The unseemly departure of two renowned intellectuals, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramaniam, from Ashoka University, Sonepat, in the past few days over a shrinking free-speech space at the institution has sparked a collective howl of disappointment from academics the world over. From Raghuram Rajan to Milan Vaishnav to Martha C Nussbaum, the global intelligentsia is recoiling from what they termed a “dangerous attack on academic freedom”. “Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul,” the former Reserve Bank of India chief has said.
Mr Rajan, economist and a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wondered what motivated Ashoka’s founders “to remove their hitherto laudable protection”. “…Ashoka’s founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic,” he surmised in a LinkedIn post.
An eloquent and consistent critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, Mr Mehta quit as Ashoka University’s Vice-Chancellor in July 2019 but continued as a professor. On Tuesday, however, he abruptly resigned from that position, too.
In his parting letter to Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar, the 54-year-old wrote, “After a meeting with Founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens is perceived to carry risks for the university. In the interests of the University I resign.”
Ashoka University is India’s first such institution dedicated to the liberal arts and entirely privately-funded.
Two days after Mr Mehta’s departure, the Prime Minister’s former Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramaniam, resigned as faculty. He had joined the University as late as July 2020.
“…the circumstances involving the ‘resignation’ of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta…have devastated me…that someone of such integrity and eminence, who embodied the vision underlying Ashoka, felt compelled to leave is troubling,” Mr Subramanian wrote in his resignation letter.
In a short open letter to the trustees, administrators, and faculty of the university, a bunch of international academics has now expressed solidarity with Mr Mehta to reaffirm “the importance of the values he has always practiced”. “In political life, these are free argument, tolerance, and a democratic spirit of equal citizenship,” the letter said.
Former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram reacted to these developments saying this “BJP thought” will “wreck” India and turn it into an autocracy, PTI reported. “The people of India must rise to fiercely resist the attempt to impose one thought all over the country,” he said.
Faculty members, students, and alumni of Ashoka University, too, have expressed their anguish, saying Mr Mehta’s exit seems to be a direct consequence of his role as a public intellectual and critic of the government, PTI reported.