Welfare in Farewells
As history repeats itself at Ashoka University with a chilling likeness to the events of March 2021, the Department of Economics appears to have found itself in a game of she loves me, she loves me not with the Governing Body. What is also worth noting, is how this game has become rather crucial in determining the (il)legitimacy and limits of dissent at Ashoka.
In its open letter to the Governing Body, dated August 16, 2023, the Department of Economics demanded the unconditional reinstatement of Professor Sabyasachi Das and for the Governing Body’s role in evaluating faculty research to be diminished, in the hopes of ensuring that academic freedom is not compromised. The letter further stated that the Governing Body’s failure to address the aforementioned demands before August 23, 2023, would “systematically wreck the largest academic department at Ashoka and the very viability of the Ashoka vision”, as faculty members would not be able to fulfill their teaching obligations. The latest update via email, dated August 20, 2023, by the university’s Vice-Chancellor to the student body and faculty states:
“I would like to reassure each of you that the welfare of students is of utmost importance to your faculty and everyone in the University. The Monsoon semester is set to proceed as scheduled, and the Economics department has reaffirmed their commitment to holding classes, a sentiment echoed by almost all of the other departments I have heard from over the last couple of days.”
The use of the word ‘welfare’ was also seen in the latest statement by the Department of Economics, dated August 19, 2023, on the social media app X. It goes as follows, “The welfare of students is of utmost priority to the Economics department. Therefore, teaching at no point will be disrupted.” Both of these statements emphasize the welfare of students, however, the question that remains is, who decides what actions are in the best interest of welfare, and on what basis? Did the decision that was previously made by the Department of Economics in its open letter to the Governing Body, i.e., for the faculty to not carry forward with their teaching obligations unless its demands were met, not ensure welfare? Was it only after they met with the Governing Body and the Vice-Chancellor that the Department of Economics and the other departments that followed suit, English, Creative Writing, Political Science, and Psychology concluded which actions best ensured welfare and which ones did not?
While all these doubts can be cast aside as mere speculation, they do beg certain questions. What kind of dissent is welcomed within the boundaries of the Ashoka campus? What level of disruption in dissent is too disruptive for it to be regarded as legitimate, that does not hamper welfare?
Ravikant Kisana aka Buffalo Intellectual in the latest episode of his podcast ‘Mind your Buffalo’, heavily criticises the history of political inaction at Ashoka. He disagrees with the sentiment that is currently being echoed by the Ashokan faculty and students on social media, firm in his belief that the current political upheaval at Ashoka is not revolutionary in the least. He makes claims about the selectiveness and overall lack of political dissent at Ashoka, in relation to what he describes as the “elite and savarna” nature of the university. He argues that the privilege and connections that the caste and class status of Ashokan faculty and student body allow them, also elicit in them a sense of apathy towards national politics.
The podcast episode and the latest online statement of the Department of Economics wherein it has vowed to protest in ‘other ways’, provoke certain conversations about this critical juncture in Ashoka’s history of academic freedom and dissent. Perhaps it is eminent that the Ashokan faculty pushes to set a precedent that does not just strive to ensure short-term convenience but rather welfare in the years to follow.
The Student Government’s email, dated August 22, 2023, expressed disappointment with regard to not being kept in the loop about the aforementioned meeting. The email states, “We have not been formally informed of the content of these meetings, or even that these meetings took place. As the largest stakeholder in the future of our university, we are incredibly disappointed that we have not been accorded the same courtesy.”
As the student body is still in the dark about what transpired in the meeting between the academic departments and the Governing Body, it is left to our imagination as to why the fervor with which the academic departments were declaring the possibility of faculty strikes, suddenly ceased to exist. Were their demands met? The Department of Economics’ online statement does not hint at such.
The impact of disruptive dissent, like that of strikes and boycotts, cannot be replicated by verbal dissent alone. So while the Student Government, faculty, and the student body are tirelessly making efforts both online and on campus to make their demands heard, the response of the Ashoka administration has been historically abysmal.
Former Student Government president, Neha Sheikh in her statement to the Edict’s report, ‘Move-in Mobilisation: Freshers Join Open Meeting on First Night’, echoes the sentiment. The report features the following statement regarding Sheikh, “According to Sheikh, student powerlessness has, ‘Reached a place where we cannot adequately demand answers without being conveniently ignored.’”
According to the Hindustan Times report, dated March 23, 2021, the resignations of Professors Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian prompted students to stage a mass boycott of classes for two days. The report also stated that some of the classes were conducted without university resources, ensuring that academics were not disrupted. So, it can be said with assurance that there is a precedent in place that we can build upon.
However, the recent developments appear to be decidedly undermining the momentum of disruptive dissent at Ashoka and letting it die. Arguably, it is also possible that at this exceptionally critical moment in Ashoka’s history, such a misstep may bring about the ultimate demise of the university’s very goal to ensure welfare.