Pratap Bhanu Mehta is an “exceptional mentor”, said a final-year political science student at Ashoka University. Mehta, said the student who did not want to be identified, is a helpful professor with the ability to identify raw intelligence among his students.
“I was raised in a village and the fact that a guy like me can write a thesis and have the intellectual confidence to publish, write and have hope in an academic career is because of him,” the student said.
But the student mourned that his professor would no longer be teaching him or anyone else at the university.
A critic of the Narendra Modi government whose sharp op-eds appear frequently in The Indian Express, Mehta resigned from the private university in Sonepat on Tuesday. His decision came less than two years after he stepped down as the vice-chancellor of the university.
His resignation has caused widespread discontent and anger among students and faculty members at Ashoka University, which describes itself on its website as “a pioneer in its focus on providing a liberal education at par with the best in the world”.
“We had deep optimism that this is a place in India with intellectual freedom and where a high amount of good standard research would take place,” said the student. “Now my optimism has turned to deep pessimism.”
The exactly circumstances behind Mehta’s exit remain unknown. A report published in the student-run news website The Edict alleged that his exit would smoothen the administration’s efforts to acquire a new plot of land to expand the campus. Scroll.in sent questions regarding the allegations to Vice Chancellor Malabika Sarkar. This article will be updated if she responds.
‘Honouring Constitutional values’
At a virtual meeting on Thursday evening, Sarkar was questioned by the faculty over the events. She told students that trustees did not ask Mehta to leave, and that she was not privy to the conversations between the founders and Mehta.
“The person who sent the resignation letter did not consult me,” Sarkar said. “He and I have worked very closely for two years. Maybe it did not occur to him to reach out to me.”
Sarkar added she would ask Mehta to reconsider his resignation. “From my interaction with Pratap, he wants to be left alone,” she said during the meeting. “I don’t want to upset him. I want him to stay and I will do everything to keep him at Ashoka.”
At the virtual meeting student said she had heard from someone in touch with Mehta that he had faced pressure from the right-wing. To this, Sarkar said she had exchanged messages with Mehta earlier in the evening but he hadn’t said anything about this to her. “I have no knowledge of this.”
However, in a letter to Sarkar on March 15, Mehta left no doubt that he had put in his papers because of political pressures faced by the institution. “After a meeting with Founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability,” Mehta wrote. “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. In the interests of the University I resign.”
He added: “A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish...But in light of the prevailing atmosphere, the Founders and the Administration will require renewed commitment to the values of Ashoka, and new courage to secure Ashoka’s freedom.”
The virtual meeting on Thuruday ended with a chorus of student voices saying, “This is not my Ashoka.”
Thursday began with economist Arvind Subramanian, a professor at the university and former chief economic advisor to the government, resigning in protest and describing Mehta’s resignation as “ominously disturbing”.
In the afternoon, nearly 100 students and faculty members held a protest at the university.
Some of them who spoke to Scroll.in over the phone said they were “mourning a loss” and were discussing the larger implications of Mehta’s exit. Faculty members expressed concern over the future of the university because of its direct brand association with Mehta, while students said they questioned the administration’s transparency on the matter.
During the day, the faculty and the students’ and alumni body released statements condemning the resignation. The student’s body demanded the university to offer Mehta back his job and make his resignation letter public after seeking his permission. The faculty said the resignation set a “chilling precedent”.
Both the statements questioned the university’s lack of transparency and its commitment to academic freedom. This was echoed by several students and alumni who said they considered the university as a free-thinking space where professors and students could openly express their views.
“There is a general sense of fury and anger among students and faculty,” said Aritro Sarkar, a history student and one of the editors of The Edict.
Sarkar said the university’s administration had failed to tell students and faculty members about the circumstances behind Mehta’s resignation. Students who worked under Mehta said it was uncharacteristic of him to resign, leaving the nearly 150 students he taught stranded in the middle of the semester.
“Knowing him, he is the kind of person who will not let his students down in such a manner,” said a former student who now works as a teaching assistant at the university. They did not want to be identified in this article.
The student questioned the university’s motives: “Even if he [Mehta] were to resign, why would you [the university] accept his resignation in the middle of the semester?”
Ashoka University was established in 2014 with the idea to impart a liberal education to young students by offering an array of courses in critical thinking, political science and leadership.
“You can be openly anti-establishment without facing any physical violence,” said Sarkar. “We are acutely aware that these freedoms are in short supply all over the country.” But it was only a matter of time before this would impact Ashoka University, he said.
In its early years, the university was criticised for lacking social diversity and for mainly accepting priveleged students who could afford to pay its steep fees.
In 2017, it came under the limelight when a faculty member resigned two months after signing a students’ petition condemning violence in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Two other colleagues in the administrative department also signed the petition and were allegedly “made to resign” as well.
The recent events had revived questions over the university’s committment to its values.
“As students, we are all promised that founders and trustees will not take part in the day to day matters of the university. And currently it seems this promise has been breached,” said the former student who works as a teaching assistant.
The student added that Mehta’s resignation reflected poorly on the founders, trustees, chancellor and vice-chancellor of the university.
“The fact that they are willing to forsake such a respected and able professor to allow for expansion in the university in the years to come,” said the student.
Another student wondered how much the administration would bend to political pressure.
“Where does this stop?” asked a third-year political science student, who did not want to be identified. “So many of our faculty members are vocal on national issues. It difficult to reconcile with it because Ashoka has always stood by its professors, which is why we were attracted to it in the first place.”
KC Sachin, who had studied in the political science department and graduated in 2018, said that if there was any kind of pressure on Ashoka, it was nothing compared to the repression faced by other educational institutions in the country.
“It is a shame that our founders, with so much wealth and claiming to be liberal philanthropists, cannot stand up for their own self-professed ideals,” said Sachin, 25, who currently works in Somalia. “If our university’s existence depends on always bending, we will eventually be broken anyway,” he said.