More than 150 academicians from Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and other international universities on Friday expressed solidarity with political scientist and commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who resigned as professor from Ashoka University earlier this week.
In an open letter to the trustees and founders of the university, the academicians criticised the “assault” on the values, which they said Mehta has always practiced. “In political life, these [values] are free argument, tolerance, and a democratic spirit of equal citizenship,” they wrote. “In the university, they are free inquiry, candor, and a rigorous distinction between the demands of intellectual honesty and the pressure of politicians, funders, or ideological animus. These values come under assault whenever a scholar is punished for the content of public speech.”
They added: “When that speech is in defense of precisely these values, the assault is especially shameful.”
The signatories of the letter included critic Homi K Bhabha, who is the professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, Professor of Politics at Princeton University Charles Beitz, and Corey L Brettschneider, professor of Political Science at Brown University.
The academicians said they were distressed to learn about Mehta’s resignation under political pressure. “A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, he had become a target for his writings,” they added.
The signatories criticised trustees of Ashoka University, “who should have treated defending him [Mehta] as their institutional duty, instead all but forced his resignation”.
The academicians added that a university must be a place for fearless inquiry and criticism. “We support Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his practice of the highest values of intellectual inquiry and public life,” they said.
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Mehta, a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, had resigned from his position from the leading private liberal arts university on Tuesday, less than two years after he stepped down as its vice chancellor. The university had refused to say whether his writings and criticism were connected to the resignation. Economist Arvind Subramanian also quit after Mehta’s exit.
Mehta said in his resignation letter, made public on Thursday, that his association with Ashoka University may be considered a political liability. “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,” he said. “It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka.”
Nearly 100 students and faculty members protested against Mehta’s exit on Thursday. Earlier the day, the faculty and the students’ and alumni body released statements condemning the resignation. The student’s body demanded that the university bring Mehta back. They also asked the administration to make the process of resignation more transparent.
At a virtual meeting on the same day, Ashoka University Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar told the students that trustees did not ask Mehta to leave, and that she would ask him to reconsider his resignation. “From my interaction with Pratap, he wants to be left alone,” she said. “I don’t want to upset him. I want him to stay and I will do everything to keep him at Ashoka.”