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  • Srijana Siri and Vaibhav Jain

“I have tried to walk the Ashoka Vision” — Pulapre Balakrishnan’s unflinching commitment to academic freedom

At a time when Dr Sabyasachi Das’s working paper, Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy, was heavily scrutinized and Ashoka University issued a distasteful statement disassociating itself from the paper, Dr Pulapre Balakrishnan was one of the first to make a strong public statement, following which he resigned in solidarity with Professor Das. In a letter, Professor Balakrishnan stated “As for myself, I am moving on… academic freedom was violated in the response, and it would be unconscionable for me to remain.” 31st December, 2023 was his last day at Ashoka University.

Dr Pulapre Balakrishnan was a Professor at the Department of Economics at Ashoka University. Before joining Ashoka in 2015, Professor Balakrishnan worked as a Senior Fellow at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode and as a country Economist at The World Bank. At Ashoka University, Professor Balakrishnan taught the foundation course, Economics, Politics and Society - Economic Ideas from Smith to Sen.

The letter and his conversation with us outside the library cafe echoed the principles, values and ethics that Professor Balakrishnan practices. He is an honest man, and expects the same honesty from you. Perhaps that is what he meant when he said, “I have tried to walk the Ashoka vision,” especially when Ashoka as an institution chose to ignore it multiple times.

Professor Balakrishnan is an interviewer’s delight: both his stories and his storytelling are memorable, his laughter is infectious, and not to mention that he bought us brownies before beginning the interview. He intermittently solicited our opinions, making us engage more with him; he listened to us with genuine interest and compelled us to listen to him likewise. His presence is comforting, to the point where we felt that we could discuss any topic with him and he would provide us with the most honest and intelligent comments.

While his deep voice and formal speaking style can be intimidating, our interview with him quickly turns into a conversation. He enthusiastically recalls his childhood memories and inevitably connects each of his stories to the economic history of India. The conversation feels like a thoughtful glimpse into the seventy-odd years of experiences and stories that he carries within him.

Youngest of three children, Professor Balakrishnan was born in his ancestral village in Kerala and spent his early years in North India, including Ambala, which is close to Sonipat. While his father was an officer in the Indian Air Force, his extended family had strong agricultural connections. “That is why rural India has always been part of my consciousness,” he says.

His parents shifted to Moscow where he began his formal education. “Till the age of 10, Cyrillic was the only alphabet I could recognise,” he chuckles. True to the economist in him, he remarks that while his family did not have much in terms of consumer goods, they had the confidence of a well-educated middle class. “India was a more open and politically tolerant society back then.”

Even though he spent three years in Moscow, the talent and intelligence of the Indian bureaucrats there impressed him immensely. After a little persuasion from his mother, he took the Civil Services Examinations. When he did not make it to the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Foreign Service, he decided to go to Jawaharlal Nehru University instead for his postgraduate education.

“I was exposed to a whole new way of living and being at JNU,” he fondly recalls. It was the age of the Andolan Jeevi — the politically turbulent years of the 1970s that gave rise to many student protests. Though JNU sealed his aspirations to become an economist and academician, his interest in economics initially developed during his undergraduate days at Madras Christian College, Chennai.

“It is a world that has vanished and is just not coming back,” he yearns. It was the carefree days when undergraduates listened to 70s Western music and Elton John, and watched Hare Krishna Hare Rama. Comparing it to Ashoka’s liberal atmosphere, he laughingly said, “MCC was a happy place of contradictions, as universities are meant to be. We might have not had the best instruction in class, but we had a damn good education.”

Freedom is a precondition for contradictions to exist. For a university space to make room for multiple perspectives that often contradict each other, tolerance is important. Hence, in some ways, the freedom that Professor Balakrishnan spoke about also translates to the turbulent times for academic and political freedom today. In the 1970s, the notion of academic freedom was not part of public perception but universities, at least some like MCC, “did not impose administrative authority over academics and personal life,” he points out.

The higher education and research space today is marked by an imposition of state authority that causes fear and trepidation. There is a crackdown on professors and researchers whose work does not align with the ideologies of the ruling government. The events at the leading think-tank, Centre for Policy Research, where the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) suspended the Centre’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) license, making it ineligible to receive foreign funds, is an example. Subsequently, the tax exemption status was also revoked. 

However, Professor Balakrishnan carefully notes that this trend is not limited to India. It has been simmering for quite some time now: be it the lack of investment in education and encouragement of intellectuals in India with parallels to Trump’s America and Thatcher-era UK, or the highlighting of the fact that increasing political interference in universities is not an isolated phenomenon.

His experiences at MCC prompt us to ask him about his idea of education, specifically higher education. While he does not have a clear answer, he emphasizes critical thinking and the spirit of questioning. “Education must instill in you the value of critical thinking besides making you skilled in critical thinking,” he says.

Although the liberal arts model of education seeks to push this exact motto, Professor Balakrishnan does not believe in the glorification and the excessive hype surrounding the model. He acknowledges that the liberal arts model in America has successfully shaped articulate, confident, and more engaging students, something which is yet to be truthfully accomplished in India. 

Elaborating, he says that the students here are“acche bacche” (good children) but lack engagement and discussion in class. He believes that Ashokan students have not become as articulate and engaging as one would hope, given their access to globally impressive resources and the liberal classroom experience.

It is a point of reflection for us as students as well. We need to think about what it means to be a student in a liberal arts university. What is the pedagogy we need? What is our commitment to our education? How much do we allow it to impact us? How do we use the tools of critical thinking to radically respond to political events across the globe?

Despite Ashoka’s shortcomings, he commended its success in providing a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. As an openly gay man himself who came out in the 1980s, Professor Balakrishnan is acutely aware of the necessity for such a space. “It is probably the only university of its kind in India that provides such a space”, he says. When asked about his journey as an openly gay academician in India in the 1980s, he says that having come out as a grad student at Cambridge, he affirmed his identity at all times in all spaces. He is emphatic when he says that he has never faced discrimination at the workplace or been sidelined due to his sexual orientation. “I am not sure if all of it has to do with my ability to come up with jugaad at every step of my life or India is really a tolerant place, which I don’t fully contest I must say, although that might seem like a very conservative opinion,” he adds. 

After close to thirty years of working as an economist and academician, Professor Balakrishnan now looks forward to some relaxation, but in Bappi Lahiri style — “Raat ko khaao piyo, din ko aram karo,” (Eat and drink at night, relax during the day) he sang. He begins a new assignment at Krea University this January. His humility and conscientiousness comes across when he says, “It is just for a trimester now, they must also evaluate and see whether I fit their bill.”

It is his preciseness in language and argument and honest commitment to principles and ethics that we will fondly remember and cherish. While Professor Balakrishnan’s moving on from Ashoka is a loss for us particularly after Professor Das’s and Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s departure, his resignation needs to be remembered as a model of resistance against the imposition of authority and unwavering dedication to academic freedom.

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