MOST READ LAST WEEK: Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation calls for a rethink on universities

Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore) reflecting on the functioning of universities during British rule observed that they were like “hard-boiled eggs from which you cannot expect chickens to come out”

MOST READ LAST WEEK: Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation calls for a rethink on universities
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SN Sahu

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who often talked of the birth of New India after our Independence outlined the role of universities in shaping its destiny.

Speaking at Allahabad University in 1947 he said, “A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for progress, for the adventure of ideas and for the search for truth. But if the temple of learning becomes a home of narrow bigotry and petty objectives, how then will the nation prosper or a people grow in stature?…We are not going to reach our goal through crookedness or flirting with evil in the hope that it may lead to good. The right end can never be fully achieved through wrong means.”

Nehru’s ringing words ‘We are not going to reach our goal through crookedness or flirting with evil in the hope that it may lead to good’ sound so true when we juxtapose these words with the articulations of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian who justified their exit by saying that their academic freedom was curtailed.

The New India of 2021 has no space for the vision of university engaged in adventure of ideas and search for truth. Or else a public intellectual like professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta would not have said that he became a political liability for Ashoka University for his public views.

Mehta’s resignation as professor from Ashoka University on March 16 on the ground that his “…public writings 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” unmistakably brings out the quality of universities required in New India conjured up by Prime Minister Modi’s regime.

Professor Arvind Subramanian’s resignation from Ashoka two days later by stating that “…despite the university’s private backing, it was still unable to provide a space for academic expression and freedom” further reaffirms and defines the place and importance of universities in New India.

Professor Amartya Sen had to relinquish the post of Chancellor of Nalanda University because conditions were manufactured so that he could not function. Attack on several public universities including JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and Hyderabad Central University since 2014 is indicative of the trend and shape of the universities taking place in our country.


In January last year, ABVP activists barged into JNU and thrashed several students and teachers. None of them was arrested. ABVP is the student wing of RSS
In January last year, ABVP activists barged into JNU and thrashed several students and teachers. None of them was arrested. ABVP is the student wing of RSS

It was expected that private universities established in India over the recent years based on funding from private sources would emerge as role models of academic freedom, discourse and research pursuits. The ominous developments represented by assault on public and private universities are clear pointers to the troubled future of higher education in New India.

Such unfortunate happenings are in complete variance with the stated goals in the New Education Policy 2020 – “...the aim of a quality university or college education must be to develop good, well-rounded and creative individuals…”; “Education must thus move towards less content, and more towards learning about how to think critically.”

The challenges of enormous magnitude confronted by universities in New India remind us the of pre-Independence days when Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore reflecting on functioning of universities during British rule observed that those were like “hard-boiled eggs from which you cannot expect chickens to come out”. The status of universities as hard-boiled eggs reflects sickening condition of society and polity.

After Independence, the leadership of India gave space to an enlightened notion of university. On August 7, 1947 Mahatma Gandhi wrote that universities “must stimulate the faculty of thinking” and students “have to create public opinion by offering constructive and enlightened criticism”.

The vision of a university outlined by Gandhi and Nehru for New India emerging from the ravages of colonial rule stand shattered in the context of happenings in several public universities and Ashoka university.

The students of Ashoka have created public opinion through their enlightened criticism in favour of academic freedom and expression of dissent. The global support for professor Mehta affirms that a university must not resort to crookedness and flirt with evil for achieving its goal.

The fact that Ashoka University has conceded flaws committed in handling the issue of resignation and resolved to rectify them speaks volumes for the compromises it resorted to for the exit of two eminent teachers from its fold.

These developments are clear ominous indicators of the directions New India, conjured up by the present dispensation, is taking. Course correction is required for intellectual dissent so that role of universities expounded by Nehru is restored for pursuing truth and for the larger cause of humanism, society and nation.

(S.N. Sahu was secretary to former President KR Narayanan. Views are personal)

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Published: 23 Mar 2021, 5:00 PM