Uproar as key government critic quits university post

The resignation of two distinguished academics from Ashoka University has stunned the university’s students and faculty as well as the academic community across India and overseas, intensifying the row over academic expression and freedom in India.

Political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a prominent vocal critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, quit as a professor at the university on 15 March saying the university’s founders had made it clear to him that his association with the institution was a ‘political liability’ on account of his public writings.

He had resigned as vice-chancellor of the university in 2019 citing ‘academic reasons’, without revealing any details but had continued to teach there.

Noted economist and former chief economic advisor to the government Arvind Subramanian resigned from his professorial post at the university two days later in solidarity with Mehta.
Subramanian wrote in his resignation letter that “even Ashoka – with its private status and backing by private capital – can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom [which] is ominously disturbing.”

More than 150 academics from top institutions worldwide have signed a joint statement in support of Mehta, raising concern over the “political pressure” that led to his resignation.

Ashoka University, founded in 2013, is a private liberal arts and sciences university located in Sonipat in the northern state of Haryana. The high-profile resignations at a private university that does not come under the central government or state government remit has aroused concern over the government’s wide-reaching agenda against critics in academia.

In his 15 March resignation letter to the university, Mehta wrote: “After a meeting with founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the university may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university.”

In a separate letter to faculty members, Mehta wrote: “What will it take to build liberal universities in a country marked by illiberal politics? Our colleagues in public universities have been facing this for a while.”

A graduate of the University of Oxford with a PhD from Princeton University, Mehta has taught at Harvard University, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and at New York University School of Law. He is on the editorial board of leading academic journals including the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Democracy and India and Global Affairs.

Faculty members raise urgent questions

Faculty members wrote to the university vice-chancellor, Malabika Sarkar, saying Mehta’s resignation “raises urgent questions about the university’s commitment to academic freedom as well as its internal processes”.

“Even more troubling is the possibility that our university may have acceded to pressure to remove Professor Mehta or to request, and accept, his resignation. This would fly against the principles of academic freedom on which Ashoka University has been set up – and which Professor Mehta, in his time as vice-chancellor and university professor, has so scrupulously fought to defend,” said the faculty letter, noting Mehta’s resignation would set a “chilling precedent for future removals of faculty”.

Raghuram Rajan, a renowned economist and former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, said free speech had suffered a severe blow in India with the resignations. Rajan, currently a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said free speech is “the soul” of a great university.

“The reality is that Professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments.

“It is not that he has much sympathy for the opposition either. As a true academic, he is an equal opportunity critic. He is, and I hope, will continue to be, one of the intellectual leaders of liberalism in India,” Rajan wrote in a social media post on 20 March.

More than 150 academics from top institutions worldwide lent their voice to the growing criticism of the university. In a joint statement issued on 20 March, they questioned the role of Ashoka’s administrators and backers.

The statement said: “We are distressed to learn of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation under political pressure. A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, he had become a target for his writings. It seems Ashoka’s trustees, who should have treated defending him as their institutional duty, all but forced his resignation.”

Signatories to the statement included Columbia University President Lee C Bollinger, Oxford international relations professor Rosemary Foot, Cambridge political philosopher John Dunn, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, and British-Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, among others.

University denies breaching academic freedom

Facing an increasing backlash, the university’s board of trustees on 22 March declared it would appoint an ombudsperson by the end of May to promote freedom of expression. A day earlier, on 21 March, Ashoka University admitted “lapses in institutional processes” and promised to set them right “in consultation with all stakeholders”.

“The chancellor, vice-chancellor and the chairman of the board of trustees of Ashoka University express deep regret at the recent events surrounding the resignations of Prof Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Prof Arvind Subramanian who have been extraordinary colleagues and faculty members at Ashoka University,” the university said in a statement issued jointly by Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Ashish Dhawan.

“Pratap [Mehta] and Arvind [Subramanian] would like to emphasise that Ashoka University is one of the most important projects in Indian higher education,” the statement said.

However, the statement issued by the board of trustees said the institution’s founders had never interfered, nor do they aim to, with the academic functioning of the university.

They said they were “aware of the students’ valid apprehensions about freedom of expression” and they wished Ashoka to live up to its vision of being a space for free enquiry, free expression, intellectual honesty, respect for the dignity of all human beings and openness to constructive change.

The statement said it was important to bolster the processes to maintain the separation of academic functioning from founders in consultation within the faculty.

Brazen suppression of freedom of speech

Harsh Mander, author, columnist, researcher, teacher and social activist and director of the Delhi-based research organisation Centre for Equity Studies, said the government had become more and more brazen in its resolve to suppress all voices of dissent to its agenda to transform India into a Hindu supremacist nation.

“They felt that there are some isolated voices in civil society and academia opposed to the government and the barriers for transforming India into a Hindu nation. They wanted that everyone should stand with them in their tasks,” Mander told University World News.

Mander said so-called private universities and non-profit organisations survive on huge subsidies from the government. “We need to find out on what terms they have got the land [for the university] from the government. They get huge subsidies to run such institutions,” he said.

Students protest

Nearly 100 students and faculty members protested against Mehta’s exit on 18 March and the loss of “intellectual giants and scholarly academics”, calling for him to return. But Mehta has remained firm on his resignation.

The students demanded an open meeting with the Ashoka founders, calling for changes in the functioning of the institution and the transfer of the administrative authority from the founders to elected representatives of faculty, students and management.

The students boycotted most classes, presently being conducted mostly online, on 22 and 23 March but on 22 March about 900 students attended a scheduled class by Mehta online.

Mehta had separately written to the university students and exhorted them not to “press” the matter as the state of affairs that led to his resignation would not change for the foreseeable future.

“So, I must close this chapter. I know you will be disappointed. But if I may exercise one last bit of professorial discretion: your mission is larger than the fate of two professors,” Mehta wrote.