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  • Zainab Firdausi

And Yet It Moves: On Ashoka & Its Administrative Tyrants

Updated: Sep 20

Ashoka University was founded with a pool of investment from several different individuals so as not to be beholden to a single founder’s whims. It now seems that it is beholden to all of their whims. A helpful article by an undergraduate traces the university’s sordid history of betraying academic freedoms; the most recent event leading to the resignations of faculty members Sabyasachi Das and Pulapre Balakrishnan in the Economics Department. The piece shows how thin the commitment, if any at all, to academic freedom truly is at Ashoka, with the university leadership repeatedly making hurried and obsequious attempts to detract attention and allay concerns of political “radicalism”. Ashoka’s flagship undergraduate programme is less than ten years old and it seems, to the founders’ dismay, that the issue of academic freedom rears its ugly head every few years. This leads one to conclude that these events aren’t mere aberrations in the daily workings of the university but fundamental issues in its very constitution. Without concrete changes one can expect it to occur again, and again.

One then might ask, where do these issues arise? A recent tweet by university founder Sanjeev Bikhchandani is telling of the administration’s apathy towards such concerns. In response to an article which characterises the university’s general politics as “boring”, he claims it is a relief that Ashoka University will produce no Bhagat Singhs (charismatic Indian freedom fighter, d.1931) . Mr. Bikhchandani’s response is interesting, to say the least - his immediate move was to place himself in the shoes of Bhagat Singh’s parents — to even picture himself as Singh, a radical with deep convictions and who defied cruel authority, seems an unimaginable prospect. And while Mr. Bikhchandani’s ideal intellectual environment would produce no Bhagat Singhs, it seems the oppressive politics that creates figures like Bhagat Singh deserves no mention either. The erasure of Umar Khalid (incarcerated student activist) in Mr. Bikhchandani’s response, despite being mentioned in the original article, speaks to this as well. Yes, the Bhagat Singh analogy exhausts itself, especially since his legacy is violent and complicated, but the comparison of protests against unfair administrative practices to an anarcho-communist revolutionary screams of reactionary paranoia. It is this confusion between “left liberal” politics and basic liberal tenets such as tolerance and free expression that I find most frustrating. For reasons unstated, Ashoka’s founders seem to believe that supporting a liberal intellectual environment is akin to creating a hub of radical leftist politics. And thus, it becomes preferable to be “boring” and to cherish political “neutrality.” The problem with such neutrality is that it is illusory and often conceals within itself a refusal to question authority. If Ashoka weren’t a university, it would have been the perfect place for such uninspiration. But the universe has conspired for it to be a university, a place where minds congregate, and thus for it to succeed at that, it must shed its corporatised approach to education. The university's leadership find themselves at a critical juncture where they must realise that their desire to make Ashoka a world-class educational institution cannot be achieved by treating it like a vocational school, where you are equipped with a trade and burgled of a mind.

Other tweets by Mr. Bikhchandani lament the lack of free speech at Harvard and the apparent ideological indoctrination that ensues at higher education institutions. Barring his reliance on the New York Post, a known rag, for the reportage, it’s plain to see how these concerns are grossly overstated. Universities like Harvard and Yale have no dearth of conservative students or groups, who, in fact, coexist with progressive ones. This is not to suggest that they are free of academic controversy— they are not, but neither do they hemorrhage faculty the way Ashoka has, and especially not over mere publications.

More than two years ago, a beloved teacher of mine, Professor Pratap Mehta was forced to resign from Ashoka. That entire episode exhibited the timidity of the institution in the face of political pressure. Ashoka’s priorities since best serve as examples in “how-to-suffocate-the-spirit-of-inquiry” manuals. This is exemplified in the emphatic promotion of “apolitical” fields such as STEM at the expense of other disciplines, and the depletion of senior and founding faculty in the Political Science department. These steps are not unique to India, they only mirror those taken at universities in Turkey and Singapore to placate political overlords. As an Indian Muslim, I am not naive to the current political environment. Dissent is costly and tough, and universities, beginning with JNU, have been battered over the last few years. Private universities are not nearly as threatened as public ones, yet the steps taken by Ashoka leadership to distance themselves and disavow private opinions or research are alarming. One can only expect a chilling effect to ensue, where if the work produced does not follow the administrative party line its author’s future at the university is tenuous. This diminishes Ashoka's prospects of being a top research university. But the more pertinent question is, what becomes of an educational institution so threatened by thought itself?

Ashoka not only allowed me the freedom to read V.D. Savarkar’s works alongside those of Karl Marx but also to form my own opinions about them. A university thrives from trusting its students and faculty, not by treating them in a parental or managerial fashion. Intellectual freedoms are worth fighting for not only because it is the right thing to do but also because they have produced the world as we know it today. In the 17th century, Galileo upon being forced to recant the heliocentric model of the solar system by the Church, muttered under his breath, “and yet it moves” in defiance of their unscientific impositions. It may be unoriginal to write this in the 21st century but— the inquisition must be stopped.

I could be criticised for being too preoccupied with the mindset of the university’s trustees. That would be true. The temerity exhibited by the students and faculty in the face of an unflinching and Kafkaesque administration was commendable. But it is not their actions that are depleting a once creative and free environment. Until the university seeks out administrators who aren’t intent on turning its classrooms into an assembly line, Ashoka cannot claim to be a pioneer of higher education in India.

The author was an undergraduate at Ashoka University from 2016-2020. She is currently a PhD student at Yale University.

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