By Edict News Staff
(Editors’ Note: This article was originally published on 20th March. The editors decided to archive it until we could update it with comments from the Founders. The updated article is published at 3PM on 21st March.)
An investigation by The Edict found that Reimagining Higher Education Foundation (RHEF), which set up Plaksha University, was granted FCRA approval two days after Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta tendered his resignation. According to details on the website for the Foreign Contribution Registration Act (FCRA), managed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the approval was granted to RHEF on 17th March. Prof. Mehta’s resignation letter was dated 15th March. When asked for comment, Ali Imran, VP of External Engagement at Ashoka, strongly denied any connection between the two events via Email communication with the Edict.
Four of RHEF’s five directors – Vineet Gupta, Ashish Gupta, Mohit Thukral, and Ambarish Raghuvanshi – are also amongst the Founders of Ashoka University. In their response to The Edict, Ali Imran denied any “formal connection” between the two universities. “Ashoka and Plaksha are two separate collective philanthropic projects…Only a few founders are common between the two efforts”, he said in the email.
The FCRA approval for Plaksha, an upcoming technical institute in Mohali commencing its opening semester later this year, was first reported by the Economic Times on 19th March. Previously, in 2019, RHEF was given preliminary permission under the FCRA as it was not yet eligible for a certificate. According to FAQs on the FCRA website, the normal criteria for an organisation to be certified is that it has at least three years of existence and has “undertaken reasonable activity in its chosen field for the benefit of the society for which the foreign contribution is proposed to be utilised.” RHEF was registered as a not-for-profit company on March 6, 2017, completing three years in March 2020.
The foundation stone of Plaksha University was laid by Punjab Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, the month after. The resignation of Prof. Mehta was first reported by the Indian Express on 17th March, and a copy of the resignation letter was obtained by media outlets on 18th March. Prof. Mehta, who is outspokenly critical of the government in his prominent Indian Express column, wrote in his resignation letter that a conversation with the Founders made it “abundantly clear” that his association with the university was a “political liability.”
An article in the Edict, titled “Pratap Bhanu Mehta Resigns, Paving The Way For A New Plot,” quoted an anonymous source who claimed that Prof. Mehta’s resignation was endorsed by the Founders as it would ease the bureaucratic hurdles involved in the planned expansion of the university. Time Magazine also reported a similar account by an anonymous “Ashoka employee with knowledge of the conversation” between Prof. Mehta and the Founders, independently verifying The Edict’s reporting.
The Foreign Contribution Registration Act, which was amended in September last year, made it tougher for NGOs to receive foreign donations. Around the same time, the Enforcement Directorate froze Amnesty International’s assets in India, citing the organisation’s contravention of the Act, forcing them to halt their operations in the country.
Several observers have noted that the FCRA is often misused to target organisations that speak against government policies. Ingrid Srinath, Director at Ashoka University’s Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, claimed that the amendment can be used to “hinder collaboration among NGOs and philanthropists.” She added that “many Indian donors may be fearful of consequences if they extend support to organisations that are perceived to be unfriendly to authorities.”
This revelation brings to focus allegations made by prominent scholars and political observers as to whether his resignation was influenced by political circumstances. A petition to Ashoka’s Trustees, signed by over 150 academicians from prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale and Oxford stated that Prof. Mehta became a “target for his writings” and blamed the Trustees for “having forced his resignation.”
Taking to Twitter, Krea University Prof. Ramachandra Guha called Ashoka’s Trustees “spineless” for choosing to “crawl when asked to bend.”