Ashoka University’s decision to dissociate itself from economist Sabyasachi Das’ research on electoral manipulation in the 2019 elections shows that despite all their claims, private universities do not serve as bulwarks of liberal thought, a group of 326 academicians said on Sunday.

Das resigned from his post as an assistant professor at the Sonepat-based university earlier this month in the wake of a social backlash to his research paper titled “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy”. In the research paper, he had explored the possibility of electoral manipulation in favour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The university had also distanced itself from the research paper, saying that it had not completed a critical review process and had not been published in an academic journal. Vice-Chancellor Somak Raychaudhury had said that Das’ research was perceived by many as reflecting the views of the university.

On Sunday, 326 academicians – both from universities in India and those abroad – said the sequence of events showed that what was at stake was not the academic merit of his paper, but the threat it posed to the ruling party. “There has been no detailed academic counter to this paper, only ad hominem attacks in the public,” the statement by the academicians read.

They also noted that several departments at the Ashoka University have subsequently expressed their solidarity with Das and asked for his reinstatement.

“By backsliding on Dr Das’s academic freedom because the topic he chose to study was inconvenient to one political party, the university violates several principles of academic freedom,” they said. “The fact of the matter is that the government is applying equal pressure on both private and public universities /institutions. Ashoka, by caving in to the pressure is falling short of its own declared vision.”

The academicians demanded Das’ immediate reinstatement and concrete steps to ensure academic freedom at the university.

What did Das’ research say?

Das’ research was published on the Social Science Research Network on July 25. The research found that constituencies that saw close contests between the BJP and a rival party were disproportionately won by the former. This effect was most prominent in BJP-ruled states.

It had also claimed that the 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 did not constitute “not proofs of fraud” and did not “suggest that manipulation was widespread”. Das also estimated that the BJP may have gained between 9 to 18 parliamentary seats due to this possible manipulation.

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