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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Ashoka University episode shatters myth of academic immunity

It is not possible to sustain islands of intellectual independence and free-spirited enquiry in a society sinking under the oppressive weight of authoritarianism.

Updated: April 5, 2021 6:41:41 pm
Ashoka University, Ashoka University pratap Bhanu mehta, Arvind Subramanian, Ashoka University case, indian expressA view of Ashoka University in Sonipat, Haryana. (Express Photo/File)

Written by Anshu Saluja

The events that have unfolded at Ashoka University over the past few weeks are, indeed, dispiriting. They have stirred many in the academic community and invited strong reactions. The turn of events, though extremely unfortunate, are, I dare say, not entirely unsurprising or unexpected. Whether or not Ashoka could resist giving into the dictates of ascendant authoritarianism is not the point, rather the question is till when and to what extent could it hold out. The recent happenings at Ashoka show that this threshold has been crossed. The citadel has been breached in Ashoka’s case. This is an important indication of what to expect in the coming days and months. It is an ominous signal of the fate of other institutions, those that have not already bowed down in surrender, under pressure or out of unquestioning allegiance.

What has happened at Ashoka provides an important lesson — it is not possible to sustain islands of intellectual independence and free-spirited enquiry in a society sinking under the oppressive weight of authoritarianism. A society that discourages dialogue and disagreement, and increasingly privileges mindless conformity cannot be expected to passively stomach the free-flowing exchange of all sorts of ideas in its university spaces. A liberal academic environment cannot be fostered amidst illiberality at large. To assume that their university could be left unscathed by the prevailing (dis)order of the day and its independence could be guarded by walls of private capital can only be described as wishful thinking by denizens of Ashoka. This myth of their presupposed immunity lies shattered now. Reverberations of the waning authority of our institutions and ruthless exercise of state power are being felt at Ashoka today.

The commitment of Ashoka’s faculty and the sincerity of their students are not under any doubt. But what these reaffirmations cannot take away from, is the institution’s rootedness in structures of pre-existing privilege, held together by capital — economic, social and cultural. There is nothing wrong in catering to the aspirations of privileged sections for world-class higher learning and providing “an Ivy League education in India”. It is important to teach students from these backgrounds about different forms and dimensions of exclusion, and how they work at the level of the everyday. But, at the same time, it is far more important to ensure that those whose lives are framed by this exclusion can find a place for themselves and feel accommodated within the University. That accommodation, that place, has to be secured through a discourse of rights and not a vocabulary of grants-in-aid.

It is true that the majority of Indian students mostly find higher education beyond their reach and are unable to access it, whether in public or private universities. But, is their inability to do so mediated by the same set of factors in both cases? Students, coming from vulnerable sections, can seek admission into the former as a matter of right, free of charge or at low costs. But, even at the level of hypothesis, can students do the same in the latter case? Can they demand entry into Ashoka, for instance, solely on the basis of rights, or do they have to couch their claims in the language of aid, support and charity? One agrees that just the ability to secure admission into any university does not accomplish much by itself — it is, at best, the very first and faltering step in a tortuous journey.

Universities, both private and public, have to go a long way and do much more to expand their reach to as many as possible. The issue here is not whether the involvement of the private sector in higher education is good or bad, rather the real issue is whether our universities, public as well as private, appear to be taking active steps to enhance the accessibility of education, to make it more inclusive and accommodative, and frame the imperative of inclusion in the language of rights.

Deeply entrenched, iniquitous structures of privileges and hierarchies have to be whittled down and dismantled. Is Ashoka accomplishing that process? Is the University chipping away at the existing pile of privileges and hierarchies, or is it adding yet another layer to that pile? These are tough questions that need to be looked at and engaged with. They demand answers and introspection. If we cannot dissolve abiding hierarchies and attendant inequities, we must not let ourselves become instruments, perpetuating new ones.

In the end, we must lend our support to the strivings of the faculty and students to save their university and, in that process, the country as a whole, for progressive institutions, ideas and minds cannot be nurtured amidst breeding authoritarianism.

The writer is an independent researcher

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