Ashoka University, a ‘despotic democracy’ and servitude of the quiet kind

Internet may one day put end to universities. And in interregnum, only ‘servile arts’ of technical training (in engineering or medicine, for instance) will be taught, not pretentious ‘liberal arts’

Ashoka University, a ‘despotic democracy’ and servitude of the quiet kind

Aseem Shrivastava

“No living for truth is possible in a university.”

Tendering his resignation from the faculty of Ashoka University, Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta quoted this line of Nietzsche’s, expressing the hope that perhaps this “prophecy” would “not come true.” My mind was taken back three decades to my own moment of truth about the nature of modern universities.

It is difficult to believe that thirty years have gone by. The United States was trying to bring democracy to Iraq by bombing it back to rubble. I was a graduate student at a campus in Massachusetts where the bombing was being protested with vehemence. Revolted by the cowardice of US actions, a student immolated himself on Amherst Common one afternoon. The entire valley was in ferment. We students went on the radio to denounce the barbaric war on Iraq.

A famous professor at our university, known for his radical views, counselled us to “cover our asses and look out for the Feds.” He was not the only one either. As students, we were shocked. We had expected something nobler from our heroes. My utter disenchantment with the insidious cowardice of the American academy had begun.

A senior friend of mine advised me to read Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He said it still remains, after 150 years, the most insightful book on American public life. My eyes first chanced upon a prophetic chapter in the book called “What sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear”. I recall writing soon after reading it an op-ed piece in our campus newspaper The Voice. It was titled “The making of despotic democracy”.

Up until that time, I had been taught to believe that democracy and despotism belonged in two water-tight compartments. What I learned from Tocqueville was that the famed idea of liberal democracy, which the West was preaching to the world, and which the war on Iraq was ostensibly meant to bring about, was itself always destined to become a totalitarian enterprise. Tocqueville showed how a people who “wish to remain free” but also “want to be led” would collectively “devise a sole, tutelary, and all‐
powerful form of government, but elected by the people.”

“Servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind” could strangely combine “with some of the outward forms of freedom” and “establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.” Subsequently, each nation would be “reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

This was written around 1840. 150 years on, the chilling truth of these lines was obvious in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. With this moment of truth, I was disabused of all illusions about America and its universities. I had to quit the academy, which I did soon after finishing my doctorate.


To my understanding whatever remained of American liberal democracy was given a quiet burial a decade later when the Bush administration brought in the Patriot Act after 9/11. Subsequently, it has been unrelenting state-in-its-pocket corporate totalitarianism (known to today’s deluded radicals as “neo-liberalism”) that commands global human affairs. Authentic liberalism went into oblivion a generation ago - or even earlier. Greed is jealous of challengers to its tyranny.

Thus when, in December 2017, I got a call from a senior administrator at Ashoka University asking me if I would like to teach at a “liberal arts” institution, I felt I was talking to Rip Van Winkle.

Being mildly aware of how Ashoka was being funded and promoted, I was reminded of Gandhiji’s amusing warning in Hind Swaraj that “it would be folly to assume that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than the American Rockefeller.” However, my friend insisted that ‘corporate liberalism’ was an Indian reality and I would be allowed to teach whatever I pleased under ‘environmental studies’, and in the manner, I thought best. I could experiment freely with new ideas. There would be no interference with my pedagogy.

I told him that I had not even had a resume for two decades. He said nobody would ask you for it. Mildly impressed, I said I will give it a thought. A month later, I agreed to teach a course at Ashoka. I enjoyed it. They asked me to teach again the next year. Since then, I have taught two courses on ‘Ecosophy’ in the Young India Fellowship every year.

I have learned much in these courses. My students will testify that I have spoken my mind and freely expressed my outlandish thoughts, all out of season and fashion. I have also taught and written about such things as the enormous ecological danger besieging humanity because of the routine cognitive blindness of modernity.

Our students are our hope for the present and the future. They are curious and energetic, intelligent and full of humour. They inspire me to teach. So, I take teaching Ecosophy to be my sacred duty to the future. Few things are now more dear to me. And it’s true, there has been zero interference with my teaching, even when I have been overtly critical of the university on a few occasions. This is quite remarkable, given the suffocation in the world outside the campus, or sometimes even just outside the classroom.


I have almost come to believe in the myth of corporate liberalism. And then comes Prof. Mehta’s resignation to remind us of the lurking reality of corporate totalitarianism. It seems it never went anywhere. It just dons liberal attire occasionally to brand its products. When it comes to the university, once the educational market is secured, it resumes its predatory habits and a high-cost model of learning is confidently installed in a poor country.

It is possible that my contract may not be renewed at some point in the future. Regardless, my pedagogy is inert to such unannounced threats. Long have I known the nature of institutional cowardice. This is what I expect in the ‘normal’ course of things, for organised avarice and structural cowardice are ancient cousins.

What has happened does not surprise me in the least. In my Ecosophy classes, we learn that the globalised corporate market, with the devastating technologies at its disposal, is the most acute threat to the health and survival of humanity on earth.

The economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi wrote three generations ago that markets traditionally embedded in human cultures are healthy. But “disembedded” markets cause pathological mayhem and will ultimately demolish the very substance of human society and nature. Markets in our world today are not merely disembedded; they are controlled almost entirely by insatiable corporations, padlocked in a global system of compulsive structural avarice.

The greatest lie of our time is the myth of consumer sovereignty that is taught to innocent economics undergraduates from the first day at college. The thinly disguised reality of the world is what I like to call ‘investor sovereignty’. Ignore the economists. Think Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Not the small thela-wallah’s wife managing a shoestring family budget.

In such a global environment, the university, like much else, is today under siege from corporations the world over. The viral spread of the internet - especially booming in the pandemic-afflicted age of zoom - may actually put an end to it altogether in some not-so-distant future. Or transform its character to such a degree that only the ‘servile arts’ of technical training (in engineering or medicine, for instance) will be taught, not the pretentious ‘liberal arts’. It would be in the fitness of things for the death of the humanities to presage the end of humanity itself.

With the Bengal elections looming, it is perhaps appropriate to remember Tagore, especially since he is being invoked by all the political parties in the fray. We also study him closely in Ecosophy, especially his interpretation of the ancient Upanishads. While setting up Vishwabharati University a century ago in the hope of reviving Indian and Asian cultures, he said:

“Before Asia is in a position to co-operate with the culture of Europe, she must base her own structure on a synthesis of all the different cultures which she has. When, taking her stand on such a culture, she turns toward the West, she will take, with a confident sense of mental freedom, her own view of truth, from her own vantage-ground, and open a new vista of thought to the world. Otherwise, she will allow her priceless inheritance to crumble into dust, and, trying to replace it clumsily with feeble imitations of the West, make herself superfluous, cheap and ludicrous. If she thus loses her individuality and her specific power to exist, will it in the least help the rest of the world? Will not her terrible bankruptcy involve also the Western mind? If the whole world grows at last into an exaggerated West, then such an illimitable parody of the modern age will die, crushed beneath its own absurdity.”

Imitation is violence to oneself. In trying to offer a “world-class liberal arts education” in India (read ‘American education’), Ashoka’s founders and trustees may have erred in the manner that Rabindranath fearfully anticipated.

Perhaps we should let the modern university die a happy death and imagine and experiment with a completely new way of learning which draws from the best of the many different traditions and cultures of the past. This is where Rabindranath advised us to look:

“The unfortunate people who have lost the harvest of their past have lost their present age. They have missed their seed for cultivation, and go begging for their bare livelihood. We must not imagine that we are one of these disinherited peoples of the world. The time has come for us to break open the treasure-trove of our ancestors, and use it for our commerce of life. Let us, with its help, make our future our own, and not continue our existence as the eternal rag-pickers in other people's dustbins.”

And perhaps Nietzsche was right after all too. Prof. Mehta is finding out now.

(Dr.Aseem Shrivastava teaches ecosophy at Ashoka University).

(Syndicate: The Billion Press) (email:

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Published: 28 Mar 2021, 11:04 AM