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  • Rutuparna Deshpande

Ashoka’s Tongue is Still Stuck to a Saffron Pole: Strike 3 with Academic Freedom

At the cusp of a new academic year, an unsettling deja vu engulfs us: once again, a professor has resigned due to alleged interference from Ashoka University’s Governing Board (GB), prompting a senior academic to leave in solidarity. This is the University’s strike 3 with academic freedom: first with the Kashmir petition, next with Pratap Bhanu Mehta which also cost us Professor Arvind Subramaniam, and now with Professor Sabyasachi Das.


In the aftermath of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation, Sheldon Pollock, a prominent scholar of South Asian studies and an early advisor to the University, confessed his diminished respect for Ashoka. Over a hundred and fifty academics had written to the founders and trustees of the University, reminding them of their duty to protect academic freedom. Consequently, Ashish Dhawan, then chairman of the GB, admitted to “lapses” in due process after the debacle. Despite these embarrassing events, here we are again.


If the University’s administration is much too tenuous in the face of the powers that be, one wonders how many professors, grants, and collaborations have slipped through our fingers over the long term. The reputational damage inflicted upon Ashoka’s liberal credentials is likely to have broad-ranging material impacts on our growth prospects. There are obviously some costs associated with going back on your word.


Still, the GB perceived Das’s paper as posing a grave danger to the University. Investigations via an ad-hoc committee into the ‘political context’ behind the research, the likes of which find neither precedent nor any mention in the faculty handbook, speak volumes about the political climate. Extraordinary measures have equally extraordinary causes.


Reportedly, Pratap Bhanu Mehta was alerted to the dangers posed by his public writings, but there was no attempt to investigate him, only insinuations. Contrastingly, the Economics department has termed the GB investigations into Das’s research as “institutional harassment”. The lengths to which the GB has gone in this case bitterly stands out as a testament to how high the political temperatures have reached, a few months ahead of the General Election.


The Saffron Scare


Since the BJP came into power in 2014, assaults on academic freedom have become pervasive. A comprehensive report on the state of academic freedom in India authored by Ashoka Faculty member Gowhar Fazili, and Nandini Sunder from the Delhi School of Economics paints a bleak picture, particularly in public universities. Even beyond Indian shores, 13 academics associated with the Australia India Institute resigned collectively in 2022, alleging interference from the Indian High Commission in Canberra.


The current regime has ushered a zeitgeist of illiberal populism, where coercion assumes more insidious forms beyond threats of brute violence. Dissenters are chased until exhaustion. They are chased out of their homes, bodies, and minds, until what seems like a voluntary submission to the popular will. But the flying of a white flag in the face of unrelenting humiliation and ad-hominem attacks is not as much a declaration of ill-will, as it is a testament to the political muscle that illiberality has gained.


A minor whiff of disagreement with the prevailing narrative, cultivated by a powerful few and digested by a silent majority, is enough to wreak havoc. Karan Sangwan, a law teacher at Unacademy, got fired for advising his students to “Vote for a person who understands things. Make your decisions properly.” Sangwan did not take any names, but it was assumed by countless people online that he was referring to the incumbent party and the Prime Minister. Grizzly attacks followed Sangwan and eventually led to his termination.


Without a comparable frenzy of attacks on Professor Das, calls for Ashoka University’s demolition, and agitation in the right-wing media ecosystem, there was little incentive for the GB to intervene unethically. It may be reasonable to suggest that the GB was chased out of its dream of building a liberal academic space.


Professor Balakrishnan emphasized in his resignation letter that Ashoka has had an incredible record of funding and supporting all kinds of critical research. He has stated that the University did not put the “slightest restraint” on his teaching or public writing. Selective amnesia about the University’s commitment to academic freedom is disingenuous. It is only when criticality assumes a public face beyond narrow academic circles that the GB falters, though this does not let it off the hook.


I f a mob charges at you with pitchforks and burning arrows, reacting in fear is understandable. Though, as people with a responsibility towards the academic community, GB’s reaction is not at all excusable.


A Whip from Above


However, pressure isn't only from below. As per The Wire, investors of the University received angry calls from the Prime Minister's Office and the Union Education Minister regarding Das’s pre-print paper. In a further concerning development, officials from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) visited the campus on Monday in search of Professor Das. The Telegraph reported that a two-member team inquired whether the paper was an independent effort, and if the University management was made aware of its making.


Jayati Ghosh, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, aptly commented on this latest swerve in the saga: “We have now gone beyond the absurd,” Rightly so, since Das is currently in Pune. Moreover, the report alleges that the team sought to speak with students regarding Das's teaching. Given that the campus is mostly populated by new batches of students, the inquiry would yield little, as noted by Ruhaan Shah on X.


It seems that Local IB officials are tasked to conduct fact-finding missions in preparation for a Foreign Contributions Regulations Act (FCRA) evaluation, which Ashoka is due in the coming months. The Central Government has been oft accused of using the FCRA as a vindictive measure against civil society organisations that it considers threatening, like the Centre for Policy Research and Oxfam India.


Moreover, an anonymous poster pasted on campus at the tail end of last semester alleged that Ashoka’s FCRA licensure is similarly at risk. Time magazine has also supported the Edict’s reporting that Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation paved the way for the University’s expansion and was related to funding regulations. While there is no conclusive evidence of such conspiracies, they are hardly beyond reasonable possibilities.


At the Mercy of Capital


The involvement of the IB, telephonic crusades by offices of the Union government, and perilous FCRA licensure speak of the metonymic slide that discrete entities of the BJP, the Government and the State have gone through. In these strange times, truths uncomfortable to the BJP’s narrative are seen as a synonymous threat to governance and by unnatural extension, the Indian state itself–thus labelled ‘Anti-National’. The GB wants none of that on its hands. Lest it may get burnt using the machinery of the State upon which its existence is crucially dependent. Politics and economics were never separate spheres.

Despite the convoluted political economy of academia, the third academic freedom row might strike as a good time for the GB to confront the Goliath they have created – a vocally liberal space–and be unapologetic about our belief in liberty. The cost of pretending that this is not the case is heavy and a losing game. If we pride ourselves on being a genuine marketplace of ideas, efforts need to be made to ensure no monopolies or unfair practices exist. Ideas should not be bulldozed out of existence.


There is no denying that the GB is facing tremendous pressures from the political climate but it is this very tryst between the Board and the politically tied capital that stands starkly in contrast to the liberal spirit. It is rather a recipe for having your tongue stuck to a saffron pole. Time and time again, it has been evident that governing a University in the fashion of a corporation is unfeasible. It leaves us extremely vulnerable to the winds of political power, and it is particularly the current storm that makes dissident academic work dangerous.


By playing nice to these illiberal forces, the University is digging its own grave. Their actions have set a precedent benchmark of acceptable publicity and criticality, beyond which academics are appeasement bait, ready to be thrown under the bus in times of crisis. Furthermore, it opens the floodgates for thought-flattening bulldozers, which is wholly incompatible with the spirit of a liberal arts university–who is to say that things will get any better in the coming years?


A Choice to Make


We now stand at a crossroads: either we continue to amass capital but compromise on liberty, or we go about with less opulence and stay true to our values. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. The GB needs steadfast resolve if it wants to preserve the university in any recognisable form. No doubt that in practice, making such choices is like navigating a minefield but the solidarity shown by academics and students marks a clear answer: we’d rather bite the bullet. Now, the GB must follow suit.


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