The resignation of Sabyasachi Das, a faculty member in the Economics Department, followed by Economics Professor Pulapre Balakrishnan has once again triggered a debate on academic freedom at Ashoka University. This wasn’t the first time professors have resigned from their posts as a mark of their dissent. Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a professor at St Xaviers University, and another professor at IIMC are among those who made headlines by quitting their coveted jobs over academic “freedom” in recent years.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta had resigned from Ashoka University in 2021, triggering protests by students and condemnation by globally acclaimed scholars. The political scientist has been consistently questioning the ruling establishment. Putting on record his reason for leaving Ashoka University, Mehta wrote in his resignation letter that the founders made it “abundantly clear” his association with the institution was a “political liability.” It should be noted that Mehta had stepped down as Vice-Chancellor of the University, two years before he quit as a professor.
In 2016, Mehta resigned from the Executive Council of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library to protest the marginalisation of academic credentials in the selection process of its director. In 2006, he quit the National Knowledge Commission to protest against the UPA’s decision to introduce numerically mandated OBC quotas in Central institutions calling it against meaningful affirmative action.
A graduate of Oxford and Princeton, Mehta has taught at Harvard, JNU, and the New York University School of Law. He is on the editorial board of leading academic journals including the American Political Science Review, The Journal of Democracy, and India and Global Affairs.
While the crisis at Ashoka deepened after Mehta’s resignation, former Chief Economic Advisor in the Modi government Arvind Subramanian also tendered his resignation. Terming Mehta’s exit “ominously disturbing,” for academic freedom, Subramanian resigned as professor. He also cited the fact Ashoka, even with its private status and private capital, can no longer provide space for academic expression and freedom.
Subramanian joined Ashoka in July 2020 as a professor in the Department of Economics. He is also the founding director of the new Ashoka Center for Economic Policy, devoted to researching policy issues related to India and global development. He is also the founding director of the new Ashoka Center for Economic Policy, devoted to researching policy issues related to India and global development.
Three professors resigned from Ashoka University in 2016
In 2016, Ashoka University saw three professors resign over a Kashmir petition. Mathematics professor Rajendran Narayanan; Saurav Goswami, deputy manager of academic affairs; and Adil Mushtaq Shah, programme manager of academic affairs, signed a petition in July 2016 condemning the violence over Hizbul militant Burhan Wani’s death and calling for a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir.
However, Ashoka University claimed it did not coerce two managers and one professor to leave the university for signing a Kashmir petition along with 85 students. But two emails by the university’s Faculty Council, an elected body representing all Ashoka teachers, said otherwise. Narayanan resigned from the university’s mathematics department citing “ethical reasons” on December 15. Goswami and Shah resigned on October 7, 2016, sparking a debate over curbs on freedom of speech on campus.
Kerala University professor resigns from Board of Studies
Back in 2019, Meena T Pillai, professor of the University of Kerala resigned from the Board of Studies of English and Comparative Literature at the Central University of Kerala (CUK). She quit the role as a mark of protest against instructions issued by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development regarding the choice of theses for PhD candidates.
“Research on, say, a small tribal community in a remote village of Kerala would be a priority. So who decides what is relevant and irrelevant? Even to bring in specific classifications and categorisations in research is against the very spirit of higher education. Research is also critique, dissent and the right to ask questions. The moment you start deciding what areas of research one should limit oneself to, where is the academic freedom of the researcher?” Pillai had told The Indian Express. The circular was issued at the behest of the Union HRD Ministry, which, at a meeting of vice-chancellors of central universities in December 2018, had asked the V-Cs to “discourage research in irrelevant areas”. Prof Pillai, who teaches at the Institute of English at the University of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram (which is different from the CUK), was an external member of the Board of Studies.
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In 2016, Amit Sengupta, an Associate Professor English Journalism department at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) quit after an order was issued transferring him to the premier media school’s campus in Odisha’s Dhenkanal district, which he slammed as a “political decision”. Sengupta had expressed solidarity with protests over Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide and he accused the government of having “targeted” him.
Stating that the order to move him “was issued without any discussion with me or any faculty member”, Associate Professor Amit Sengupta added that “this violates every principle of academic freedom and autonomy of IIMC”. “You have reduced IIMC into a hand-maiden of a vicious, undemocratic and partisan regime,” Sengupta wrote in his resignation letter to IIMC’s OSD Anurag Misra.
Stating that he was aware that he had been targeted because he supported the solidarity protest for Rohith Vemula on the IIMC campus, Sengupta wrote, “I am proud of standing up for Rohith Vemula, and will continue to do so in the days to come. This is my constitutional right. I think grave injustice has been done to him and the students of Hyderabad Central University. I will always stand and fight for Dalit rights.” He added that he had also been targeted because he supported the JNU and FTII students.