TW – This article contains a mention of suicide
By Akanksha Mishra, UG22
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river with the Roman army in 49 BC, that one act was said to have largely led to the beginning of the Roman Civil War. Since then, the term ‘crossing the Rubicon’ became an idiom, meaning an action or decision that irrevocably leads to a much larger consequence. There comes a point, in an institution’s existence, where it is forced to reckon with forces much larger than itself and often has to make a difficult choice. In Ashoka’s case, this choice determines the course the institution will take for the future – will it bend to the pressures of the current political regime or will it choose to uphold the institution’s independence and protect its stakeholders?
The recent resignation of professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an eminent political thinker and critic, followed by the resignation of professor Arvind Subramanian, former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India, from Ashoka University, pose pertinent questions about the future of academic freedom at the university, and the country at large. The surrounding events as well as the protests by the students and faculty make clear a sizeable threat to the freedom of expression and of thought that the University has promised since its inception. In the present political climate of fear and repression, the distress stems from this one question – Has Ashoka too meekly crossed the line towards submission to the establishment, and given up on protecting the academic freedom of the institution? The founders and the upper administration have insisted time and again over the last week that this is not the case. The benefit of the doubt, however, does not lie with them in the present circumstances.
Conceived in a moment of political upheaval in the country, Ashoka has had to face its share of challenges in its journey towards providing “liberal education, at par with the best in the world”. On most occasions, the liberal promise of Ashoka’s Founders was echoed by its stellar faculty, nascent alumni, and most of all, its batches of students themselves. At a time when the political regime at the centre is inching towards authoritarianism and public institutions are gradually toeing the line set by the regime, Ashoka was touted by many as a rare bastion of academic freedom and independent thought. It was believed that it would protect its students and professors from the ruling party’s suppression of views that did not align with their right-wing, Hindutva ideology.
Since 2014, India has witnessed the steady rise of the establishment’s increasingly divisive ideology, and its stronghold over public institutions, including public universities. Eroding the gloss off these pillars of free thought and speech, agents of the state increasingly have made frequent and downright violent attempts to dominate the Indian public university system. Institutions meant to protect their students’ right to free expression and thought caved to the winds of state suppression of free speech. In Hyderabad Central University in 2016, the administration decided to suspend five Dalit scholars, including Rohith Vemula, because of pressure by a BJP MLA who termed their actions “anti-national.”
The act of suspension led to the suicide of Rohith Vemula, nation-wide protests, and the disillusionment of students with the university’s administration. Similarly in Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016, the decision of the administration was to suspend Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and other students said to be involved in “seditious” activities in a protest on the college campus. These actions were significant not simply because administrations at the public institutions in question bent to political pressures of the regime, but because they indicate a radical shift in the priorities of the institution. Universities that were celebrated for their spirit of dissent found themselves suddenly subjected to vitriolic attacks. Often these institutes made an active choice of not standing behind their students – thus eradicating hope for academic freedom in these spaces.
Any university worth its salt has to be a champion of the values of freedom and liberty – not simply as concepts to be studied and debated in classrooms but also as ideals that course through the veins of the university itself. As historian Richard Hofstadter once said, “a university’s essential character is that of being a centre of free enquiry and criticism.” With the founders’ actions, this character of our university now falls under unprecedented scrutiny, as does our own future education and research interests. By letting Pratap Bhanu Mehta leave instead of better safeguarding his position, the founders chose to compromise a chief principle of Ashoka the institution – academic freedom. This act could lead to similar instances in the future, with professors as well as students.
In this climate of fear created by the ruling party, Ashoka was, to a great extent, considered a safe space by students and faculty to critically engage with academia. However, this is not to say that Ashoka’s record in protecting the freedom of speech of its academics has been spotless. In 2016, professor Rajendran Narayanan ‘resigned’ from his position as a math professor at Ashoka because of signing a petition that condemned the violence in Kashmir. After the resignations of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian, however, many fear that Ashoka has crossed the point of no return. It has dented Ashoka’s liberal credentials. The trustees’ decision to accept Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation, allegedly due to pressure from above, runs completely against what the university claimed to champion: a safe space for the expression of free academic thought and learning. Aside from the immediate threat of political persecution that the current Ashoka faculty and students face, Ashoka also faces a much larger threat of existence. The entire incident has severely depleted the international academic community’s faith in Ashoka and its promise of liberal education. It is this loss of faith in the academic community that Ashoka could take a while to recover.
However, trustees and founders do not an entire institution make. The soul of every institution rests, first and foremost, with its students and faculty – the people who make up the very educational spaces whose existence is now under threat from the regime. The value of every institution is judged by those who continue the fight against the suppression of free thought, and believe in the sanctity of their educational spaces. The students of JNU and Hyderabad University prove that while the regime might have attempted to disrupt their academic freedom, they still strove to protect it. The collective threat to the academic freedom of universities can be countered if the students and faculty assert their rights in the face of the authoritarian political regime – as has been the case on campus over the last week, with an outpouring of dissent and solidarity among the students and faculty. As long as these primary stakeholders of Ashoka remain committed to its promise of academic freedom and excellence, Ashoka will continue to live on.