Was Ashoka University ever about academic freedom?

As long as free speech stays within the confines of its classrooms, as long as it does not seep into the public imagination, Ashoka will stay committed to this ideal

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

NH Digital

On 19 August, The Edict, an ‘independent student newspaper covering Ashoka University’, posted an opinion piece whose author Ruhaan Shah states that the premier private university’s commitment to academic freedom was never very deep. We present a slightly edited version of the piece

In his resignation letter to former Ashoka University vice-chancellor Malabika Sarkar in 2021, Pratap Bhanu Mehta had claimed, “After a meeting with the Founders, it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability.”

This very question of liability lies at the heart of Ashoka University’s notorious history with academic freedom.

Academic freedom — a canon of education in most universities — was an ambition that once seemingly governed Ashoka, too. Since 2016, countless representatives of the University — its chancellor, vice-chancellor, founders — declared allegiance to this tenet.

They even instated an ombudsperson, should these very representatives betray the faith they pledged fidelity to. But as Ashoka’s history has shown, no degree of moral strength can protect an institution from political liability. Alternatively, it could be said that these representatives lack the moral commitment to protect the institution from political liability.

Ashoka first faced a test of moral commitment on 20 July, 2016, when six YIF students circulated a petition lamenting the injustices in Kashmir. Rajendran Narayanan, assistant professor of mathematics, and Adil Mushtaq Shah and Saurav Goswami, senior administrative staffers, were three of the 88 signatories who agreed with the petition’s stand.

According to an article in The Caravan, the petition “condemned the violence perpetuated by the Indian State since [Burhan] Wani’s death. It also asked for a plebiscite to be conducted in Kashmir.” Media publications in Kashmir as well as Pakistan shared this petition, following which the university released a statement (no longer available on their website) condemning it and the petitioners.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee, who was vice-chancellor then and is currently the chancellor, denounced the petition and the implication that the university, too, harbours such views.

On October 7, 2016, Shah and Goswami resigned from the university, and on 15 December, Narayanan, too, handed in his resignation. While the university maintained that it did not coerce the three signatories into resigning, an Indian Express report claimed otherwise.

Emails from the Faculty Council — which then comprised professors Alex Watson, Aparna Vaidik, Gilles Verniers and Maya Saran — show that Ashoka’s Governing Body proposed the sacking of Narayanan. This body included Mukherjee and founders Ashish Dhawan, Pramath Raj Sinha and Vineet Gupta. The Faculty Council, alongside other professors, opposed the body’s proposal and argued that “this would very much be seen as a case of faculty dismissal consequent on exercise of free speech”.

Shah and Goswami were silent victims of this ordeal as they, too, “were asked to resign by the founders” according to a council email. Staffers, due to their limited face time with others, do not wield the same degree of influence on students as professors. The political liability that they posed to the university, then, was the fact that they voiced their personal belief. If one is to only believe in or say what the university dictates, we do not cultivate a group of thinkers, we create an army of muppets.

This event, then, is not just a testament to Ashoka’s failed tryst with academic freedom. Rather, it sheds light on a fact more sinister and uglier: Ashoka was never committed to free speech. As long as free speech stays within the confines of its classrooms, as long as it does not seep into the public imagination, as long as it does not malign the name of the university, Ashoka will stay committed to this ideal.

On 27 July, 2016, after the petition started making rounds, according to a detailed report by The Edict, Ashoka revoked the open use of emails by students. As is the norm now, Ashoka only allowed students to send batch-wide emails instead of to the entire university population. By choking different channels of communication, Ashoka abandoned the promise it once made: a free and liberal education.

The Faculty Council made a prescient observation in one of its emails to the Governing Body. The ousting of Narayanan would set a dangerous precedent where external forces could bully the university into political surrender.

On 17 March, 2021, I was in the middle of my term in the Student Government’s Seventh House of Representatives when news broke that Pratap Bhanu Mehta had decided to resign mid-semester: “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 the interests of the University, I resign.”

These defeated, piercing two words — “I resign” — set in motion the most turbulent period of Ashoka till date. In what was Ashoka’s first and landmark class boycott, students and faculty rallied in support of Mehta. All campus spaces — online and offline during the hybrid Spring 2021 semester — overflowed with student protests.

Journalists crowded the campus gate for statements from students. Media houses published articles critical of the university. Academics from around the world condemned the university’s craven submission to external pressure. Arvind Subramanian, professor of economics, resigned in solidarity with Mehta.

Soon after news about Mehta’s resignation became public, Ashoka’s Student Government mobilised and issued a university statement and press release in solidarity with Mehta. They demanded a meeting and town hall with erstwhile vice-chancellor Malabika Sarkar and the founders.

At the vice-chancellor’s town hall on 18 March, where the students and faculty questioned Mehta's resignation, Sarkar claimed that she was unaware of the conversation between the founders and Mehta that led to his resignation and that she learnt about his decision after receiving a call from him. Members of the faculty further interrogated this matter, pulling apart Sarkar’s claims of ignorance.

On 17 March, during a closed-door meeting between the Student Government and Sarkar, the latter claimed that the university was not aware of the circumstances behind Mehta’s resignation. She continued to state that no forces — political or otherwise — put any pressure on Mehta or the university.

While Sarkar’s statements remained consistent in both the meetings, another discussion between the founders and the Student Government on 21 March painted a different picture. They claimed that they met Mehta on 9 March and informed him that several founders believe that his political opinions are often conflated with Ashoka’s stance. They insisted that they never uttered the phrase "political liability", however.

The founders, by stressing on that phrase, missed the point. The grievances that they relayed to him were not innocent complaints. It implied that he must either stop writing or temper his arguments. If Mehta were to oblige, one would soon realise that his ideological concessions betray the very foundations of those ideologies — free expression. The only solution to this, then, is to leave the university that cannot assert or perhaps even recognise the difference between the personal and the institutional.

However, Ashoka, until this point, never publicly renounced their policy of academic freedom. Events were being mechanised through the back channels, with the administration quietly succumbing to the pressures placed on it.

On 1 August, 2023, as the university distanced itself from a controversial working paper by Sabyasachi Das, assistant professor of economics, its fear of severing its commitment to academic freedom disappeared. This time, the renunciation was public.

In his paper, Das investigates the possibility of electoral manipulation during the 2019 Indian general elections. As the paper garnered traction on X (formerly Twitter), Das and his research were met with hate and vitriol. Immediately after, Ashoka released a contentious statement claiming, “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.”

While Ashoka undermined his work by alluding to the idea that ongoing research which is not peer-reviewed lacks credibility, the university’s silence on the hostility that Das received was deafening. On 14 August, The Wire reported that Das had allegedly quit Ashoka. A day later, professor of economics Pulapre Balakrishnan was said to have resigned, too, in solidarity with Das, mirroring the cycle of revolution in 2021.

The collateral and unintended damage of this revolution, for over two years now, has been felt by Ashoka’s students. Both professors, collectively, were supposed to teach four courses during the 2023 monsoon semester. However, Ashoka’s disavowal of Das robbed us not only of two professors but of the intellectual capital that they were about to impart to their students. Existing professors, due to fear of humiliation, may also censor themselves to align with Ashoka’s veiled mantra of neutrality. With this incident, intentionally or not, it is clear that Ashoka’s representatives, too, are the shadow brokers of India’s political establishment.

In the book Silence by Shusaku Endo, two Jesuit priests travel to Japan to spread the word of God in a territory where Christian missionaries face persecution from Japanese authorities.

Kichijirō, a Catholic villager, apostatises and turns the priests in to the authorities after fearing his own imprisonment. He begs one incarcerated priest for forgiveness and makes a confession, only to continually repeat this cycle of events. However, the story is not about the villager, it is about the priest’s moral quandary that must bear the consequences of Kichijirō’s actions.

Ashoka, time and again, has reneged on its philosophical and moral undertakings. After every resignation mentioned here, Ashoka has directly and indirectly maintained that its renewed commitment to academic freedom is determined and stronger.

But it was never about Ashoka’s bumbling administration. This is not an indictment, but a reminder that the duty to protect academic freedom lies with the students, professors, and academia as a whole.

(The views expressed in this piece are personal. The original post may be accessed here)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines