bilateral meeting, during which issues such as Teesta water sharing, trade and the influx of Rohingya refugees are likely to be discussed.
Nearly 100 invitees from Bangladesh, including Hasina’s sister Rehana, foreign minister Abul Hasan Mahmood Ali, education minister Nurul Islam Nahid and cultural affairs minister Asaduzzaman Noor, are part of Hasina’s delegation.
According to Sabujkali Sen, the vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati, this will also be the first time in four decades that the chief minister of Bengal will be present at a convocation programme. The last chief minister to have attended a convocation was Siddhartha Shankar Ray.
Mamata will also be part of the lunch meeting between Modi and Hasina at Bangladesh Bhavan.
“I did not know that no other CM had shared dais with the Chancellor at Viswa Bharati convocation. I was invited by the university and it’s an honour for me to witness this historic event,” the CM said.
On the ‘Desikottam’ issue, she said, “It’s sad that names of seven eminent people do not figure in the Desikottam list. I would not like to comment much as I don’t know the reason.”
The Bangladesh Bhavan at Santiniketan will house a library, a state-of-the-art archival centre and a seminar hall, besides a sprawling space for cultural get-togethers. Apart from the literary works of Tagore, the centre will also showcase books and photographs on the Bangladesh Liberation War and India's role in it.
After the meeting with Hasina, Modi will travel to Jharkhand where he will lay the foundation stone of various projects of central and state governments at an event in Sindri.
A Visva-Bharati official said the central university would gift a replica of the first edition of Tagore's 'Gitanjali', which was published in 1912 in London, among other souvenirs to Modi.
Hasina would be gifted a set of 'Rabindra Chitrabali' — Tagore's paintings in four volumes — along with other gifts.
Banerjee would be presented with a set of 'Rabindra Chitrabali' along with Tagore's photographs and a bilingual edition of 'Gitanjali', the official added.