With concerns ranging from academic freedom and faculty resignations to a housing crisis and rising worries about substance use at Ashoka University, Monsoon 2023 has been an eventful semester. The Edict’s Politics Newsdesk runs down the major events that have transpired over the last few months, focusing on the Ashoka University Student Government’s (AUSG) role and activities.
August for Academic Freedom
Following Professor Sabyasachi Das’ exit from Ashoka University after the pre-publication of a paper on democratic backsliding in India, August started off with the question of academic freedom looming over the university.
On 2 August, The Student Government published a statement, strongly condemning the university’s actions against Professor Das. The SG pointed out that the administration overlooked that “the paper is a working paper, the purpose of which is to elicit feedback before submitting the paper for peer-review.” and condemned the lacklustre culture of solidarity within the University which “discourages faculty and students from engaging in research that may be considered controversial in an adverse political climate.” Their statement also criticised social media's approach of attacking Professor Das’ character rather than pointing out objective flaws in the paper.
The published minutes of the AUSG open meeting on August 16, 2023, state the subsequent submission of Professor Pulapre Balakrishnan’s resignation, who, according to students and faculty, would leave before Spring 2024. Professor Balakrishnan later confirmed his departure in an interview to the Telegraph.
Aparna Chaudhuri, Assistant Professor of English, detailed in a mail dated September 1, to the student body — that there was a need to keep alive the discourse on the importance of academic freedom following the commencement of the new semester, stating that, “it is crucial that we keep alive the spirit of critical debate that has animated us for the better part of a month. We must continue to affirm our commitment to intellectual freedom, and develop spaces of open conversations in which we can all participate.” An interdepartmental series of teach-ins were organised through the months of September and October by faculty members, facilitated by the Student Government.
The teach-ins were formatted as open conversations and guided discussions between faculty members and students in the mess lawns. Of the 15 teach-ins held, each one had a considerable turnout from the student body and covered topics ranging from the ‘Erasure of Plurality’ to ‘Diving into Tyranny’.
The start of the semester also saw a glaring housing crisis at Ashoka, following the intake of the new batch. In an email on behalf of the Ashoka Scholars Programme (ASP) students, dated September 3, forwarded through the AUSG email, students recounted the following, “There are incidences of students sleeping on couches in faculty housing due to a lack of accommodation, being made to move out of campus and radically change their living situations, or be separated from roommates and instead room with strangers randomly allotted to them. They mentioned the university’s lack of accountability in the situation, exacerbated by the absence of an apology or comprehensive explanation.
The crisis also occurred in the middle of the placement cycle, disturbing many ASPs’ preparations and interviews.
The ASPs expressed extreme disappointment with the logistical problems of accommodation, stating that it was shocking to see that “a university this well-endowed can not grant its students basic housing.”
In an interview, House of Representatives Member Ahana Walanju told The Edict that on the weekend of August 26 and 27 they were informed by the Dean of Student Affairs to set up a help desk for batches moving in due to a “system crash.” The SG was asked to step in as, “they needed students to calm the parents down.” On the afternoon of September 3, members of the Student Life team also met with affected students. It was noted, “A working group on student housing comprising 3 members of the SG, 6 Resident Assistants, and Residence Life staff” would be formed to create a list of students wanting their preferred roommate.
The massive intake of the new cohort and inaccurate fee collection data led to a lower estimate of the number of rooms required for the year. Many students also did not register at the ground floor desks, resulting in bed unavailability.
Substance Abuse at Ashoka
On 7 September, Founder-Trustee Sanjeev Bikhchandani tweeted about “title inflation” with regard to the AUSG’s mandate and an alleged “substance abuse” problem among Ashokan students.
“The Student Government at Ashoka seems to be labouring under the impression that their mandate is to govern the University,” Bikhchandani wrote. “It isn’t. Their mandate is to work on student activities and student life.”
“I am disappointed for instance that The Student Government has had little to say or do about the problem of substance abuse by students at Ashoka. I think it would add a lot of value to Ashoka if the Student Government were to focus on this and assist the University administration in its ongoing efforts to tackle this issue.
“From what I have heard this is a growing problem at Ashoka. I have heard stories of deliveries of drugs by drones and room delivery in the hostels. I hope these stories are apocryphal.”
Following this tweet, the AUSG was invited to a meeting with Bikhchandani on 17 September. Founders Vineet Gupta, Ashish Dhawan, and Pramath Raj Sinha as well as Vice-Chancellor Somak Raychaudhury, Director of Student Affairs, Pooja Manaktala and the Dean of YIF and the Vice Chancellor’s Office, Aniha Brar, were also present.
In an email to the student body dated 15 October, the SG affirmed the meeting’s productivity and its “air of honesty and mutual respect.”
The controversy regarding Bikchandani’s tweets and the concerns surrounding substance abuse were addressed. The Student Government highlighted the importance of not resorting to “surveillance-based measures” to mitigate this issue while stressing the “importance of the Cohort Leader program in ensuring safety.”
Other points of discussion included the impact of the recent NEP implementation on students’ course trajectories, expanding the Ashoka Centre for Well-being (ACWB) and setting up the Worker’s Redressal Committee which has been under discussion for two years now.
In an email dated 21 September, the Cultural Ministry informed the student body the administration’s concerns about drug abuse have indefinitely delayed the annually held Fresher’s Night. Large-scale cultural events under the Cultural Ministry’s mandate have also been curtailed.
AUSG’s First Open Meeting
On 23 October, the Student Government held its first open meeting of the semester. The Student Government’s Governing Code mandates open meetings to be held at least twice a semester. They are an opportunity for the student body to get updates on the AUSG’s activities and directly ask officeholders questions.
The open meeting formally introduced the SG to students in attendance and provided updates on work the Ministries have completed or are currently engaged in. It also opened the floor for formal queries and general questions about the AUSG’s functioning.
The AUSG also addressed Navya Asopa’s recall in the meeting. Navya, an Independent Candidate and member of the House of Representatives, was recalled on 20 September. The recall and Navya’s replacement with Prachet Sinha were announced in an AUSG email on 5 October.
There was a noticeably poor turnout at this open meeting and engagement was also low. This is potentially a cause for concern, considering elections for the next academic year are rolling in next semester.