After Sabyasachi Das resignation, Ashoka U faculty warn of mass exodus and class boycott

The crisis escalates with the political science department joining economics, English, sociology and anthropology in a demand for greater academic freedom

Sabyasachi Das, formerly assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, author of a controversial paper on Lok Sabha voting trends (photos courtesy Ashoka University)
Sabyasachi Das, formerly assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, author of a controversial paper on Lok Sabha voting trends (photos courtesy Ashoka University)

NH Political Bureau

It has been a turbulent week at Ashoka University, a premier private institution, since its vice-chancellor on 14 August accepted the resignation of assistant professor of economics Sabyasachi Das.

Das was forced to resign after the university officially distanced itself from an unpublished research paper that Das presented at the annual conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research, Washington, in July. The paper triggered a political storm after it was shared on social media.

After analysing voting trends for 11 Lok Sabha constituencies in 2019, the paper had pointed out that the Bharatiya Janata Party had won a disproportionate number of close contests. Analysing booth-wise data from the Election Commission of India, the research paper pointed out lax supervision and discrepancies in electoral rolls. The paper also pointed out that the discrepancies would not have affected the overall outcome of the election and there was no evidence yet of fraud.

The paper was one of 19 selected for presentation at the session, for which 106 scholars had registered. While the paper was effusively praised by a section of academicians, the right wing trolled Das and called his work part of a 'foreign conspiracy' to discredit India’s electoral system. The research was described as motivated and half-baked while trolls attacked him as a deshdrohi, or traitor.

It is not clear whether Ashoka University was unnerved by the controversy or was pulled up by the political or corporate establishment. However, in an unusual public display, the university posted on 1 August a statement saying that it had nothing to do with the research, that the paper was not peer-reviewed or published, and that the university did not agree with the inferences and conclusions drawn.

Despite the outrage caused by the statement in academic circles, the university then asked the economics department to question the assistant professor on his methodology and ‘investigate’. The statement can be accessed here:

In the last four days since the acceptance of Das’s resignation, protests have spread, with PhD students, a section of the alumni, academicians and writers expressing their dismay. On 16 August, Wednesday, the economics department of the university came out with an open letter addressed to the governing body after Professor Pulapre Balakrishnan also resigned, apparently in solidarity with his junior.

Head of the economics department Ashwini Deshpande revealed on X (formerly Twitter) that an investigation had been conducted into Das’s paper and hinted that the faculty had cooperated with the probe.

The open letter states:

Prof. Das did not violate any accepted norm of academic practice. Academic research is professionally evaluated through a process of peer review. The Governing Body’s interference in this process to investigate the merits of his recent study constitutes institutional harassment, curtails academic freedom, and forces scholars to operate in an environment of fear. We condemn this in the strongest terms and refuse as a collective to cooperate in any future attempt to evaluate the research of individual economics faculty members by the Governing Body.
Economics department, Ashoka University

The Edict, the Ashoka University students’ bulletin, reported that the open letter had articulated two demands, namely, that an unconditional offer of returning to his position be made to Das and an affirmation that the governing body would “play no role in evaluating faculty research through any committee or any structure”.

The political science department was next to assert that unless these demands were met before the start of the Monsoon 2023 semester, faculty members would “find themselves unable to carry forward their teaching obligations in the spirit of critical enquiry and the fearless pursuit of truth that characterise [their] classrooms”.

Faculty members also, in separate letters to the governing body, have threatened to boycott classes and undertake an ‘exodus’ if their demands are not met.

The Governing Body of Ashoka University includes, among others, Rudrangshu Mukherjee as chancellor, Somak Raychaudhury as vice chancellor, the secretary to the government of Haryana's education department, and members of the board of trustees, Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Raj Sinha.

This is a developing story and will continue to be updated

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