Ashoka University students want Prof. Mehta reinstated, to boycott classes

Ashoka founders have bartered away its soul, says Raghuram Rajan.

The students of the Ashoka University plan to boycott classes on Monday and Tuesday to protest the exits of their professors Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian. They are demanding that Prof. Mehta be offered his job back with a public acknowledgement of the pressures behind his resignation, as well as a divestment of the trustees’ powers to the university staff, students and faculty.

“If these demands are not met by Tuesday, we will be organising a separate movement demanding that the Vice-Chancellor resign,” said the statement issued by the student union on Saturday.

“Not only have we lost intellectual giants and erudite academics whose scholarship we value deeply, but also our trust and faith in this administration to protect the students within this university from external political pressures — specifically, the Vice-Chancellor [Professor Malabika Sarkar], Chancellor [Professor Rudrangshu Mukherjee] and Founders of this university. This is a gross violation of academic freedoms and we strongly condemn it,” they said.

They demanded an open meeting of the university’s founders with the student body. “We must create a body with both members of the faculty and student body to serve as a medium to discuss matters with the founders and the administration.”

On Friday, at least four of the trustees met the faculty to hear their concerns.

According to one faculty member, the trustees insisted that there had been no government pressure behind Prof. Mehta’s resignation but admitted that “donors wanted it”. However, they insisted they had not asked him to resign. Several senior faculty also pushed strongly for the founders to “stay out” of the university functioning, said the faculty member.

Flak from all corners

Criticism also came from outside Ashoka. Former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan accused the university’s founders of bartering away its soul, in a post on Linkedin on Saturday. “The reality is that Professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments,” he wrote, calling Prof. Mehta an “equal opportunity critic” and “one of the leaders of intellectual liberalism in India”.

“If Ashoka’s founders believe they have compromised with the powers that be in the greater interests of the university, they are wrong. Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul,” he said.

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More than 170 senior academics from top universities around the world, including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and Columbia, signed an open letter in solidarity with Prof. Mehta, expressing their distress at his resignation under political pressure.

“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,” said the letter, which was signed by distinguished scholars of political science, history, government, law and ethics.

They contended that the values Prof. Mehta practised included free argument, tolerance, a democratic spirit of equal citizenship, free inquiry, candour and a 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,” said the letter.

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