Alarm over university’s failure to defend research

Scholars in India and abroad are concerned that a prestigious private university is in danger of undermining academic freedom by failing to defend the pre-print publication of one of its economics professors – on allegedly dubious patterns in India’s 2019 general election results – after the research came under attack by politicians in the ruling party.

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi won 303 parliamentary seats out of a total of 543 in the last general election in 2019. The working paper at the heart of the furore, Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy, authored by Sabyasachi Das, assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, identified some allegedly dubious patterns in the poll results.

The paper’s publication on 23 July by the Social Science Research Network, a pre-print repository, sparked a barrage of social media activity from BJP-linked social media accounts disparaging the research, as well as from others claiming to defend academic freedom and who hailed Das for his contentious yet bold conclusions.

University response

Ashoka University authorities appeared to distance the institution from the paper, saying via Twitter on 1 August that it was “dismayed by the speculation and debate” around it but noted “social media activity or public activism by the faculty, students or staff in their individual capacity does not reflect the stance of the university”.

Appearing to cast doubt on the scholarly credentials of the paper, Ashoka University said it “encourages its 160-plus faculty to carry out research but does not direct or approve specific research projects by individual faculty members”.

It added: “Ashoka values research that is critically peer-reviewed and published in reputed journals. To the best of our knowledge, the paper in question has not yet completed a critical review process and has not been published in an academic journal.”

Das has so far refused to comment on the controversy.

Although he argues in his paper that his research was “not proof of fraud”, and he does not suggest that manipulation was widespread, he hints at significant irregularities in several constituency seats contested in 2019 which helped the ruling BJP to register a win for those seats.

He noted in his paper that the BJP “inexplicably” won more of the closely contested seats in states where it was in power at the time of elections – a pattern not seen in earlier general elections.

According to Das, this may have been possible due to targeted campaigning for those seats, but the evidence he gathered did not reveal that the incumbent party had conducted focused campaigns for the closely contested seats.

Hostile reaction

The paper’s pre-print publication led to hostile reactions on social media from pro-BJP handles who cast aspersions on the research and questioned its authenticity.

Nishikant Dubey, a BJP lawmaker from Jharkhand state, tweeted: “It is fine to differ with the BJP on matters of policy but this is taking it too far … how can someone in the name of half-baked research discredit India’s vibrant poll process? How can any university allow it?”

The main opposition party Congress has been restrained, calling for the claims to be followed up. Senior Congress leader and Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, via Twitter, urged the Election Commission of India and the government to explain the points raised in the paper.

Tharoor tweeted that the social media reactions offer “a hugely troubling analysis for all lovers of Indian democracy. If the Election Commission and/or the Government of India have answers available to refute these arguments, they should provide them in detail. The evidence presented does not lend itself to political attacks on a serious scholar. The discrepancy in vote tallies needs to be explained, since it can't be wished away”.

Academic freedom concerns

Academics are troubled by what they see as the implications of the issue for academic freedom.

Nandini Sundar, professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, said via Twitter: “Excellence in research and teaching can only flourish if there is academic freedom, universities don’t bend over backwards to disassociate themselves from research that is inconvenient to ruling regimes.”

Some academics, and students at the university, expressed support for Das.

Gilles Verniers, co-director of Ashoka University’s Trivedi Centre for Political Data, denounced the attacks against Das whom, he said, was “a man of rare courage and integrity”. Verniers tweeted on 3 August: “If we don’t leave room for research that is inconvenient, we shut the door to the possibility of fixing our problems.”

The university student body named Leher (Wave) in a 2 August statement condemned the university’s approach and the public scrutiny faced by Das, including what it called unfounded accusations of ‘anti-nationalism’.

“Any university that intends to foster a culture of cutting-edge research by faculty members must provide adequate support for its faculty during the entire process. Ashoka University’s statement claims that it ‘values research that is critically peer-reviewed and published in reputed journals’, indicating the University’s unwillingness to stand by research in its pre-publishing stages, especially when faced with baseless scrutiny,” said the statement.

“Professor Das has been published in peer reviewed journals previously and there has been nothing to suggest inaccuracies in the paper itself thus far. The paper is being discussed and appreciated by renowned scholars.”

The student group added: “While critique and debate is an essential part of academia, stifling research is not. Time and again the university has failed to stand up for its faculty.”

It further said that the university’s statement says nothing about the character allegations levied against Das.

“Without a culture of solidarity with its professors during such a time, the university discourages faculty and students from engaging in research that may be considered controversial in an adverse political climate,” it added, calling on the university to withdraw its statement and guarantee protection of Das and other Ashoka faculty’s right to freedom of research.

Previous case at Ashoka University

Ashoka University was mired in a similar controversy when former vice-chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, resigned as a professor from the University in March 2021 on the grounds that it was clear to him that the university’s founders viewed him as a “political liability” on account of his public writings.

Mehta, an eminent scholar and commentator, had said: “We have to ask the uncomfortable question: 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. Now this growing contradiction is coming home.”

Many academics have noted that in the present case the university faces similar allegations of being illiberal and bowing to pressure from the ruling regime.