Ashoka University recently acknowledged “lapses in institutional processes” and ensured that it will fix them after two of its best-known academics — Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian — resigned consecutively over alleged political pressure. Ashoka University row has been going on for quite some time now with numerous students and faculty protesting PB Mehta’s resignation. Here, we try to figure out and explain why PB Mehta resigned and what the protests are all about.
Ashoka released their statement after former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan, an economist of global repute, also criticised the university for letting go of one of its best educators. “We acknowledge that there have been some lapses in institutional processes which we will work to rectify in consultation with all stakeholders. This will reaffirm our commitment to academic autonomy and freedom which have always been at the core of the Ashoka University ideals,” the varsity said in a statement.
“The chancellor, vice-chancellor and the chairman of the board of trustees of Ashoka University express deep regret at the recent events surrounding the resignations of Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Prof Arvind Subramanian who have been extraordinary colleagues and faculty members at Ashoka University,” the university added.
PB Mehta resignation
Mehta, who is known to be a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, had resigned as a professor from the leading private liberal arts university on March 16. He stated in his resignation letter that his association with Ashoka University may be considered a political liability. Another noted professor Arvind Subramanian had also quit after Mehta’s exit.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta & Arvind Subramanian quitting Ashoka University is sad news. The best minds are combative minds, critical minds. If we can't tolerate that, we damage creativity. The ultimate loser is the nation–its economy & growth. There are enough examples around the world.
— Kaushik Basu (@kaushikcbasu) March 18, 2021
Here are parts of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s letter to students:
This is the most difficult letter I have ever written. I wanted to write earlier. But we are still processing the train of events that led to my resignation, along with Prof. Subramanian. I was personally overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection and support you have displayed over the last week. Your solidarity means to me more than I can ever express in words. It is the affection that will overwhelm me whenever I will remember this week.
But the deeper reason why this is difficult to write is this. Ashoka as an institution stands indicted before your bracing moral clarity and deep political wisdom. Your protests instantly grasped what we, your elders, failed to adequately understand. Your protest was not about two individuals. It was about Ashoka’s institutional integrity. But it was also about the dark and ominous shadows that loom over India democracy. As we worry about Ashoka, you also reminded us that the challenges we face pale in comparison with what our academic colleagues in universities elsewhere in India face. You connected the dots. Your protest was focussed on Ashoka. But it was about values larger than Ashoka. As many of you know, one of my favourite quotes is from George Eliot, “the right to rebellion is the right to seek a higher rule, and not to wander in mere lawlessness.” Your “rebellion” was grounded in a concern for freedom and democracy. You carried it out with dignity, grace and I might add, based on memes some of you shared, some serious artistic creativity.
So what can we, those who let you down, say to you? The first thing I will say is this. In all candour, this episode will be seen to have hurt Ashoka’s reputation. But in a larger sense, Ashoka’s reputation will be enhanced, not by what the University did but what you did. You may lose a couple of Professors. But anyone looking at you will wonder in admiration. The poise and articulacy with which your defended important values and demanded accountability should make anyone want to associate with this university. You are its beating heart and soul and nothing can damage that. Second, it is not for me to intercede in this matter. But I imagine your voice will, in the long run, make Ashoka a better university and get it to recommit to its ideals and values. So your outpouring is already a victory of sorts. You have taught us by example, what we were badly trying to teach you by lectures. You should be proud of yourself. You should be confident that you will create a better world. You have already accomplished Ashoka’s mission.
Students of #AshokaUniversity staging a protest against the University's administration over the resignation of Prof #PratapBhanuMehta & Prof #ArvindSubramanian. Students were seen with placards with "Break the silence, it's time to grow a spine" written on it. pic.twitter.com/JODhUD0cyh
— Mojo Story (@themojostory) March 18, 2021
The Ashoka University row: Protests at the varsity
Nearly 100 students and faculty members have been staging protests on campus due to Ashoka University row. The students said they were “extremely saddened” by the exit of Mehta and Subramanian, who they added were invaluable members of the Ashoka community. “We strongly condemn these resignations and the lack of transparency from the university about the same. It is unacceptable that we are learning about the exits from news reports and not the university itself,” the students said.
On March 16, after his resignation, the students and faculty members asked the VC about the role of the trustees and founders of the university in Mehta’s resignation, which led Subramanian to quit thereafter. The VC had told them that she had not been a part of any conversation between Mehta and the trustees. “The trustees have categorically told me to convey on their behalf that they never asked Mehta to resign,” she said during her meeting with students. The VC also said she asked Mehta to take his resignation back, but he said he did not want to and “wants to be left alone”. The students and faculty members insisted that the VC give them the real reason for Mehta’s resignation and tell them if the atmosphere of academic freedom in the university is being compromised.
Support poured in from the academic community
Over 150 academicians from international universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton have come out in support of scholar and political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, stating that the founders made it “abundantly clear” that his association with the institution was a “political liability”. An open letter addressed to the university trustees, administrators and faculty stated that the signatories were “distressed” to learn of the professor’s exit under “political pressure from Ashoka University”. “A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, he had become a target for his writings. It seems that Ashoka’s Trustees, who should have treated defending him as their institutional duty, instead all but forced his resignation,” the open letter read.
Commenting on the Ashoka University row, the letter added, “We write in solidarity with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and to reaffirm the importance of the values that he has always practised. In political life, these are free argument, tolerance, and a democratic spirit of equal citizenship. In the university, they are free inquiry, candour, and the rigorous distinction between the demands of intellectual honesty and the pressure of politicians, funders, or ideological animus. These values come under assault whenever a scholar is punished for the content of public speech. When that speech is in defence of precisely these values, the assault is especially shameful.”