The Ashokan Culture of Contradictions: A Naïve Freshman's Take on Ashoka.
By Debadrito Poddar (UG ‘25)
It wasn't the first time I had seen the now ex-Vice Chancellor, Dr. Malabika Sarkar, up close in my short time at Ashoka. But her interview with The Edict, held in December last year, was certainly the first time I had heard her speak at length. At the end of roughly an hour, I came back with a lot of revelations to process, and not the kind I would expect from a liberal arts college with an emphasis on holistic development.
As a first year student in his first semester, I had come to Ashoka with an idealised image of this university. Don't get me wrong, its academics certainly live up to its reputation, as do its amenities; Ashoka is undoubtedly the face of a new era in Indian education. But I realise now that I may have been also guilty of turning a blind eye to its mishaps, ominously many for an institution that has only been in existence for eight years. A large number of these mishaps have occurred before my time at Ashoka,which is why I find it hard to speak about them with as much confidence as one might have from the knowledge gained through a firsthand experience of the unfolding events. However, this was not the case with the VC’s final interview.
To be frank, I am still not sure which segment of the interview disturbed me the most. Maybe it was the fact that the ex-VC, being a professor of Literature, dismissed graffiti as something done in juvenile moments of excitement? Or maybe it was just that she deflected from talking about events that defined her tenure as a Vice Chancellor and insisted, instead, on talking about herself and her personal journey solely, showing a lack of accountability? When questions were asked about the lopsided student demographics of Ashoka, every form of reservation, from caste to religion, was bracketed off and pushed under the umbrella of economic reservation. And the VC’s hesitation regarding this matter was backed up with a display of microaggressions against a trans student, when they demanded to know what progress has been made regarding the trans students' housing issue. As a first-year who had heard too many tales about how Ashoka is inclusive and diverse, this was truly a sight to behold.
I think that the problem runs a lot deeper than simply the Vice-Chancellor being insensitive and imperceptive to what the students actually wanted out of her final interview with the student body. This interview was actually emblematic of larger problems at Ashoka, in my opinion: the cognitive dissonance about the ground reality on campus and the lack of accountability from the administration that is due, in a large part, to the apathy that is so entrenched in the student body. This is also why I was slightly amused when a Professor once remarked to us in class that Ashoka is the next JNU. Can a university that struggles to cross a 40% turnout to simply pass a new student constitution be compared to another that routinely holds protests on issues ranging from capital punishment to hikes in fee?
Even the response to Professor Sarkar's deeply problematic interview shows how little of a stir it managed to cause. Save for the scattered thudding of desks at Takshila each time the VC made a controversial statement , there doesn't seem to have been any pushback from the student body. If this same event were to unfold at any of her previous workplaces, there would have been a far greater outcry against it. My father has worked in Jadavpur University for the last nineteen years, and tales of students routinely being detained by the police or going on hunger strikes in order to have their demands met are therefore nothing new to me. Somehow, I can't envisage the same here at Ashoka.
I think it can be said without much dispute that Ashoka's political culture is one that is filled with apathy, which leads to the administration becoming complacent about student issues. It's equally fascinating to me that, at the very hint of student revolt against the administration's initial decision to remove the club status of The Edict, the administration significantly watered down the decision, leaving it as nothing but a mere technicality. I have also heard stories about the student protests in 2019 following the decision of Pratap Bhanu Mehta to resign over issues of academic freedom. And yet again, I see something different now that I am actually present at the university. Imagine if apathy was not the expected norm in the student culture here. This constant contradiction, therefore, between the image that is portrayed about Ashoka and the ground reality continues to vex me.
True, I have only been in Ashoka for a mere 4 months. Maybe I am over-exaggerating the issues I have seen in my short time here. But I have also felt the palpable sense of anger and discontent in the room during the interview. I don't think I imagined that. But unfortunately, that anger felt extremely short-lived to me. The direction of Ashoka's political culture is in the hands of the students. And it is up to us to decide which way we want to steer it.
Debadrito Poddar is a first year student at Ashoka who intends to major in English or Political Science and loves reading dystopian fiction, is a very sporadic writer of badly plotted plays and a political junkie.