The situation has escalated since news of the resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta from his teaching job at the Ashoka University on Tuesday. On Thursday, Arvind Subramanian, the prominent economist and former Chief Economic Advisor to the government, also resigned from his professorship at the university. It is a heartwarming instance of solidarity with a colleague – and also a personal statement about the state of affairs at the university in Sonepat, Haryana.

The student body has gone public with its outrage and demanded explanation from the university. The faculty has expressed its anguish and anger at the turn of events. All of them are addressing their vice chancellor and the trustees, which is what they can do.

The vice chancellor is accountable to the academic community and must explain how the Mehta resignation took place. It was bizarre to read about the chancellor feigning ignorance about these developments. Both of these officials have lost moral right to be in their position as they could not prevent the resignation, which was not voluntary at all. They failed the leadership role that requires them to defend their colleagues when they are facing attack from forces outside.

True leadership

I remember my conversation with Ashok Vajpeyi who was heading the Mahatma Gandhi Antatrrashtriya Hindi Vishvavidylaya when I joined it. You will commit mistakes while performing your job, he told me. So long as you remain honest, I will defend you publically and not let you go. That is what a leader is.

By failing to stand up to the trustees, both the vice chancellor and the chancellor have fallen in the eyes of their colleagues and students. It is inexplicable for them to not even ask the trustees to be made part of a process leading to the departure of one of their most valued colleagues, who was till a few days ago being flaunted as a trophy.

The trustees have compromised with the foundational principle of the university: to defend the right of the faculty and students to think independently and express themselves freely. Are they sure that by getting rid of a daily nuisance like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, they have bought peace with this regime? Then they are hugely mistaken.

They are probably aware of the story of the famous Indian frog, Ganga Dutt, who made a pact with snake that promised to protect him. One offering a day from Ganga Dutt’s community is all the snake wanted. But gradually, the number of the frog’s compatriots dwindled. Poor Ganga Dutt was able to satisfy the protector snake only by offering himself.

The regime will keep pushing the boundaries. It will need its daily pound of flesh. How will the trustees ensure that they are not asked to discipline another teacher who has authored a paper or book embarrassing this government or even putting forward a point of view or a fact that questions the ideological basis of the regime? Will they voluntarily ensure that uncomfortable voices are not heard at the campus?

The trustees need to understand that this an ever-demanding regime. It would not rest till it has robbed us of all our humanity. To live with the constant awareness of our limits and unfreedom diminishes us. To Mehta: you probably spoke reluctantly, but with others, you would not feel obliged to be apologetic about your demand. Less well-known figures have offered to the regime even before. A principle once compromised is impossible to recover in an institutional frame. It sets a precedent that can always be referred to for future actions.

The Ashoka University community will need to seriously introspect over its response to the punishment that those who supported a petition in 2015 condeming violence in Kashmir had to suffer.

However, that lapse should not be allowed to stop a discussion on what is happening now. If Ashoka University cannot house a figure like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, then why does it exist? It is worth recollecting what Mahatma Gandhi did with his journal Harijan in 1940. Vinoba Bhave had commenced the Individual Satyagraha movement by delivering an anti-war speech in Paunar.

He was travelling from village to village to make speeches against World War II. The colonial government issued instructions to the press asking them not to give publicity to the speeches and his movement. Harijan and its sister weeklies also received this notice.

Instead of continuing to bring out these titles without any news of the satyagraha, Gandhi decided to halt the publication of Harijan, Harijan-bandhu and Harijan Sevak.

He explained:

“I cannot function freely if I have to send to the Press Adviser at New Delhi every line I write about satyagraha. It is true that the notice is only advisory, and that therefore I am not bound to act up to it. But the consequence of disregard of advice is also stated in the notice. I have no desire to risk a prosecution against the Editors. The three weeklies have been conducted in the interest of truth and therefore of all parties concerned. But I cannot serve that interest if the editing has to be done under threat of prosecution. Liberty of the Press is a dear privilege, apart from the advisability or otherwise of civil disobedience. 

The Government have shown their intention clearly by the prosecution of Shri Vinoba Bhave. I have no complaint to make against the prosecution. It was an inevitable result of the Defence of India Rules. But the liberty of the Press stands on a different footing. I am unable to reconcile myself to the notice which although in the nature of advice, is in reality an order whose infringement will carry its own consequence.

I am sorry to have to disappoint the numerous readers of the three weeklies.”

Gandhi informed the viceroy that he was stopping the weeklies till the government decided it was ready to face criticism. His article on November 10, 1940, bidding readers of the Harijan farewell must be read by not only the Ashoka trustees but all of us:

 “I shall miss my weekly talks with you…The value of these thoughts consisted in their being a faithful record of my deepest thoughts. Such expression is impossible in a cramped atmosphere. As I have no desire to offer civil disobedience, I cannot write freely. As the author of satyagraha I cannot, consistently with my professions, suppress the vital part of myself for the sake of being able to write on permissible subjects such as constructive programme. It would be like dealing with the trunk without the head. The whole of constructive progarmme is to me an expression of non violence. I would be denying myself if I could not preach non-violence.”  

It might sound strange in our times – and would have surprised even Gandhi’s followers – that he decided to completely stop publication simply because he could not write or report on one activity: Vinoba Bhave’s actions. But then, according to Gandhi, the most significant events of that moment were Bhave’s speeches. For Gandhi, it was unacceptable to ignore that and write about things that were non-essential.

“Full surrender of the non-essentials is a condition precedent to accession of internal strength to defend the essential by dying,” Gandhi concluded.

The Ashoka trustees have to decide what was essential in the project they have embarked upon. The university was, according to them, to emerge as a world-class “pioneering liberal initiative” that encourages students “to think and to question”.

To enable the young minds to think and question, or in other words exercise their autonomy as an individual, you need a society that understands the full importance of these values. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta rightly reminded the trustees in his resignation letter to the vice chancellor, “A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish.”

These are the most important words of Mehta’s letter. After this, he noted, “I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment.”

The art of critical thinking

We need to pause, hover over these words and think. One of the many objectives of a true university, especially in these times, whether you call it liberal or not is immaterial, is to works towards creating and securing an environment where liberal political and social ideas can exist and breathe.

How does it happen? Classrooms are definitely meant for practicing the art of critical thinking, challenging all establishment thought. Ideas that dominate even the discipline that is being taught are probed there. But universities also host people like Mehta who help society understand itself better and making available to it the intellectual resources it can use to discover itself and equip itself better to make the world a more humane place.

The most essential task before all educational endeavours must be to keep alive a sense of freedom, togetherness, diversity and justicee. To make them meaningful. That is what Pratap Bhanu Mehta has been doing through his teaching and public interventions. For doing that, he has turned into an obstacle not only in the smooth journey of Ashoka University but perhaps also in the path of growth of its patrons.

If Ashoka decides to sacrifice this essential for other pompous non-essentials, for what does it live?

When talking about the fate of Ashoka, some of our colleagues have boasted that public universities are sanctuaries of free thought. They are lying to themselves. Public universities have made peace with this regime long back. Meek submission to all the diktats of the education ministry and the University Grants Commission, making all deliberative and consultative processes dysfunctional and turning teaching or learning into an exercise of merely transacting with the syllabus has taken life out of the public universities.

That we teachers cannot be removed or forced to leave has largely to do with the liberal approach of the founders of this Republic. That is a small consolation, keeping in mind the fact that the regime has shown that it has another way of dealing with this impediment. Teachers like Hany Babu, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde have been made an example in the Bhima Koregaon case. So, we do not have a right to mock Ashoka.

We need to join the struggle of the students and faculty of Ashoka University to reclaim the promise of the institution. For the principle is important: the principle of autonomy, freedom, ability to be your own self.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.