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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Ashoka row: Over 150 academicians from Harvard, Yale and Oxford come out in support of Pratap Bhanu Mehta

An open letter addressed to the university trustees, administrators and faculty state that the signatories were “distressed” to learn of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exit under “political pressure from Ashoka University”.

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi |
Updated: March 20, 2021 11:59:41 am
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: ‘We revere Gandhi but didn’t know what to do with him till 1930s’Pratap Bhanu Mehta during an event in New Delhi. (Express photo: Anil Sharma)

Over 150 academicians from international universities, including Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge, have come out in support of scholar and commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who resigned from Ashoka University this week, saying that the founders made it “abundantly clear” that his association with the institution was a “political liability”.

An open letter addressed to the university trustees, administrators and faculty state that the signatories were “distressed” to learn of Mehta’s exit under “political pressure from Ashoka University”.

“A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, he had become a target for his writings. It seems that Ashoka’s Trustees, who should have treated defending him as their institutional duty, instead all but forced his resignation,” the open letter states.

“We write in solidarity with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and to reaffirm the importance of the values that he has always practiced. In political life, these are free argument, tolerance, and a democratic spirit of equal citizenship. In the university, they are free inquiry, candour, and rigorous distinction between the demands of intellectual honesty and the pressure of politicians, funders, or ideological animus. These values come under assault whenever a scholar is punished for the content of public speech. When that speech is in defense of precisely these values, the assault is especially shameful,” the letter further states.

The signatories include Homi K Bhabha, Anne F Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University; Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean at UC Berkeley School of Law; Rogers Smith, Christopher H Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania; Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Kate O’Regan, Professor of Human Rights Law at Oxford University; and Danielle Allen, director of Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

The Indian Express had first reported the news of Mehta’s exit on March 17.

The crisis at Ashoka University in the wake of Mehta’s resignation deepened Thursday. Calling the exit “ominously disturbing”, for academic freedom, Mehta’s colleague and former Chief Economic Advisor in the Modi government Arvind Subramanian sent in his resignation, too. Students protested on campus, the faculty issued a statement calling for Mehta’s return, and at least two more faculty members are said to be on the verge of quitting.

Mehta wrote in his resignation letter, “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.”

Meanwhile, senior Congress leader Ashwani Kumar said the “forced” resignation of Mehta is a rude reminder that freedom of thought is welcome only as long as it is not a political liability.

The “trustees of the premier educational institution”, he said, are “clearly the principal villains, in not standing up to those who wanted Mehta to pay the price for his intellectual integrity”.

“They have forfeited their claim as trustees of the institution by acquiescing in the project to tame informed voices of dissent,” he said in a statement.

“The attack on academic freedoms is the most pernicious of devices to stifle opinion and to promote intolerance in the battle of ideas thereby robbing democracy of its defining distinction”.

“This is the moment for academia and public intellectuals to collectively fight for their space as keepers of national conscience and to remind the powers that be, that the power of their pen will not be captive to the lure of wealth or to the brute power of a muscular State,” he said.

Arguing that “this is a time to act and assert our collective conscience in defense of our cherished values,” he appealed to all, including “thinkers and public intellectuals not to be silenced into submission in this moment of test”.

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