Ashoka Resignation Row is Not Just an Issue of Public vs Private University

The fracas over the recent resignations of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian from their faculty positions at Ashoka University highlights how the government is seeping into the boundaries of even private universities, and trying to curb their academic freedom.

Mehta, a renowned political scientist and commentator, wrote in his resignation letter earlier this week that the founders of the university had made it “abundantly clear” that his association with the institution was a “political liability”. Two days after his exit, Subramanian, the former Chief Economic Advisor in the Modi government, also resigned as professor from Ashoka University. In his resignation letter, he wrote that with Mehta leaving “the university’s commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question”.

Since his resignation, students have lodged their protest with the administration. Things took another turn when The Edict, Ashoka University’s student run newspaper, reported on March 17 about how Mehta’s exit was allegedly related to a land acquisition deal.

All these events finally led up to an explosive townhall on Thursday, March 18, where there were hundreds of participants, where Vice Chancellor Malabika Sarkar claimed that The Edict’s sources are not credible. This was also reiterated by founder Vineet Gupta, one of the founders, in an article published by The Print where he called the article “factually incorrect and purely speculative”. Even Shekhar Gupta in his YouTube series ‘Cut the Clutter’ said that Mehta’s resignation had nothing to do with the plot of land in question.

In an email from the editors of The Edict to the entire Ashokan community, they clarified why they have reasons to believe that their source was reliable. The email also said that the editorial team had reached out to the office of the VC before publishing the article to get Sarkar’s comments, but received no response.

Here’s where things get concerning. During the townhall, when a member of Ashoka University’s student body asked the VC about why the higher administration had put so much pressure on a reputed professor like Mehta to resign, Sarkar replied to say that she is the highest authority as the VC of Ashoka University, thereby dismissing the question which implied the actions of university trustees were behind this move.

But, despite being the ‘highest authority’, she wasn’t involved in the meeting that happened between professor Mehta and the trustees – a meeting which, as is evident through his resignation letter, is the key reason behind Mehta leaving Ashoka University.

As professor Amitabh Mattoo pointed out, the integrity of a university lies in the hands of the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor. If someone like Ashoka’s VC is not even involved in a major meeting that led to a professor’s resignation, then it speaks volumes about how a university runs at the whims of its funders instead of the supervision of the academic institutional head. This was also pointed out by many on Twitter who reaffirmed Mattoo’s words.

This lack of authority in the hands of the VC definitely raises questions about what lies below the surface while making it evident that the common notion about private colleges being safe from government intervention is only a utopian concept.

The entire Ashokan fraternity, being led by the student government, has taken it up on itself to find answers. The student government ad body has put forth three major demands:

  1. Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta be reinstated and a public apology be tendered.
  2. Institutional mechanism to prevent future incidents of this nature.
  3. A meeting with the founders.

The student agitation is only growing with each passing day. As of today morning, about 800 students have signed the initial statement issued on Professor Mehta’s resignation by the student body. Solidarity for the protests have been coming in from all communities of Ashoka, and even the alumni.

The faculty, who are currently the most vulnerable after the resignation row, also voiced their opinions in yesterday’s townhall. Several faculty members have recognised the fact that there are external factors that are obviously affecting the university and its functioning, so why then is the administration being silent without any acknowledgement of the same?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Keeping in mind that the protests won’t stop, Ashoka University is seeing a sense of collectivisation that it hasn’t seen in the past. Resignations of professors in the past have taken place due to political pressure, but this time the students do not intend to give up on the momentum that has been gained and unity observed. At this given juncture, students are planning to make sure that innovative ways of collectivisation are taken up so that students who cannot directly be involved in such efforts of dissent due to several reasons can also get a voice.

Also read: Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Critic of Government Policies, Resigns as Professor at Ashoka University

At a point of time when there is this sense of unity among students who are going on to their second day of protest at the campus, discussing future plan of actions, it needs to be recognised that it isn’t a private vs public university issue but rather an issue of the current government’s autocratic intervention at educational institutions across India.

Thus, the question arises: If a private university – a space where dissent of any sort is usually curbed as intuitional mechanisms don’t allow for the same – is seeing its student protest and stand up for their institution’s academic freedom and future, then will it receive support from its public counterparts or just be maimed for its private nature?

Arkoprabho Hazra is a Young India Fellow, Ashoka University.

Featured image: Ashoka University’s campus in Sonipat. Photo: Ashoka University/Facebook