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  • Keerthana Panchanathan

Sabyasachi Das Reportedly Resigns Amidst Backlash on Democratic Backsliding Paper

The Wire reported late on Sunday Dr Sabyasachi Das’s apparent resignation from his post as Assistant Professor of Economics at Ashoka University following widespread backlash on his working paper exploring democratic backsliding in the 2019 general elections, and Ashoka University’s statement dissociating itself from the paper.

Das’s resignation was confirmed to The Wire by “at least two” unnamed faculty members.

One faculty member reportedly commented explaining how such a situation of public outrage coupled with negative press creates a “grey area,” pushing an academic’s back to the wall, whereby “. . . the only way one can save one’s dignity is by resigning.”

Another faculty member informed The Wire of the attempts made by fellow faculty to persuade Das to remain at the University: “We’ve been trying as hard as possible to get him to stay…. He has submitted his resignation. We’re trying to persuade him to stay.”

Upon the preprint being released, many criticised Das’s paper for alleging voter manipulation based on datasets judged to be empirically insufficient for such a conclusion. Das was accused of questioning India's democratic polling process and fabricating electoral malpractice.

Criticisms questioning Das’s research rigour arrive among rampant and unsolicited attacks on his person and character making their rounds on social media.

Das’s resignation calls back to a markedly similar situation from two years ago, when Ashoka University’s ex-Vice Chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta was seemingly coerced into resigning from the university due to his frequent criticism of the incumbent Union government in his writings for the Indian Express.

The University’s administration is now facing backlash almost identical to what it faced then: from students, alumni, and academics around the globe, for failing to support its faculty in their work independent of the university.

Ruhaan Shah, ASP’24, tweeted on Monday, “While Pratap Bhanu Mehta's resignation was a result of Ashoka's cowardly backdoor politics, with Das' resignation, it is clear that @AshokaUniv is now willing to publicly renounce any desire for academic freedom and consequently, its faculty.”

Another incoming ASP student, choosing to remain anonymous, expresses disdain on the university’s silence, “It’s funny how Ashoka scurried to remove association with the paper and is now choosing to be silent.” On Das’s academic calibre, the student writes, “I wish people had the chance to be in class with [Sabyasachi Das], what a wonderful presence, and still so, so humble.”

Das continues to draw support from the academic community globally. “Universities are not buildings of brick and mortar, with manicured lawns and fancy classrooms. They are institutions.” writes Sushant Singh, Senior Fellow at CPR India and former Lecturer at Yale University, condemning the university’s inability to “stand up” in Das’s defence.

Maadhav Kumar, an economist and alumnus of the Graduate Institute, Geneva, expressed dismay at the departure of a “. . brilliant economist with rare integrity” from Ashoka, stating Das, “. . . paid a heavy price for going against the mighty regime.”

Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, took to social media expressing disappointment at the “lack of solidarity” displayed by senior Economics faculty at Ashoka towards Das, a junior academic within the department. “Silence enables injustice, and it spreads,” the post warns.

In response to a reply defending the university’s stance, Ghosh further argues that the issue at hand is one of academic freedom: “Allowing young scholars to be thrown under the bus doesn’t necessarily protect senior ones in the future. Actually, it makes things worse.”

Dr. Ashwini Deshpande, Head of Ashoka University’s Economics Department, responding to Ghosh’s criticism, stated, “[It is] amazing how people are making assumptions about our “lack of solidarity” without knowing anything about what we have been upto the last 15 days. If statements alone could solve crises, we would be in a different world.”

Deshpande’s statement hints at wider faculty dismay, hitherto unexpressed publicly, in an exercise of caution in what is evidently a volatile climate for public discourse.

Das is scheduled to teach two sections of a core economics course, Development Economics, in the Monsoon semester starting less than two weeks from today. Though his notice period remains unknown, his possible departure from the University puts the Department in the difficult position of finding a replacement instructor to teach in his stead, and jeopardises the academic trajectory of hundreds of students.

The Edict has reached out to Ashwini Deshpande, Amita Baviskar (Dean of Faculty), Ashoka University’s Public Relations and Communications Office, and Sabyasachi Das. Comments are awaited from all of the aforementioned parties.

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