There is much debate and discussion underway following the resignation of ’eminent intellectual’ Pratap Bhanu Mehta as a professor of the Ashoka University. After Mehta’s resignation, Arvind Subramanian resigned as well, leading to a host speculations regarding the reasons behind the same.
As is to be expected, the resignation drove liberals on social media into a frenzy alleging a sinister government plot behind the resignation. Pratap Bhanu Mehta was made to resign because the Modi Government cannot tolerate dissent, so goes the claim. And some of it was fueled by a report that surfaced soon after his resignation and Mehta’s own statements.
The Edict Report and what other ‘sources’ said
The Edict, an independent student newspaper of Ashoka University, claimed that there was a plot of land that was behind the resignation. It reported on the 17th of March, “A source, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Edict that the resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta was endorsed by the Founders of the University. This endorsement, according to a senior faculty member with whom our source spoke, was motivated by an understanding that if Prof. Mehta resigned, the University’s efforts to acquire a new plot of land to expand the campus would get much smoother.”
“Additionally, formal recognition for the fourth-year post-graduate diploma, Ashoka Scholars’ Program, was also hinted at being part of the deal,” added the report. Vineet Gupta, a trustee and co-founder of Ashoka University, however, rubbished the allegations made in the report.
He told The Print in a statement, “The Edict article about Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s departure and its purported link with either the plot for Ashoka’s new campus or statutory approval for the four-year UG programme is factually inaccurate.”
“The plot of land for Ashoka’s new campus was acquired three years ago. There is no question of approval for the four-year UG programme being a factor, because that is governed by a national law and is not specific to any university. The four-year programmes have anyway been approved by the government under the new National Education Policy for all universities. The article is purely speculative. Please treat it as such,” he added.
However, faculty members appear to believe that his criticism of the government may have played a part. “The university has always tried to stay away from unnecessary media attention. Being a private institution, it does not want to be seen as anti-government, and Pratap’s columns were doing just that, drawing attention to the university,” one faculty member was quoted by The Print as saying.
“The founders were not happy with it, hence he was first asked to step down as V-C, which slowly paved the way for his resignation.”
Indian Express reported that ‘sources’ had told them that Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Raj Sinha, the founders of the University, met Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently and ‘suggested’ that they could not protect his ‘intellectual interventions’ given the “current political environment”.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his own words
The perennial critic of the Modi Sarkar, in his resignation letter, is reported to have claimed that he is a victim of his political opinions. “After a meeting with 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,” he stated.
“It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka. A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish. I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment. Nietzsche once said that “no living for truth is possible in a university.” I hope that prophecy does not come true,” Mehta added. Vice Chancellor Malabika Sarkar is reported to have tried to convince him to reverse his decision but to no avail.
“The VC also stated that unfortunately, Prof. Mehta did not wish to rescind his resignation after she asked him to do the same this evening. Furthermore, there were questions on issues of accountability and why there was little to no transparency regarding Prof. Mehta’s resignation from the university. The VC replied that she was hoping for him to withdraw his resignation and hence the university had not put out an official statement yet, which would be done by the night or the following morning, since there is some certainty with respect to his decision at the present moment,” The Edict reported.
Resignation letter of Arvind Subramanian
Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic advisor to the Modi Government, had much to say about the episode in his own resignation letter, which came two days later. He said, “However, the circumstances involving the ‘resignation’ of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who is not just a dear friend but a truly inspirational national figure, have devastated me. I am acutely aware of the broader context in which Ashoka and its trustees have to operate, and have so far admired the university for having navigated it so well.”
“But that someone of such integrity and eminence, who embodied the vision underlying Ashoka, felt compelled to leave is troubling. 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. Above all, that the university’s commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka,” he continued.
The Alumni Speaks, so does the Faculty
The Ashoka University Student Government and the varsity’s Alumni Council backed Pratap Bhanu Mehta in a statement. “We express our unconditional support to Professor Mehta who always taught us to be critical of the structures we live around and question what is taken for granted,” it said.
“The events that have transpired point to a failure on the chancellor and vice-chancellor’s part in protecting the university faculty from external pressures, and more importantly, also point to the failure of the founders to ensure the same,” the statement read.
“We are also concerned about the larger implications this has on the freedom of speech for Ashoka’s students and faculty. This is not the first time that professors have come under fire for their opinions and/or their course content. We are worried about the support they will have in the future, whether it will force them to self-censor, and what this means for the quality of our education,” it added.
The University Faculty, in its own statement, stated, “This would fly against the principles of academic freedom on which Ashoka University has been set up — and which Professor Mehta, in his time as vice-chancellor and university professor, has so scrupulously fought to defend. It would also set a chilling precedent for future removals of faculty, curtailing our sense of who we are as researchers and teachers.”
The narrative in liberal circles
The circumstances of his resignation are still unclear. Pratap Bhanu Mehta claims that he has become a political liability but the Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University insists that she attempted to convince him to reverse his decision. It does not come across as the conduct of a Vice Chancellor who wants him gone.
Additionally, there are reports that the founders of the University themselves intervened in the matter. What was said in the meeting between them and Mehta, if such a meeting occurred at all, is not entirely known and all that we know is what has been reported in the mainstream media and from Mehta’s own comments.
The mainstream media, as we are well aware, has a well established tendency to misreport and misrepresent facts. Therefore, it is in the interests of everyone to reserve judgment until the founders present their own version of events.
Nevertheless, liberals have decided to paint Mehta a ‘martyr’ and interpret everything as he says as gospel truth. Sheldon Pollock, a professor at Columbia University, expressed his dissatisfaction with the Ashoka University in a statement to the Indian Express.
Pollock said, “With the resignation of Prof. Mehta, the University’s foremost scholar and public intellectual, my respect for the institution has been seriously tested. I have great admiration for the Chancellor of the University, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, and for many of the trustees. I call upon them to provide a full, public, accounting of whatever policies or pressures brought about the circumstances that forced Prof. Mehta’s resignation, and to offer an unequivocal, public repudiation of them.”
“If this is not done, and done soon, the stain on the University will be indelible, and the support of its most fervent admirers permanently lost,” he added. Ichchhadhari protester Yogendra Yadav, who has been larping around as a farmer recently, said, “Pratap Mehta has single handedly raised the bar of public discourse in India.His mid-semester “resignation” shows we’ve entered next phase of suppression of ideas, that there are no “safe heavens” for dissenters, not even in private univs.”
Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor opined, “There’s more to this than meets the eye but it ends the claims of AshokaU to be the leading liberal arts university in India. This craven caving in confirms my statement to the LokSabha Tues that Universities are no longer safe spaces for free expression.” Kapil Sibal, calling it an ‘induced resignation’, said, “The last bastions of resistance too are falling”.
The Indian Express said in an editorial, “Craven surrender by Ashoka’s founders inaugurates its slide, shows how private capital is unable and unwilling to stand up. As Universities go, Ashoka University is still young. But it is, sadly, already in decline. It took only about seven years for its founders and trustees to let down the fundamental idea that animated its institution.”
Sanjay Jha, who was unceremoniously humiliated by the Congress party, said, “Pratap Bhanu Mehta is an exceptional commentator, bipartisan, candid and erudite. We need more public intellectuals like him. His resignation is a loss for the students of Ashoka University, which apparently is the fountainhead of liberalism. Irony just died.”
Ramachandra Guha, another ’eminent intellectual’, commented, “In its journey thus far, Ashoka University had shown much promise. They may have frittered all that away by the spinelessness of their trustees, who have chosen to crawl when asked to bend.”
There were some who used the episode to once again hail the students of Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. One user said, “When you see what likes of Pratap Bhanu Mehta couldn’t put up with, try to imagine what students of Jamia and AMU have courageously endured.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Political ideology and antecedents
Mehta has been a fierce critic of the Modi Government in recent times. In an interview to The Wire, he had said, “Even though the government is committed to winning elections to secure power, in every other way it ticks the checklist of fascist qualities”. Mehta claimed that “colloquially speaking, this is a fascist government and it is, therefore, not incorrect to use that term”. He also alleged that the current situation is worse than Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
At the India Today Conclave ahead of the 2019 General Elections, Mehta declared that democracy in India was in a crisis and there was a “deep diminish of hope”. More recently, V-Dem released a report classifying India as an “electoral autocracy” where initially, its website mentioned Mehta as an advisor but his name has been wiped out since then. Mehta himself claims that he has not been on their advisory board since 2007.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta was also a Board member at Namati, an organisation where George Soros sits on its Advisory Council. But he appears to have been removed from his position since then as the website no longer mentions him as a member. It is pertinent to recall that George Soros had declared war against nationalism and Narendra Modi. Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State during the Bill Clinton administration, is on its Advisory Council too.
Thus, from the onset, Mehta appears to be a foot-soldier for the neoliberal world order that is facing tough resistance from countries around the world. Even so, the precise reasons behind his resignation from Ashoka University remains unclear.