The Essence of Liberalism: Learning Under Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University is the talk of the town. In his resignation letter, he notes that his “association with the university may be considered a political liability”.

Any layman would know that his resignation comes against the backdrop of the politics of our times. This government has made it clear time and again that it fears ideas. It has internalised the fact that words can have a greater impact than even physical violence. Professor Mehta is recognised as the epitome of liberal values. In all his public writings and speeches, his messages converge on the essence of liberalism. One thing that has emerged out of this fiasco is the revelation that this government reeks of insecurity. Every moment, it is deeply anxious about what could happen next.

Professor Mehta’s resignation is one such example that proves that the present government seeks to take pre-emptive measures for the sake of a stable future for itself. It is these insecurities that have led them to crack down on all forms of opposition, ranging from academicians and activists to journalists. His resignation doesn’t just evoke a sense of disappointment towards Ashoka’s loss of institutional integrity, but points to a larger problem. As professor Mehta himself notes in his letter to the student body, “Your protest was focussed on Ashoka. But it was about values larger than Ashoka… your ‘rebellion’ was grounded in a concern for freedom and democracy”.

Before I elaborate on why his resignation is a bigger deal than it seems to be at first glance, let me first share some of my experiences working with professor Mehta.

Also read: Full Text | ‘Dear Superheroes’: Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s Letter to Students at Ashoka

I am a fourth-year student at Ashoka. Over the past three-four years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to work with professor Mehta. Apart from a foundation course on ‘Great Books’, he teaches two variants of ‘Western Political Thought’ at Ashoka and I was lucky enough to be a part of both courses. We read a wide spectrum of thinkers including Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Burke and Beauvoir – the list goes on.

Using his persuasive powers, he has this amazing ability to convince us of the arguments postulated by every thinker. With all the hearsay that has been swirling around Ashoka since its inauguration – that it is a hub of leftists where students are indoctrinated to become anti-BJP – professor Mehta was one such figure who never expressed his political opinions in class.

Even if a student tried to relate a thinker to the current political climate in India, he made sure his responses were tailored to help us better understand the thinkers and not use the opening as a platform for his political opinions.

I often come across people who have a bizarre image in their mins that the underlying aim of the Ashoka project is to incubate students to become life-long revolutionaries. The ruling government tends to impose the same trope here that it uses for its justification for the ‘love jihad’ laws – ‘better stop the conspiracy now or else India’s future is in danger’.

I want to shatter this image. Professor Mehta is an academician and an intellectual who offered his services at Ashoka to imbue his students with skills and knowledge to have a better understanding of the world we inhabit. He never let his public writings reflect in his classes. He always remained neutral.

Also read: Ashoka Resignations: A Bump in the Making Of A University

This past semester, I also worked as a teaching assistant under him for one of his courses. He is one of the most understanding professors I have met. He is flexible with deadlines for course papers to ensure that the online semester is not getting too heavy on students. During our interactions, he always inquired if students are learning or if there is any way he could make the syllabus better to make his classes more interesting and engaging. He made sure his students had complete autonomy on how they wished to write their graded essays and the themes they wished to cover.

In a way, he embodies precisely those values that Ashoka had always stood for; the same values which have pushed him to resign – intellectual autonomy, critical thinking, and a Socratic method of learning through debates.

He is also my thesis advisor – I am writing a thesis on ‘Moral justifications of Unconditional Basic Income (UBI)’ on grounds of equality and freedom. It is during such engagements that I came to realise how devoted he is to the project of cultivating a politics that, as he wrote in his resignation letter, “tries to honor constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens”.

Throughout the year, it has been a transformative experience and despite all his other commitments, he took the time out to share his insights and guide me through my thesis. It is utterly disappointing that a person of his stature, who has devoted his life towards upholding the values of liberalism, is being treated in such a despicable manner.

For all those who think that Professor Mehta’s resignation does not deserve the kind of attention it has received over the past few days, let me tell you this. His resignation goes beyond Ashoka and is a sign of a much bigger problem. It needs to be seen in the wake of the current political and social circumstances. The reason why his resignation beseeches wider attention is that allowing such political pressures to prevail also means we are rendering legitimacy to the dominant narratives that the ruling government seeks to implant about all issues.

It is as much about the issue of social polarisation in West Bengal as it is about clamping down on education institutions. The fact that there is an effort to subdue voices of such bastions of freedom will have disastrous consequences for India.

Akshat Sogani is a fourth-year student at Ashoka University, pursuing an advanced major in Political Science. He is writing an honors thesis under the supervision of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta. 

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