TWO senior members of the administrative staff have quit; an assistant professor is under pressure to leave and regulations have been revised to moderate all emails between alumni and students. Ashoka University in Sonepat, which advertises itself as a world-class “pioneering liberal initiative” that encourages students “to think and to question,” is roiled in a fractious debate over curbs on freedom of speech on campus.
The flashpoint: a July 25 petition signed by 88 members of the university, addressed to the J&K government and the Centre, condemning the violence after militant Burhan Wani’s death and calling for de-militarisation of the state and the conduct of a plebiscite. Signatories included students, alumni, two employees and one faculty member.
On October 7, the two employees, Saurav Goswami, deputy manager of academic affairs, and Adil Mushtaq Shah, programme manager of academic affairs, of the Young India Fellowship sent farewell emails to the current batch of 225 YIF fellows. (YIF is a one-year postgraduate diploma programme in liberal studies). Although they quit on personal grounds, many on campus say the management had made its “displeasure” known to them after the petition went public.
“Until two weeks ago, they (Goswami and Shah) had no intention of leaving; they were busy planning guest (speaker) sessions for December. And then, out of the blue, we find emails announcing their resignation. It seems too much of a coincidence that the only two employees who signed the petition resign together and leave the university the same day,” said a student who did not wish to be identified.
On October 9, 168 YIF fellows wrote to Vice-Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee red-flagging their concerns. “The possibility that a university which claims to be a liberal institute, and which encourages change-makers to take action, has resorted to emotional coercion towards its employees is unacceptable to us,” they wrote. Mukherjee replied the next day promising to hold a meeting with the students soon to discuss the matter. Pro-vice chancellor Vineet Gupta, deputy dean of the YIF programme Anunaya Chaubey and Aniha Brar, assistant dean of YIF programme, will meet 10 YIF fellows on Thursday to discuss their concerns regarding the resignation of Shah and Goswami.
The Indian Express has learnt that Rajendran Narayanan, assistant professor in the mathematics department, the only teacher who signed the petition, is also under pressure to quit by the end of this semester. Sources said the faculty council is trying to convince the administration to change its mind and let him stay. “Meanwhile, the Maths department has been informally asked to look for his replacement from next semester starting in January,” said a professor. Before joining Ashoka, Narayanan worked as a visiting lecturer at Cornell University.
Shah, Goswami and Narayanan did not respond to questions emailed to them by The Indian Express.
Ashoka University is a private educational institution built through “collective public philanthropy.” It is backed by big names in business and academia including Sanjeev Bikhchandani of naukri.com; Sid Yog, managing partner, Xander Group; Puneet Dalmia, MD & CEO, Dalmia Bharat Cement; Pramath Raj Sinha, founding dean, Indian School of Business; and sociologist Andre Beteille who is the Chancellor of the university. Ashoka started the YIF programme six years ago and first opened its door to undergraduate students in 2014.
The university, according to its mission statement on the website, aims “to help students become well-rounded individuals who can think critically about issues from multiple perspectives, communicate effectively and become leaders with a commitment to public service.”
For many students, though, these words seem a little out of place since the petition on Kashmir. The university promptly held a meeting of its Governing Body to discuss this petition and passed a resolution on July 26 condemning the act of misrepresenting Ashoka University in the public domain.
On July 28, the university issued a statement: “Only a handful of individuals, including a few students of Ashoka University, had signed the letter, and it, in no way, represents Ashoka’s point of view. Ashoka University does not endorse the views held by these individuals, and at no point, supported them. In fact, Ashoka University condemns such behaviour, and had asked the individuals not to use the good name of the University to represent personal views and ideas.”
Mukherjee also wrote to the students: “I would also like to urge all faculty, students, staff and alumni of Ashoka to refrain in the future from using Ashoka University’s name to comment on an issue where clearly different people have different points of view. “
The debate on curbing free speech started once the university changed its email regulations the same week. On July 27, the Ashoka community was informed that emails from alumni to students and vice versa will go through a moderator. “That communication evoked strong reactions from students and alumni who felt that the act of moderating emails exchanged between them was equivalent to curbing basic freedoms of conveying opinions and views. Moreover, the Kashmir petition was circulated among students via email and so, it was obvious why this decision was taken” said an undergraduate student.
The outrage forced the V-C to step in. On July 28, he wrote another email denying that the new email norms were an “attempt at censorship.” All that the IT department at Ashoka is trying to do, he said, “is set up an email protocol in line with best practices at top Universities across the world. Over the last few months we were receiving a lot of complaints from founders, faculty, alumni and students regarding spam, and the IT department is attempting to set that right.”
“Things went back to normal after this and most of us thought that the petition issue had been resolved internally and that no one was blamed for it. But the news of Adil and Gaurav’s resignation has raised many questions again. As students we want to know if Ashoka is still a place where free speech is valued. We don’t want an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ situation but we need an explanation as to what is happening in the university,” said a YIF fellow who signed the email to Mukherjee on October 9.
When reached for a comment, Beteille said that it will be inappropriate for him to comment on the working of the university as the Chancellor’s post is an office of dignity and not an executive one. Ali Imran, VP (external engagement) at Ashoka, responded on behalf of the vice-chancellor to the questionnaire emailed by The Indian Express on Wednesday.
“As a policy, the institution does not comment on internal matters to the media. As a pioneering liberal education initiative in India, Ashoka University believes in freedom of thought and expression, in line with best practices at the finest universities in India and abroad. This philosophy guides all aspects of the institution’s functioning,” his email said.