Updated: March 19, 2021 7:46:34 am
As universities go, Ashoka University is still young. But it is, sadly, already in decline. It took only about seven years for its founders and trustees to let down the fundamental idea that animated its institution. It was, in its own words, “a pioneer in its focus on providing a liberal education at par with the best in the world” — a “private non-profit university, an unprecedented example of collective public philanthropy in India” “committed to maintaining the highest intellectual and academic standards”. The resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts a question mark on those claims and credentials. One of the country’s pre-eminent scholars and public intellectuals, who unsparingly and courageously asks questions of power and the powerful, whoever they may be, whatever be their political colour — The Indian Express is privileged to carry his columns on these pages — has been compelled to step down, first as vice-chancellor and now as professor. The circumstances indict the university’s establishment as much as they point fingers at the political regime.
When it was set up, Ashoka University seemed to be taking an important step towards addressing a great deficit in higher education. The public university had long declined due to fiscal exhaustion and breakdown of the state system combined with the exit of the Indian elites from public institutions. That, over the last couple of decades or so, had led to the proliferation of private institutions, but mostly in professional education. In its stated commitment to the liberal arts, Ashoka seemed to make a prominent and welcome promise — to harness the resources of private philanthropy to address failures and deficiencies of both the state and the market. Mehta’s exit from its faculty is a seminal moment because it points to the university’s unwillingness and inability to protect the freedom of expression and ideas that is an inalienable part of that commitment. It is true that the challenge of institutional autonomy is sharpened terribly by the dominant political ideology that has shown a will to conquer all spaces, and which will not hesitate to weaponise the mandate to target dissent. It is also true that the larger environment is one in which the countervailing and unelected institutions that were supposed to, in the constitutional design, apply the check and maintain the balance, are not holding up. They are caving in.
And yet, Messrs Ashok Trivedi, Pramath Raj Sinha, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Ashish Dhawan, Vineet Gupta, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Manish Sabharwal, to name just a few of the University’s distinguished trustees, need to ask themselves: Where to, now? By bending when asked, they may have inaugurated the slide, and surrendered the possibilities of the university’s rise. Because vindictiveness feeds on cowardice. And because even though the institution cannot be equated with the individual, Mehta’s departure sends out a signal much larger than him. As former Chief Economic Advisor and economist, Arvind Subramanian, who has also resigned saying he is “devastated” by Mehta’s going, has put it: Ashoka “… can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom”. That’s the message to students, faculty — and to the next generation waiting to go to college. That a fancy campus and a bunch of glittering CVs does never an institution make.
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