The resignation of top academics from Ashoka University is reflective of the current atmosphere where centres of education that encourage us to question beliefs and prejudices pose a direct threat to the Hindutva state.
The news of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University has filled me with an immeasurable sense of loss. I have known Pratap since he was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard in the mid-1990s. His field was moral and political philosophy and, even before he had completed the book whose peer-reviewed acceptance for publication is virtually a pre-condition for even applying for, let alone securing tenure (i.e lifetime professorship) at Harvard, his colleagues had taken it for granted that he would be among the very few post-docs who would be granted it when his fellowship came up for review.
But Pratap did not wait for the tenure review and returned to India because his heart had been set upon it from the very beginning. What pulled him back was, simply put, a burning desire to serve his country. Soon after he returned, he submitted his first article to the Indian Express. I remember that one very well because on reading it I realised straight away that he had brought an element into political commentary that had been lacking before. This was an ethical yardstick, based upon his understanding of the moral and political foundations upon which great nations have rested, and whose betrayal has led to their downfall. Needless to say readers of the Indian Express, and its editors, also saw this, and Pratap’s column in the Indian Express, which he has sustained till this day, was instantly born.
When the founders and trustees of Ashok university chose him to succeed its first vice-chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, they could not have made a better choice. For not only had they chosen a renowned scholar, but one who had already shown, as the director of the Centre for Policy Research, that he has the self-confidence to allow an already well-governed institution to continue governing itself and grow through collective endeavour, and confine his role to protecting that growth.
Ashoka University’s haloed place at risk
Among the several private universities that were set up in the glory days of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the distinctive feature of Ashoka University was its decision not to open the gates of admission wide to ensure its financial viability but to enrol only students who meet admission standards comparable to those of the best universities in the world. As a result, the quality of its student body, its faculty, the seminars they hold, and the research the PhD students do has been attracting growing respect in centres of higher education across the world.
This had not come as a surprise to me because, having taught as visiting faculty at Harvard, the University of Virginia, Sciences-Po in Paris and The New School University in New York, I had realised from my very first interactions with the faculty and students at Ashoka, that the quality of education it was giving, and of the research being done there, was second to none.
I was convinced that it was only a matter of time – and not much time at that – before Ashoka came to be recognised as one of a couple of dozen best liberal arts universities, something no Indian university has managed to do so far. I had also all but persuaded my daughter that to ensure a world class university education for my grandchildren, it was no longer necessary to look outside the country. That hope too is now fading as I look at the uncertain future that lies ahead.
Tragically, in a country with an unparalleled record of missed economic opportunities, and failed moral and political development, it is this single-minded pursuit of excellence that has endangered Ashoka’s future, for it threatens the very base of the edifice of power that the RSS has created for the Sangh Parivar. For that base is fabricated from ignorance, dogma, prejudice, an utter misreading of Hinduism, and a twisted, sometimes fictitious rendering of Indian history from the Mauryan ‘Golden Age’ to the present day, and the perpetuation of the communal hatred that was Britain’s parting present to India.
Hindutva brigade aversion to knowledge
It has been apparent from the Modi government’s first days in power that it considers knowledge, and sincere, dispassionate debate to be its enemy, because it knows that the promotion of “Hindutva” and his government’s very survival, depends upon the relentless fostering of the myth, passion, and prejudice. Freedom to debate, and the right to disagree, are its enemies because they allow us to question existing beliefs and discredit myth and prejudice. Centres of excellence in education that encourage both are therefore direct threats to the Hindutva state.
Modi’s advisers have made no secret of their belief that knowledge is an enemy of the state. So it is hardly surprising that they have targeted liberal arts universities like Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and now Ashoka, in particular. They destroyed Delhi’s academic integrity first over the Ramayana issue; they have all but succeeded in taming JNU by appointing an unknown professor from a different institution who is a known member of the RSS as its vice-chancellor and permitting him to hound dissident students, bring the police onto the campus, and systematically emasculate its academic council.
But the government’s bete noire has been a section of the print media and the proliferating online journals to which many of the best and brightest in civil society have migrated. So it is hardly surprising that its baleful gaze has now fallen on the digital media.
Its favourite mode of attack has been the choking off of funds, through layer after layer of draconian and intrusive laws whose cumulative effect has been to ban foreign funding, open domestic donors to ever heavier and more intrusive investigation, and declare any criticism of the government or its policies an ‘unlawful act’ that opens the alleged perpetrator to a minimum of six months in jail without a judicial hearing, at the will and command of the police and its masters.
Ashoka University has so far escaped this fate, but the pressure upon it to bow to the government’s will has been mounting for at least the past four years. Pratap Bhanu Mehta has been the focus of this pressure because he is among the very few persons in the country who has the stature and credibility to defend the right of dissent in both academia and through his columns in the Indian Express. This has been far too much power for the government to stomach. Pratap Mehta has been at the head of this select list.
Pratap Mehta alleviated the pressure on the University for the first time in 2019 by resigning from the vice-chancellorship but staying on as a Professor. But the Modi government did not relent, so the government’s pressure on the university’s founders and donors continued.
Mehta has tried to save the university a second time by resigning from his professorship also. But this too will not suffice, because the government’s main purpose has not been to push him out of the university but stop his column in the newspapers. That is the request that the board and some of the trustees of Ashoka are believed to have made of him. Pratap has chosen the alternative of cutting all his remaining links with the university.
But instead of dousing the fire, this has added fuel to it. The resignation from its faculty of Arvind Subramaniam, Arun Jaitly’s former economic adviser, and the rebellion of the student body has seriously jeopardised Ashoka’s future. Other faculty members are presently awaiting the outcome of the struggle, but it is a safe bet that should the Trustees not rediscover the courage to stand up to the government, there will be more resignations and a fairly rapid departure of the best professors to universities abroad.
Ashoka university may survive, but it will do so not as a liberal arts university comparable to Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge but as a successful skill imparting university comparable to Jindal University next door. Should this happen far more will have failed than just another foray into higher education.
For one has only to look at the place that is occupied by the above-mentioned universities in the US and UK, and of Sciences-Po and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in France, to understand the role that liberal arts universities that have played in creating the thinkers and policymakers – Plato’s Men of Gold – who have guided the destinies of their nations.
Oxford and Cambridge were training colleges for the clergy before Britain became the archetypal nation-state and the first global hegemonic power the world had seen. Both remained staunchly liberal arts universities till the interregnum between the First and Second World Wars, when British hegemony ended.
In a similar manner, Harvard and Yale were highly regarded but national, and primarily East Coast universities till the flowering of American hegemony after the First World War. Today it is these universities in which the shape of the future, global, political and economic order is being discussed and shaped.
By virtue of its size, its cultural diversity, and its ancient and continuous civilisation, India can rightfully claim a place among these nations. But that place must be earned. To earn it, India’s intelligentsia must have the freedom to discuss the nation’s future, and the freedom to dissent within itself, and with the government of the day.
“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” our courts have intoned, most eloquently in Romila Thapar versus the Union of India. But it is Pratap Mehta again, who has described the constructive power of dissent in the making of a nation.
In the annual lecture he delivered for Project 39A on December 10, last year, he said, “Dissent is not a freestanding value because it is grounded in moral judgment. It has, as George Elliot said, to speak in the name of a higher rule; it has to speak in the name of a common good; it has to be reaching for something better. Otherwise, it simply is a disposition to subvert, where the means become the ends (emphasis added).”
Today the BJP is on its back feet. In the past year, it has succeeded in alienating just about every important group in the country – the entire working class, especially its migrant component, the farmers, and the small and medium enterprise owners and their employees.
These are vast economic strata that cut across every ideological and religious grouping in the country, so its standard appeals to religion and hate are failing. It has fallen into this trap, not because of the COVID pandemic, but because it has choked off public debate and dissent. Ashoka university was primarily, and could still be, its best vehicle for bringing the global debate into India. But all that this government seems intent upon is to destroy its future.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based former journalist and editor. He is the author of Managed Chaos: The Fragility of the Chinese Miracle, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger—Can China and India Dominate the West.
This story first appeared in thewire.in on March 20, 2021 here.