How Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s Exit from Ashoka University is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Hosted by Chirag Chinnappa
Edited by Malavika VN

A little over a month ago, political scientist and outspoken public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta issued a resignation letter to Ashoka University, where he taught as a Professor.

“We live in complicated times. India is bursting with creativity. But the dark shadows of authoritarianism are also hovering over us, putting us all in often uncomfortable and sometimes dishonourable positions. We will have to find principled and intelligent ways of overcoming this condition,” wrote professor Mehta, whose resignation letter was telling of the politics that come with criticizing the government at the Centre.

After a meeting with [Ashoka University’s] 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.

Just 48 hours later, former Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) Arvind Subramanian resigned from his post as Professor at Ashoka University as well. “That even Ashoka — with its private status and backing by private capital — can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing”, he wrote.

A joint statement issued by the University and two professors acknowledged “that there have been some lapses in institutional processes”. They reaffirmed their “commitment to academic autonomy and freedom which have always been at the core of the Ashoka University ideals”.

The circumstances surrounding these resignations begs larger questions about academic freedom in India. Is there something innate about silencing certain types of academic expression? Can being backed by well-off private players protect budding Indian academics from overt state control? What are some basic demands that administrations can do to protect academic freedom?

Chirag Chinnappa sat down with Dr Bittu, Head of the Psychology Department and Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology at Ashoka University, and Dr Shivali Tukdeo, a Researcher and Faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, to understand why Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s much-publicized exit from Ashoka University is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to silencing free speech and expression in India.


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