By Edict News Staff
In the wake of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from the university, which came out as an Indian Express article on 17th March 2020, there ensued discussions about whether this decision was purely voluntary or was because of his being a critic of the ruling establishment. Following Prof. Mehta’s resignation, Dr. Arvind Subramaniam, who joined Ashoka last year, also sent out a resignation, which was made public by an Indian Express article on 18th March 2020. Since then, students of the university have sent out Statements of Solidarity and organised a peaceful, socially-distanced protest on the Campus this afternoon.
VC Sarkar, when requested for a meeting, invited students, alumni and the faculty to a virtual Townhall at 6 p.m. today. The meeting saw over 1100 participants, in addition to around 600 people watching the livestream on Youtube. Professor Mehta, according to VC Sarkar “wished the resignation to be of immediate effect”. 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 student body also expressed concerns regarding the resignation of Prof. Subramaniam, to which the VC responded by saying that since his resignation would be effective at the end of the semester, she will reply to that soon.
Several senior members of the Ashoka faculty raised their concerns to the Vice-Chancellor, and though she answered each question to the best of her ability, the response from her side still remained distant and evasive.
Professor 1 raised a question regarding Ram Chandra Guha’s tweet on the matter, stating that “in the light of people like Ram Guha, who have been close to the institution speaking out, PBM’s resignation being characterised as personal is not entirely convincing.” The VC replied that she was “utterly mystified” by this “very, very damaging comment” which she deemed lacked basis. She also said that she didn’t recognize the manner in which the tweet makes the trustees appear.
Professor 2 asked if the VC could categorically deny the fact that she was in any meetings with the trustees and tell them if the founders may have gone to Professor Mehta and asked him to resign, to which she claimed that she wasn’t a part of any such conversation. “All that I am aware of is that I’ve been clearly told by the trustees that they did not ask Pratap to resign.” She added that she will not speculate on the details of that meeting because she wasn’t there.
The VC also said that Professor Mehta told her that he would continue to remain a “friend of the institution”. However, owing to his lack of response ever since the resignation on Wednesday, when she reached out to him to reconsider the move, she stated, “I found him aloof from Ashoka, I did not find him engaged with the faculty the way I thought he would be.”
In response to a comment by Professor 3, stating, “it would be delusional of us to think that there are no pressures on us [the faculty]”, while referring to the strong-arm of the Delhi Police, the VC said that “pressures become oppressive when they infringe upon our academic freedom.”
Professor 4 asked the VC about the course of action any faculty member is supposed to take when they are told by the founders that they have become a liability and that they must resign because of things that they have taught that they are not supposed to. In this situation, they said that the faculty considers the VC to be the one they can talk to and report to. “I don’t need to know from the Founders, I need to know from [VC Sarkar]. I have trust in [VC Sarkar’s] authority.” The Professor went on to say that one cannot be okay when professors leave and that human resource makes Ashoka what it is. The VC responded with a counter question asking whether they would reach out to her in case someone told them to resign, to which they replied that they would, but this time the resignation undermined all these processes, with senior faculty members being anxious about the same. VC Sarkar said that she would encourage professors to reach out to her in such a situation, but that in the case of Prof. Mehta, she was a “recipient” of the Letter of Resignation and was never consulted.
Professor 5 expressed their concerns regarding the matter and stated that the time is not very far when “a rap on the knuckles” of other faculty members renders the university helpless. They communicated the need for a collective system of hiring, resignations and terminations where decisions are made collectively by the council of faculty members, other groups and hopefully, students, so that there is no pressure point which outside forces can target when they want things to be their way. They also talked about tenured contracts and how they allow the university to “dismiss an employee” if he/she/they “harm(s) the reputation of the university”. This, they said, should be changed as it could be broadly interpreted and misused. Furthermore, they firmly suggested that all faculty bodies and unions must be backed by the administration, which would be highly useful when the institution is faced with undue pressure from external agencies, and asked the VC whether she could commit to these changes.
The VC, responding to the point about contracts, said that the faculty policy booklet was created by the faculty body, which is absolutely binding on the university. She mentioned that the booklet sets out exactly what the processes are which no one, not even her as the VC has the authority to debate. She assured the faculty that “nobody can touch you”, and stated that Ashoka has these processes which make it different from other private universities.
The Townhall ended with a vote of thanks by the VC, but many were left discontented with the questions that still remain unanswered. There were concerns within the student body about the reasons why the founders, who supposedly knew why Prof. Mehta resigned, were not present in the meeting. The VC stated explicitly that she did not invite the founders to this town hall meeting since some of them were travelling, despite the Student Government in a Statement of Solidarity with Professor Mehta, stating, “We strongly demand that the Founders of this University be present at the Townhall at 6 p.m. today”.
An hour or so after the meeting, an article released by the Indian Express revealed Professor Mehta’s statement on the matter, alongside the complete text of his resignation as addressed to the Vice-Chancellor. In it, Professor Mehta wrote, “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. In the interests of the University I resign.” The article thus proves that the grounds for his resignation were clearly stated in his letter to the Vice-Chancellor, who knew about the matter and so actively withheld information during the Townhall.