Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University has been met with widespread condemnation from various academics. Rightly so. He is one of the foremost scholars and an articulate commentator on the Indian Constitution and politics. His resignation triggered the resignation of the renowned economist, Arvind Subramanain, who was India’s Chief Economic Advisor between 2014 and 2018. Both are eminent international figures.

Soon after Mehta’s resignation, the faculty members of Ashoka University released a public statement in solidarity with him. The faculty members expressed grave concern that the university may have acceded to government pressure in taking such a step and alluded to “academic freedom on which Ashoka University has been set up”. In particular, the letter noted, “It would also set a chilling precedent for future removals of faculty, curtailing our sense of who we are as researchers and teachers.” The letter further urged the university administration to rescind Mehta’s resignation.

Such a statement of public solidarity by the Ashoka faculty is welcome. However, the “chilling precedent” had been set as early as 2016 with three resignations, including mine, which had been covered in many media outlets. Mehta joined Ashoka University as its Vice Chancellor after these incidents.

I resigned from Ashoka University on December 14, 2016. News reports of my resignation carried different versions of the same event. While the Ashoka administration indicated that there was no proposal to dismiss me, I had said that there was one. This Rashomon Effect came to an end when the Indian Express presented evidence corroborating my version of the story.

Resignation letter

There were two broad reasons why the Ashoka administration was not happy with me. The first of them was because of my involvement in creating a Workers’ Welfare Committee on campus that would seek to redress grievances of all sorts of workers on campus – academic staff, non-academic staff including housekeeping staff and maintenance staff. The committee aimed to ensure that every person on campus – not just faculty or students – had equal access to fair procedures, grievance redressal and claim-making at the university.

The second, concerned a petition on Kashmir that was signed by many students, two non-teaching staff and me. I do not know the full extent of pressure that the university faced but my sympathies continue to be with the university for having received the unintended consequences of the petition.

More details on my departure can be found in my resignation letter. Read the full text of my resignation letter.

The Workers’ Welfare Committee was disbanded while in its infancy and then overnight the two non-teaching staff members were made to “resign” in September, 2016. It remained unclear if any impartial committee was available to hear them. (The reference to them as non-teaching staff is intentional.) The very structure aimed to protect basic rights was not available to them and my repeated appeals concerning this remained unanswered by the Governing Body.

Being a faculty member, I was privileged that there was a well-meaning Faculty Council composed of four faculty members acting as an interlocutor on my behalf with the Governing Body. But no such council was available for the staff. I also had to meet with a specially formed committee with representatives of the Governing Body on November 23, 2016. It was called the Advisory Committee consisting of three senior faculty members and one founder. Like other times before where I was asked to express regret for my actions, I was once again asked to express that my actions were an “error of judgement.”

At that meeting, I said, irrespective of how I felt personally about this matter, any third person observing the episode would see it as an example of being victimised. To which, a founder responded, “Let me be blunt here. If you were being victimised or witch hunted or harassed, then you won’t be sitting here and having a conversation with us.”

The other three senior faculty members at the meeting chose to be silent about the founder’s comment. And again, my appeals on the opacity surrounding the purported “resignations” of the two non-teaching staff remained unanswered.

In the end, I may or may not have been dismissed at Ashoka but I felt it was unethical to continue owing to the distinction made by the Governing Body between non-teaching staff and a faculty member. Such distinctions based on one’s position in the hierarchy of an institution are fundamentally at odds with liberal principles and democratic conduct.

Government pressure is not specific to one university. It is therefore time to think about building a consortium and forge cross-university solidarity networks. The events that have happened in Ashoka are not limited to Ashoka. They point to larger structural problems, including widening socio-economic inequality and differential access to justice systems based on one’s privilege and access to power structures. The resignation by faculty members – Mehta, Subramanian and I – are fundamentally actions from our positions of privilege; albeit differing in degrees of privilege. We have/had more degrees of freedom to exercise our rights. But, as it had then come to my attention, the constraints faced by the two non-teaching staff were much greater.

Recently, Mehta, Subramanian and members of the Ashoka administration released a joint statement where they “reaffirm” their “commitment to academic autonomy and freedom.” Subsequently, the Ashoka Trustees have also issued a statement to similar effect. These might be useful interventions. However, in contrast, subsequent to the resignations in 2016, Ashoka University’s Academic Council and its Trustees have maintained a studied silence, while the Governing Body resorted to half-truths.

The optics of these recent statements aside, Ashoka University’s response in its treatment of the current resignations underscore that dignity and respect given to individuals appear to be a function of one’s eminence and international reputation.

The protection of rights, transparency of procedures and importantly, treating individuals with dignity cannot depend on their position of privilege. It is in this regard that universities can be exemplars in creating microcosms of spaces that truly embody constitutional principles. For this to happen, universities must make concerted efforts to reduce income disparities between faculty and staff and to ensure everyone on campus, including students, have access to basic resources for a life of dignity and equal rights.

It is minimally necessary that universities need to be more inclusive in its composition; in terms of caste, class, religion, gender and other dimensions through affirmative action. To truly create sanctuaries of learning and questioning, the right to be heard impartially must be universal. Independent forums within institutions should not only be available for students and faculty, but also for every worker, to raise their concerns fearlessly.

In his poem Ardh Satya, Dilp Chitre wrote, “Chakravyuh se mukt ho jaaoon bhale hi, phir bhi chakravyuh ki rachna mein farq hi na padega.” The design of the labyrinth will remain unchanged even if I manage to escape the labyrinth.

It is in this sense that the likes of Mehta, Subramanian and I have merely exercised our privilege and options to exit the chakravyuh, the labyrinth. The overarching need, however, is to dismantle the chakravyuh.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are personal. It is written in my individual capacity and does not reflect the views of my institution or any organisations/campaigns I am part of.

Rajendran Narayanan’s Twitter account is @rajendran_naray.