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Stop making Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s Resignation all about Ashoka’s Private Status

By Mahika Dhar (UG23) and Shivani Deshmukh (UG22)

The recent influx of media attention on Ashoka university protests has been powerful not only in amplifying the demand for academic freedom but also in forcing the board of management to recognise student demands. But there has been an ugly offspring of media hyper-focus that views this as a singular Ashoka issue. Others pivot it into a ‘private versus public universities’ debate, using it as an opportunity to dismiss Ashoka as a deluded and elitist experiment that ultimately was a “mirage”. Warranted or not, such viewpoints unfairly limit the scope to one university, when education and free-thinking in India itself are at risk.

After Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s and Arvind Subramanian’s resignation, media articles, often sharply-worded and rarely succinct, have misplaced the issue of academic freedom. Instead, they have chosen to vilify Ashoka for being a privately funded University, with Ashoka’s failing is attributed to its inaccessibility. Although this is a relevant criticism of private education, this diverges from the issue that haunts private and public universities alike – the limitation of academic freedom. An article recently published by The Indian Express ends itself ominously, with the words, “a fancy campus and a bunch of glittering CVs does never an institution make.” But is a fancy campus and a glittering CV really the point of prime relevance?

It is, of course, true, that private universities are expected to function with more freedom than public universities – at least in India. The clamp down on academic freedom in public universities is no new fact. The appointment of administrative heads, drafting of a syllabus, and the infringement on left-leaning political opinions is common. But when a University that is not backed by the government also succumbs to its pressure, there is moreso reason to be afraid. To then question the credibility of private universities than question a government that makes its force felt is to take a step blindly and see where it lands.

This loftier expectation for private universities is echoed in Professor Subramanian’s letter of resignation when he states that “even Ashoka – with its private status and backing by private capital”, and presupposes a benefit that private universities have over public ones. However, he then points to the larger forces that might be interfering in educational freedom; forces of political and central power that threaten every university.

The problem with bringing Ashoka’s private status into its failure to maintain academic freedom is that this makes the issue unilaterally about Ashoka when it is everything but that. Instead of simply asking why universities succumb to government pressure, we must ask why there is any pressure exerted by governments on universities and scholars at all. Many academics in public universities have already succumbed to government pressure – professors have been threatened, many have been jailed under made-up causes, students have had to face mobs, vandalism, and more. Presently, students and professors of JNU, Delhi University, TISS, among many others are subjected to physical violence and imprisonment for exercising their academic freedom. The list of students and scholars who have been incarcerated is inexhaustible, including, but not limited to Umar Khalid, Safoora Zargar, Sharjeel Imam, Natasha Narwal, Anand Teltumbde and Jayati Ghosh. These names are a few among thousands, who’ve faced the brunt of government pressure on their research or activism. The threat to academic freedom is not new, and to place Ashoka at the centre of the conversation is eventually, immaterial.

The limitation to Ashoka narrows the scope, while simultaneously flooding the narrative with the sidestep of individual intellectuals and Indian media’s obsessive debate over private and public universities. While it is true that some articles cover the broader issues facing education in India, too many of them distract from the central point to sensationalise Ashokan protests, or to centre the conversation around elitism. Yes, the founders of Ashoka should read Gandhi’s note on attempts at curbing free speech as Scroll suggests, but as should all the founders and administrative heads of every university that commits to the values of free speech and democracy and seeks to provide a safe space for those values.

The outrage is important. We should be angry, scared, as well as question where we are headed if universities cannot let dissent be heard proudly. However, to cloud the anger over Professor Mehta’s resignation by conflagrating the threat to academic freedom with the important, but separate issue of private universities being expensive, inaccessible bubbles is to ignore how government pressure has insidiously crept into institutions.

Professor Apoorvanand elegantly lays out the greater need going overlooked when he states,

“When talking about the fate of Ashoka, some of our colleagues have boasted that public universities are sanctuaries of free thought. They are lying to themselves. Public universities have made peace with this regime long back.”

If private universities do function under a marginally freer environment, they must assume some increased responsibility, which would help balance out the landscape of Indian education. More than anything, it is this “regime” that needs to listen and change, and if the regime refuses to do so, we all need to be unbearable in our demand for it.

Currently, Ashoka has failed to house the academic freedom that it promised to promote. Subsequent reporting has also failed to consider the larger context which this relatively smaller Ashoka-specific example stems from, and rarely points to possible solutions in the face of such political intimidation. The important questions now, are – How can a systemic change be brought about, sectionally and globally? How may we demand more transparency? Where else is this happening? And, how can we ensure that our vigilance never rests?

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