Rajendran Narayanan resigned from the mathematics department of Ashoka University in Haryana in December, two months after he signed a students’ petition condemning the violence in Kashmir after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani in July. Two of his colleagues in the administrative section, who were the only other signatories to the petition from among staff members, were allegedly “made to resign” by university authorities in October. The petition, drafted by students in the university’s Young India Fellowship programme, had also demanded a plebiscite for Jammu and Kashmir.

Narayanan, 38, who resigned citing “ethical reasons”, said there had been a proposal to dismiss him and the university’s teaching community had fought it. But being a firm believer in “equality of access to justice”, he said, continuing at the university when his two colleagues could not would have “compromised [his] principles”.

Through the controversy engendered by the resignations and leaked emails between the university’s governing body and faculty council, Ashoka maintained that no punitive action had been taken or even considered against the three. “Neither the staff members nor Professor Rajendran were asked to leave, or dismissed, and no action was taken against them,” said Ali Imran, the university’s vice-president for external engagement. “There was no proposal at any stage to dismiss Professor Rajendran.” He added that conversations in which the “purported dismissal” found mention “[were] only in the nature of a debate, and there was no such proposal”.

Narayanan, on his part, said he had nothing against the institute as he believed it was victim to the general “structure of violence” against universities in recent times. “Whatever happened in Ashoka is deeply unfortunate and is symptomatic of a larger systemic malaise in our country,” he said.

Ethical reasons

Narayanan grew up in Kolkata, studied in St Xavier’s College in the city and in the department of mathematics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. He worked as an analyst in the corporate sector for some years before joining the PhD programme at Cornell University in the United States in 2006. He was visiting faculty at Cornell and also taught at a number of institutions in India, including the Indian Statistic Institute, Kolkata, before joining Ashoka University.

“Right from childhood, I have been… interested in questions of social justice,” he said. “During my PhD, I started engaging with those questions actively. I believe universities should be sanctuaries and one way to achieve that is to turn them into laboratories of democracy. In addition to freedom of speech, equity, and gender equality, there should be equal access to justice.”

While teaching at Ashoka, he responded to “piecemeal cases of social justice violations”, be it a delay in payment of wages or termination of employment, by attempting to start a Workers’ Welfare Committee. It included orienting all those working at the university – teachers, administrative staff, construction and other workers – to their rights and entitlements, and serving as a forum for grievance redressal through a neutral ombudsperson.

“Fair access to justice should not depend on one’s position of privilege,” Narayanan explained. “When the faculty has so many privileges, why cut corners with the labour groups?”

The committee was ratified at a faculty meeting in March-April last year but then “ran into administrative hassles”. By August, he said, the project as “[he] had envisioned it” had been shelved.

Imran countered this, saying, “There is a Worker Welfare Committee that was set up by the university and it continues to be active and in force.”

The two resignations in October caught Narayanan by surprise. “While I was also under some pressure, the faculty council and a large section of the faculty rallied behind me,” he said. “Why was there no discussion over their ‘resignations’ like there was over my proposed dismissal?”

Narayanan felt he could not accept “being a beneficiary of the very system of asymmetric access to fairness that [he] wanted to change”. He explained, “Staying on would have conflicted with my principles, my belief in equal access to justice. It would have compromised my integrity and hurt my self-respect.”

After leaving Ashoka University, he went “back on the field” with workers engaged through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – which entitles every Indian household to 100 days of employment in a year – in Karnataka’s Raichur district.

The petition

Narayanan does not regret signing the petition. “I do not think I need to apologise for that,” he stated. He said it was circulated in the community for over a week and the administration knew of it. “No one objected then,” he said. “If they had, I may have chosen to respond differently. I assumed the silence meant they were okay with it. Also, signatories cannot be held responsible for misrepresentation of the letter.” He added that the letter had included a disclaimer saying the signatories were endorsing it in a personal capacity.

Imran said the university had taken a stand. “At the time of the Kashmir petition, Ashoka University had issued a statement stating its position on that issue clearly – that the petition represented the views of a small number of people from the Ashoka community and not the official position of the university,” he said.

No other teacher signed it. “It is a choice the others exercised and I respect that,” said Narayanan. But he “was told there was pressure” on university authorities, “from the state and central governments and some founders”, to take action against the three staff members who did sign it. “But I do not know the extent of it,” he added.

Imran denied this, stating, “No, there was no such pressure.”

Structural violence

For Narayanan, what happened after the petition has less to do with Ashoka University and more with the “structural violence employed by the government on universities”. A letter, he pointed out, “is the most civil way of expressing disagreement”.

In the violence at Delhi’s Ramjas College in February, when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party-linked Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad had disrupted a seminar and clashed with other students, he saw the “extent to which the government will go to tame universities”.

“I feel sad and upset that the [Ashoka] university has been in the middle of a controversy,” Narayanan said. “I have very fond memories of it and had wanted a part in building it… But we must also ask what it means to be silent and to not resist structural violence.”

He added, “Notwithstanding institutional risks, I feel this was an opportunity to solidify the institutional fortitude.”

Emotional toll

Before he resigned, Narayanan wrote to the university’s governing body, met university officials and, finally, appeared before an advisory committee in November. “I expressed my concerns and to that I either got silence or hazy, unpleasant responses,” he recalled. “I had asked, for instance, why the other two ‘resigned’ and what process had been followed.”

Imran explained that the governing body had set up a four-member “fact-finding committee”. He added, “The governing body was concerned about the views of a small number of people being represented as the university’s views, and had sought the facts of the matter to be placed before it.”

The experience, Narayanan said, has been draining. “I was and have been under a lot of mental and emotional strain,” he said. “I have constantly asked myself what I could have done differently. I have agonised over every little detail pondering over the price of truth and the price of fear.” Family, friends and mentors supported his decision to leave. All that his mother said was, “Make sure you make it clear in your letter that you are not resigning out of fear.”