The departments of Economics, English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University in Haryana’s Sonepat on Wednesday threatened to stop teaching unless the university reinstated an assistant professor who resigned earlier this week.
Sabyasachi Das resigned weeks after he published a research paper exploring the possibility of electoral manipulation in favour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Vice Chancellor Somak Raychaudhury said on Monday that the university had accepted Das’s resignation.
The economics department, to which Das belonged, demanded in an open letter on Wednesday that Ashoka University should unconditionally offer him his position back.
The statement criticised the “governing body’s interference” in the professional process of academic peer review by “investigat[ing] the merits of [Das’s] recent study”. It was not clear what investigation was carried out by the governing body.
Two persons familiar with the development, however, told Scroll that the governing body had set up a committee to examine Das’s paper, which prompted him to resign from the university.
Scroll emailed the vice chancellor, asking for his response to the allegations. The story will be updated if he responds.
The economics department’s statement also called on the university to state that its governing body will play no role in evaluating faculty research through “any committee or any other structure”.
“Unless these questions regarding basic academic freedoms are resolved before the Monsoon 2023 semester, faculty members of the department will find themselves unable to carry forward their teaching obligations in the spirit of critical inquiry and the fearless pursuit of truth that characterises our classrooms,” it said in the letter to the governing body.
The letter urged the governing body to respond immediately, but no later than August 23.
The department said that Das did not violate any accepted norm of academic practice and that academic research is professionally evaluated through peer review.
“The governing body’s interference in this process to investigate the merit of his recent study constitutes institutional harassment, curtails academic freedom, and forces scholars to operate in an environment of fear,” it said.
The actions of the governing body “pose an existential threat” to the economics department, the letter added. “It is likely to precipitate an exodus of faculty, and prevent us from attracting new faculty.”
Another professor quits
Days after Das’ resignation, another professor from the Economics Department also quit his post to protest the university’s action, The Indian Express reported. The professor, Pulapre Balakrishnan, told the newspaper: “Yes, I have resigned. It is related to Das’s resignation.”
The university has reportedly not yet taken a decision on Balakrishnan’s resignation.
The departments of English and Creative Writing, in a joint statement, too demanded that Das be reinstated. They said that they would not be able to carry out their teaching obligations “unless questions regarding basic academic freedoms are resolved before the Monsoon 2023 semester”.
The departments of English and Creative Writing also urged social media handles of Ashoka University not to put out “statements discrediting academic research by its faculty members in the future”.
On August 1, the university had said that the research paper had not completed a critical review process and had not been published in an academic journal. “Social media activity or public activism by Ashoka faculty, students or staff in their individual capacity does not reflect the stand of the university,” it added.
On August 13, a letter written by 82 faculty members of Ashoka University had called for the creation of a Committee for Academic Freedom in order to bring in transparency and procedural fairness in such matters.
The letter, drafted and circulated before the resignations of Das and Balakrishnan came to light, was addressed to Vice Chancellor Raychaudhury and the Dean of Faculty Amita Baviskar.
The letter said that a document on academic freedom adopted by the university in 2021 had proposed the setting up of such a committee. It noted that the document is also part of a handbook on faculty policies.
The signatories said that such a committee would prevent public pronouncements claimed to be made on behalf of the university “of whose provenance almost no one at the university is aware”.
The letter added: “It has been bewildering to witness events unfold in the last two weeks that are directly related to academic freedom in a way that makes no reference to this document and behaves, to all purposes, as if it does not exist.”
What did the research paper say?
In the research paper titled “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy”, Das argued that the BJP won a disproportionate share of closely contested parliamentary seats in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, especially in states where it was the ruling party at the time. The research was published on the Social Science Research Network on July 25.
Das claimed that this alleged electoral manipulation by the BJP also appeared to have taken the form of targeted electoral discrimination against Muslims, “partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers”.
However, he stated that his research was “not proofs of fraud” and does not “suggest that manipulation was widespread”. Das also estimated that the BJP may have gained between 9 and 18 parliamentary seats due to this possible manipulation.