Since early August, Ashoka University in Haryana’s Sonipat has been at the centre of a heated debate over academic freedom. The university drew criticism after it issued a statement on August 1 distancing itself from the research paper published by Sabyasachi Das, an assistant professor of economics at the institution.

Das’s paper, published in July, had claimed that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party may have manipulated the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to sweep back to power. Das resigned from Ashoka University in mid-August. Academics and commentators criticised the university for not standing by him. Das’s resignation sparked a discussion on whether private universities can nurture a radical, percipient intelligentsia.

Ashoka is one of several private universities in India – each believing itself to be the best. It is not the first university to have experienced the seismic waves of resistance to administrative autocracy in higher education nor will it be the last. Ashoka University is also not the first to capitulate, though worrying signs have been evident for long.

This is not about the faculty at Ashoka University and their terms of employment or engagement. Each faculty member has made a conscious decision to be located in the institution, mindful of its structural limitations, its strengths and its possibilities. They will navigate these challenges from time to time, sometimes, like Das, finding themselves at a sharp disadvantage.

This decision of where faculty members locate themselves vis-à-vis the institution of which they are part, several choosing silence – some in relative comfort, others with intense discomfort – is also one taken by teachers in other public and private universities that have witnessed trouble.

Youth Congress workers protest against doctoral scholar Rohith Vemula's death by suicide at the University of Hyderabad, in New Delhi in this photograph from March 2016. Credit: Reuters.

To attribute the actions of Ashoka University faculty entirely to the management or source of funding would be simplistic. From my own experience, I know it is possible to enforce conformity and compliance in a hundred different ways. Sponsors – government and private, philanthropic and corporate investors – are equipped with several tools to harass and choke the most minimal possibility of autonomy.

Holding ground, more often than not, means standing alone, isolated, facing a blowback from the collegial environment that one took for granted, even nurtured and built. It is not an easy place to be. But who ever imagined that ethical resistance was easy? The road is difficult but holds promise – deciding to walk that path is a conscious decision, not a default setting.

The protest by students, despite a lack of support, is what makes protest – howsoever mild – crucial. The one steady aspect of these institutional storms is the tenacity with which students have fought to preserve autonomy and dignity against all odds. They have risked incarceration and even death to assert ethical disagreement and the right to dialogue and peaceful protest.

Ashoka University is not an exception to this. There is always a diversity of views, contentious debate and serious disagreements – all of which is as it should be. However, there are a few broad caveats: the right to speech or expression, welded to the question of dignity, includes the duty to listen to the speech of others. It also includes the refusal to engage with violent speech and hate speech. Finally, censure is antithetical to free speech. This is a core aspect of fraternity, or maithri, that is found in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution.

Homogeneity and a one-size-fits-all approach makes for a drab world. It narrows the mind into a world where reactions to baits and the baits themselves follow a set course. This often spirals into violence to enforce conformity or distort speech into calls for genocide. Worryingly, genocidal speech has become commonplace. A fair share of this has also been seen at universities and institutions of higher education in the recent past.

Even while many condemn student politics, foot soldiers of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad, have been given a free hand by the authorities to unleash violence against students exercising their associational freedoms – as seen in the University of Hyderabad and more recently at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

A protest against the attacks on students of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Chandigarh in January 2020. Credit: Reuters.

A further iteration of it can be seen in the case of Ashoka University. Sanjeev Bikhchandani, one of the founders of the university, on September 5 tweeted a long post differentiating between “liberal values and liberal arts” and the true essence of Ashoka.

A university student party pointed out to Bikhchandani that the university’s courses teach students to think critically and some chose to apply their learning practically through political activism. Bikhchandani responded with another long post on “the problem of title inflation”, drawing parallels with how the corporate sector enhances roles with designation changes but no increase in pay.

As a major investor in the institution and facing no rebuttal of his views from the university management (in contrast to Das’s paper), Bikhchandani has to be taken at his word.

Students have been trying bravely to call him out, but it is clear what the costs of that might be. The ability and willingness to take that risk to speak truth to power, in whatever limited ways available, must be cherished, not belittled, dismissed or disregarded. There is, in Bikhchandani’s post, a disrespect of students that erodes their right to dignity and autonomy.

“While I admire Bhagat Singh, as a parent do I want my son to go to the gallows at the age of 22?” he wrote. “I think most Ashoka parents will be relieved with this assessment of the University. Ashoka is boring – thank God.”

Bikhchandani reminds students that “parents don’t pay the fees they do for you to do aandolans”, or protest campaigns.

No parent wants their child to go to the gallows. Why does Bikhchandani admire a radical socialist freedom fighter such as Bhagat Singh? Or does he simply lack the courage to say he does not? It is not the parents of Ashoka University’s students who are studying at the institution. Can students survive a “boring place”? Is that what they want from their best years and the cutting-edge faculty Ashoka offers?

What is it that makes a place interesting and challenging? It is the world of ideas, knowledge and debate and the relationship they bear to the universe and to lived experience. When the environment outside becomes toxic, speaking out against injustice and acting on one’s convictions is the only course. This impulse need not be Left, Right or centre. It can simply be values that bring together a shared, convivial humanity. It is a dream that the Constitution gifts all Indians and affirms.

The second point is Bikhchandani’s deployment of the political bait that caricatured conscientious protestors as participants in “andolans” when, in fact lives, pasts and futures were at stake due to discriminatory laws that had to be resisted. Dissent, Bikhchandani must learn, is the hallmark of this democracy that he takes as a given. In December 2019, several university campuses witnessed student protests over the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. These “andolans” were the best expressions of non-violent non-cooperation in our times, that must be celebrated and remembered.

Bikhchandani adds: “Ashoka does not boast of Left liberal values. Some individuals at Ashoka might be. And they might want to paint all of Ashoka in that fashion because that is what they believe. Ashoka is merely a liberal arts and sciences university. It values openness and a spirit of inquiry. It must guard against becoming an ideological ghetto and therefore not very open. Left liberal values and studying subjects that constitute liberal arts are very different. You can be right of centre and still study liberal arts.” (Emphasis added.)

This statement is shocking. The opening page of the Ashoka University website says something completely contrary to this view, emphasising the institution’s commitment to “critical thinking”, “asking the right questions instead of accepting obvious answers” and more.

“Most importantly, the Ashoka University education teaches students how to learn, preparing them for a future in which both knowledge and work evolve continuously,” it says. “The academic programmes offered by Ashoka University in a dialogic classroom prepare students to excel in research and higher education as well as in the application of their knowledge to tackle real-world problems as future leaders who can drive change.”

Police personnel outside Jawaharlal Nehru University, in January 2020. Credit: Reuters.

So what is the truth? That parents send their children to Ashoka, despite the stupendous fees (not all of them can be assumed to be affluent corporate employees or entrepreneurs) so that they get an education that inculcates the spirit of radical empathy? The university’s own vision suggests that students will develop the capacity – hopefully – of interrogating the basis of disprivilege and injustice around them.

Or do parents send them to be churned out mindlesslessly in the manner Bikhchandani suggests? If it is the first, the management must rebut Bikhchandani’s views. If it is the second, the university’s vision statement must change so parents are not under the mistaken view that this is a liberal arts institution of the kind the statement suggests.

Bikhchandani’s fine distinctions between liberal values and liberal arts is best left for another time, or perhaps Political Theory 101 should be made mandatory for all the founders so they understand the basics of why they are there. It may also help to learn that funding a university does not make one an expert in academic matters. It only means that one has agreed to invest in an institution that will have the guarantee of autonomy and find its course on the basis of the academic expertise it gathers for the purpose.

“The Student Government at Ashoka seems to be labouring under the impression that their mandate is to govern the University,” Bikhchandani writes. “It isn’t. Their mandate is to work on student activities and student life.”

To reduce the effort of students to mobilise themselves against what they see as a wrong to an illusion that they are “governing” the institution infringes on their right to dignity in exercising associational freedoms. One may call it a union or a student government or a student political party or an association or by any other name – whether Bikhchandani subjects it to “title inflation” or not, it is a collective effort of a student body to speak together and speak up. No investor can set the agenda for them nor dare to define what their politics should be.

More importantly, it is not an illusion that they have the right to question the course the institution takes. They have the biggest stakes – lives, futures, freedoms – in the institution, and have a right to call it to account. The management has a duty of care, the terms of which must be collectively decided from time to time and debated.

The university is located within the territory of India, that is Bharat, is it not? The rights enshrined in the Constitution are not suspended for the Ashoka community. There is an active, full citizenry there, that cannot be obstructed from exercising their citizenship rights – scale does not matter, the exercise of rights does.

Kalpana Kannabiran is Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi, and is based in Hyderabad.

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