Revisiting March, 2021: Student reps on mobilising for academic freedom

By Dipanita Malik (UG22)

The  unprecedented nature of Professor PB Mehta’s resignation in March startled many in the Ashoka community and beyond. Two days later, in a letter widely circulated on social media, Professor Arvind Subramanian too announced his resignation. In the letter, he referred to the circumstances surrounding Professor Mehta’s resignation and raised concerns regarding Ashoka’s commitment to academic freedom. 

In response to these events, the Ashoka student body mobilised rapidly, organising town halls and protests– both online and offline. The House of Representatives (HoR) arranged meetings with members of the administration, including the Vice Chancellor, and the Founders to understand the circumstances surrounding the two resignations. It also put forth a list of demands which reflected the concerns of both students and faculty members. 

Dipanita Malik (UG22) talks with some HoR members – Jahnvai Rudra (President), Ruhaan Shah and Niharika Mehrotra – on all that transpired during the final two weeks of March earlier this year. 

Note: This interview was conducted online on 4th April, 2021. 

Question: How did you get to know about Professor Mehta’s resignation– through the Indian Express article or, as with most people, through rumours and friends circles? What were your initial thoughts on it? 

Jahnavi: I think it’s a pretty common experience that I also found out about this information through WhatsApp groups, where the Indian Express article was being shared. Initially, there was just a lot of confusion. It was really disorienting because Professor Mehta was such an integral part of Ashoka that it was confusing why he resigned. The reasons were not apparent in the beginning, and I did not see that coming. 

Question: Following the news of his resignation, what was going on within the Student Government (SG)? How did the SG view its role in addressing concerns regarding academic freedom on campus? 

Ruhaan: It was very sequential, at least for the SG. The moment we found out about the resignation, the first question that came to everyone’s mind was: what about academics for now and how will it proceed for the semester? Once we got those questions answered we still did not know that the entire discourse concerning what happened would be situated around academic freedom and academic liberty. That conversation became very evident and apparent when the Vice Chancellor’s town hall happened (on March 18), and after that, we got Professor Mehta’s resignation letter. That is when we realized that the conversation now needs to be broadened. When things got a little more intense, with Professor Subramanian also resigning, more conversations and actions started taking place – we also held the sit-ins. That is when we realized that our conversation needs to move beyond just academic freedom. This is when we expanded our demands to be in favour of the workers, and as many stakeholders at Ashoka as possible. So, I think it happened quite sequentially. As we got more information, learnt more, and got more insights into what all took place – and just how safe everybody at Ashoka feels – that is when we realized how to work with the demands and what kind of a conversation we, as the Student Government, should facilitate. 

Niharika: After the town hall, we had a closed House meeting, and it started to settle in that this Student Government would be one of the most important Student Governments ever. There was no discussion about it, but it was a general consensus that we would be the ones who will be leading this mobilisation, leading this movement in terms of getting some consensus and getting some demands met. We were a House that came in a month ago – and that actually helped us because it helped us lead better. 

Question: During regular  town halls, there were some objections raised regarding the manner in which students spoke with members of the administration. Some found the tone to be ‘rude’ and unprofessional, while others empathized with the resentment the student body was harbouring. We also witnessed stakeholders showing concern about the moral imagination of Ashoka. What are your views on this? Do you think it was contextual or does it reflect the broader culture at Ashoka? 

Jahnavi: It’s a mix of both. I do not think we’ve seen such mobilisation or collective anger at this scale before. So in that sense, it is very contextual. But the larger problems that the people voiced about the administration have been going on since the beginning– things like the administration not keeping us in the loop about important decisions affecting all stakeholders have been happening since I joined Ashoka (in August 2019). This also includes instances when administration members have not been able to answer questions adequately, such as in town halls. Those issues have existed for a long time and this was a good opportunity for us to take note of that. It also shaped our demands. For example, the Board of Management seat demand is a demand for  us to be treated like equal stakeholders, because we have not been treated so, for many years. 

In terms of the language being used, I cannot really give a clear answer on that. A lot of the anger that people expressed was justified because, especially towards the end, people had been through multiple meetings, they had been through sit-ins all day and did not get the answers they deserved. So, their anger was justified in that way, as it can be explained. But, I do think a lot of the language was unnecessarily aggressive, and a lot of it was gendered when it came to the Vice Chancellor, and those things cannot be conflated. Someone’s emotional reaction which can be justified is not the same as someone using gendered aggression because they think it is going to be okay.

Question: Were any guidelines shared within the HoR to maintain some foundational coherence amongst its members? In case there were differences within the House, how did you deal with them? 

Niharika: What is important is that before every decision we took, we had a vote on it. Regardless of whether that vote passed unanimously or with a 13:2 majority, it was a stance that the House took. And then, every House representative carried it forward, regardless of their own personal opinions on the issues. In the larger context, it needs to appear as a united movement, and that was much more paramount to us than to argue about small differences. While there were no guidelines as such, it was a normal practice that this Student Government, and the previous Student Governments, followed: to abide by the vote, and stand by the House stance. 

Jahnavi: Adding to this, what we tried to do to have such a united front, internally, was to have as many discussions as we could, before we even came to a stance – to make sure that the stance was actually what we all believed in. So, a lot of work that we were doing was actually discussing whether we really wanted the demands we were pushing for. This was also to make sure that everyone’s apprehensions were cleared, before putting a stance out there. 

Ruhaan: Yes, we kept revisiting our stances also. With every new development that took place, we also needed to evaluate whether our original stance was correct. We kept having conversations around that. We also had different informal procedures in place,  within the House, when we interacted with the Vice Chancellor, the Founders, the students, or just the faculty in general – where we simply informed each other about what we planned to say, so that we all could be more coherent while speaking and avoid having any internal discrepancy. 

Question: I’m curious about whether you faced any structural limitations in the way the SG functions while the strike was on. These limitations could include party agendas, or any other barriers in the existing framework. 

Jahnavi: Quite frankly, I think the biggest limitation was the fact that out of 15 people in the House, technically 14 of us, were not on campus. So, in terms of all the coordination for the sit-ins and other activities, we could not be kept in the loop continuously. The other was the time crunch, because it was a very urgent situation, and we had to act as quickly as possible. So, in terms of deliberating and getting students’ consensus and things like that, it became difficult because we could not consult all students – it is not that we could have a referendum or something, and then take a call based on that. There was just not a lot of time for us to do that. 

Personally, I do not think the limitations were along party lines. The discussions we had in the House were not on party lines at all – people from the same party would often disagree, or people from different parties would agree. It was not partisan, according to me. I would say that it was more logistical than having to do with structural limitations. 

Ruhaan: Adding to that, I think, the limitation about not being able to either conduct a referendum or even conduct an informal vote when we had open House meetings seeped into the House discussions as well. This is because, at that point of time, we were always wondering whether we are representing students correctly and whether they really want what we are pushing for. There were ways to evaluate that informally through individual conversations, or batch conversations. But, I think, having a proper constitutional procedure in place, a structural procedure in place, where we can actually evaluate what the student body wants through a proper vote when we are conducting Open House meetings, is fairly important – at least during such times, when they are explicitly involved in a larger movement. Having an official procedure for referendums is extremely important – now that we want to go ahead in the future, and this may happen again. An efficient procedure like this will help not just students but also the Student Government in evaluating how they want to facilitate the conversation between the student body and the Vice Chancellor, or the administration. 

“..having a proper constitutional procedure in place where we can actually evaluate what the student body wants through a proper vote when we are conducting Open House meetings is fairly important.”

Ruhaan Shah

Question: To what extent did some of your previous experience in the House of Representatives with raising concerns about the workers’ welfare help you in figuring out a plan of action?

Jahnavi: I think, for all of us who are in the House for the second term, what we learnt about mobilisations last year really helped. Even though this mobilisation was at a larger scale – and this was offline as well – last year, everything was in email spam and it was largely online. So, a lot of things were new to us this time. For example, with the workers’ concern last year, we decided not to go to the press, but this time, the press was actively approaching us and we had to release statements. The workers’ concern mobilisation taught us how to proceed with that, because one thing that this House and the students in general are interested in pushing for is for the workers to be directly hired by Ashoka. Now we have these mechanisms in place about how to approach the press, how to sustain a strike, and how to approach Professors to allow for non-institutional links to be used, for example. So, this experience has taught us a lot in terms of how we go forward. Obviously, everything from the last Student Government also affected how we went forward in this way and definitely, the time aspect was something we realized from being in the past Student Government – that it was not something that we could delay because the student momentum does not last very long, especially when there’s nothing to sustain. So, we realized we have to actively play a role in making sure the momentum existed and we could actually use it to get our demands met. 

Niharika: I genuinely do not think we would have gotten very far without the help of other students, especially those on campus, who helped sustain the movement. They were sitting out there, ten-eleven hours a day in the heat and protesting – outside the Student Government. This is why it is so important to bring in more stakeholders than just the fifteen of us. Special gratitude is owed to them individually because they worked so hard and more vigorously than any of us, and they are all mainly third-years and fourth-years. That also goes to show something about what Ashoka values we follow. Without them, we would’ve been in a worse situation than where we were at. 

Jahnavi: I also think that even the first years showed so much initiative, especially for everyone online. We were so lucky to have all those events organized, independently of the Student Government – there were multiple reading circles, people wrote two plays overnight and performed those – there was so much being done offline as well as online! We only helped with coordination and facilitation, but we did not have to be actively involved in that because the students took up these initiatives. We’re really grateful for that. 

“I genuinely do not think we would have gotten very far without the help of other students, especially those on campus, who helped sustain the movement.”

Niharika Mehrotra

Question: How did you go about managing continuous information flows? The press was involved, and anonymous stories about prevailing events within Ashoka were also gaining ground. What did you think about your role in preventing rumours from spreading and ensuring verified information to be shared? 

Niharika: I think there are two parts to the answer. One is what the Student Government did, and how much it actually helped. We had a Google-Meet link that was active the entire day for both the days of the protest (March 22 and 23), and someone was always there to answer any questions. We used to send out emails with official communication. We all had different batch-groups that we were a part of, and we circulated the message from us to other people and so on and so forth. But, the larger point of the question is how do you present a larger front. The short answer is that you cannot. There will always be people who would think that we were too conservative, or too radical. And that is going to exist regardless of how much communication we can sustain, or how much we can convince people. What was important is that the communication that we were giving to the press came from an official Student Government source. The press release that we issued was vetted by some Media Studies professors, checked by some students, and the fifteen of us (in the HoR) voted on it. The press release was itself quoted many more times than what any individual student was saying, because we were representative of this movement. 

Ruhaan: It was also to make sure that the information that we use is verified. We tried to consult as many stakeholders as possible while the process was going on. We also spoke to different faculty members after certain events, and got their opinion on this matter. Through many informal channels, we tried to verify the information that the Student Government has, so that we do not circulate and misrepresent what is actually happening. Also, with regard to generally building trust among the student body – because, of course, there was some information that was going to the press that even we did not know about – before every town hall, we tried to tell students not to record it, or share the information with anybody else. But, after that, there is very little that we, as the Student Government, can do to control the student body.  The student body is, after all, sovereign – they can leak it to the press and we can’t really control it, apart from asking them not to record what’s happening. There were few instances of that happening in the first place. So, for that reason, we tried to inform the student body about basic guidelines. 

Jahnavi: Our approach, when it came to the media, was to really use it as a tool to build pressure, rather than feeling that we owed the media information that we constantly had to give out. Honestly, they were approaching us a lot more than we gave out statements. But, we realized that it doesn’t help anyone to constantly give out information before we relay it to our own student body. So, that was just our approach. 

“There will always be people who would think that we were too conservative, or too radical. And that is going to exist regardless of how much communication we can sustain, or how much we can convince people.”

Niharika Mehrotra

Question: You earlier talked about the involvement of first year students and concerns related to the representation of the larger student body. However, we also came across serious concerns about batch-wise differences on the nature and scope of protests. Some students expressed being “politically apathetic” about the unfolding situation. What would you like to say about that? 

Ruhaan: I can speak about what we tried to do with the first-year students. There was a lot of discrepancy in terms of opinions, at least for the first years. We wanted to clarify our stance as the Student Government to them so that they have a better understanding of what we are trying to go for. At least for those kinds of matters, we tried to ask them if they wanted to get on a call with the Student Government, or if they wanted to speak to independent members of the House. We always invited them to Open Townhall meetings and Open House meetings, because we understood where their concerns came from. The only way we could assuage their concerns and clarify them was by meeting with them officially. 

Also, there were different instances where we also tried to get on a call with them informally. We came across instances when people also created petitions that the first-year students disagreed on certain matters. We tried to make sure that at least everyone has access to information, and that the student body can shape their own opinions on the matter – it is not to convince or persuade anybody, but to make sure that everybody gets the full picture and the context of everything that is happening. Many people do not have access to that context, given that it is online and also given that a large part of the Ashoka people in general – third-years and fourth-years – is on campus and they know things that are going on because they can speak to each other. First and second-year students perhaps don’t. To bridge that gap, we facilitated conversations between people on campus and off campus. From our side, it was trying to contextualise what was happening, not to persuade or convince anybody, but to give an idea as to where everybody is coming from, so that they can have an understanding of what they believe in or what their opinion should be like. 

Niharika: I would like to add two things to that: one is that, as the Student Government, our demands have always remained consistent. We always had those three demands, and they have remained consistent throughout the entire protest time. Secondly, what independent students choose to do is not a reflection on the University or the Student Government. It was that distinction that we tried to make clear in our subsequent conversations.

Question: Out of curiosity and interest, do you have a message for first-year students about such moments of mobilization in future? In addition, what were some of your key takeaways from these events that you will take forward in times to come?

Ruhaan: At least for me, my key takeaway was how to involve students more vigorously in these conversation that we were having as the Student Government, and how to get their opinions out there for us to be able to represent them in an adequate manner – we  were questioning our own viewpoints so much because we thought the students may disagree with it. Something that I realized over the one-and-a-half week was that we need to involve students more in conversations like these, especially when it concerns the entire University. My takeaway was to make sure that there are structural changes where we can actually facilitate that. 

And my message for the first-year students would be to attend as many Open House meetings or town-halls as they can, because that is what contextualises everything. And because UG23 has not been on campus yet, and there are certain issues that we don’t know much about, coming to town-halls and Open House meetings would help in bridging that information gap. 

Jahnavi: Similar to what Ruhaan said, what we learnt is how to make a framework on top of which students can actually mobilise. I realized that the student body is very powerful, but there are some key things that you need for a successful mobilization – such as a clear set of demands that most people can agree on, or faculty support. What we realized about why other mobilizations went wrong or were not as successful as compared to this one was also the fact that the faculty was very much involved, and I think that it is about framing issues in a way that you realize that it does affect everyone. Even for the workers’ issue, I think that is something for which we can have faculty and student support, if we frame it in the right way. We are there just to provide a foundation and facilitate things. The student body clearly knows what it wants and it can go for it. We just have to facilitate that so that it sustains and lasts. 

A message for the first years would be that, honestly, it is your University too. You are as entitled as any senior to have your opinions, to question and challenge things. But, also because it is your University, you owe it to the University to know its history, to know the relationship between the administration and its stakeholders, and how much slack to cut the administration and knowing which stakeholders have been wronged. 

Niharika: I was thinking about this after the protest got over, because we did not have time to process it while it was all happening, and I was thinking about how we were chanting #NotMyAshoka. But, I think, what the protest has shown us is that it is our University more than anybody else’s. We’ve been able to create structural change in this House of Representatives, in the past House of Representatives and we’ll do so moving onwards. I doubt that any other Student Government has done as much as this has – in its two months of infancy. The next one will do even more, and so on and so forth. It is still a new University, which means that students have so much power to change things that they do not like, and we have done it and we have seen it happen. Now, we just need to capitalize on it. I genuinely think that it is the beginning  of a much, much, much greater student and faculty support. 

I would say to the first years that don’t be disheartened – this is only your first mobilisation and in my two years of Ashoka, I have seen four! So, there are many more to come and you would play a much more important role in the others as compared to this one. 

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