“Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul,” Raghuram Rajan wrote.

A file image of former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan wearing a suit and tie
news Controversy Saturday, March 20, 2021 - 12:10

Former Governor of the Reserve Bank of India Raghuram Rajan has expressed concern over the resignations of political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta and economist Arvind Subramanian as professors of the Haryana-based Ashoka University. Mehta resigned saying that it has become “abundantly clear” that his association with the University may be considered “a political liability.” Subramanian, who resigned two days later, wrote, “That someone of such integrity and eminence, who embodied the vision underlying Ashoka, felt compelled to leave is troubling,” adding that Mehta’s exit has “devastated” him.

In a statement, Rajan wrote that “free speech suffered a grievous blow in India this week” because of the resignations. 

“Liberalism has been set back by the actions of Ashoka University. It is unclear what exactly motivated Ashoka's founders to remove their hitherto laudable protection. In his resignation letter, Pratap Mehta writes "After a meeting with Founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability." That, coupled with Professor Subramanian's statements, would suggest that Ashoka's founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic,” Rajan wrote.

“If Ashoka's founders believe they have compromised with the powers that be in the greater interests of the university, they are wrong. Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul. And if you show a willingness to barter your soul, is there any chance the pressures will go away? This is indeed a sad development for India,” Rajan added.

Also read: Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Arvind Subramanian resign: The Ashoka University row explained

Read Raghuram Rajan’s full statement here:

"Free speech suffered a grievous blow in India this week. Professor Pratap Mehta, one of India's finest political scientists, resigned from Ashoka University. Ashoka, for those who do not know, till this week was considered India's likely competitor to Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford in coming decades. Unfortunately, its actions this week make that less probable.

Professor Mehta's resignation came in the middle of the teaching quarter, and was so sudden that he pleaded in his resignation letter with the university to make arrangements for his driver, who would otherwise be left jobless. It is unlikely that such a resignation was premeditated.

Mehta's resignation was followed by Professor Arvind Subramanian's resignation. Professor Subramanian, a renowned economist (and, full disclosure, a co-author of mine), is a former chief economic advisor to the Government of India, Two lines from his resignation letter are especially noteworthy: "That even Ashoka - with its private status and backing by private capital - can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing. Above all, that the University's commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka.”

The reality is that Professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought provoking arguments. It is not that he has much sympathy for the opposition either. As a true academic, he is an equal opportunity critic. He is, and I hope will continue to be one of the intellectual leaders of liberalism in India.

Yet liberalism has been set back by the actions of Ashoka University. It is unclear what exactly motivated Ashoka's founders to remove their hitherto laudable protection. In his resignation letter, Pratap Mehta writes "After a meeting with Founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability." That, coupled with Professor Subramanian's statements, would suggest that Ashoka's founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic.

As an institution, the university should not take political sides. However, as the University of Chicago's Kalven Committee said, "the neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints. And this neutrality as an institution has its complement in the fullest freedom for its faculty and students as individuals to participate in political action and social protest.” Put differently, the role of a great university is to provide a protected space for its academicians and students to engage freely in open public debate, much as Indian universities like Nalanda and Taxila used to.

And that freedom is necessary because as the Kalven committee emphasizes, "By design and by effect, it [the university] is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting." A good university creates an environment where ideas for progress and change arise. Static societies where criticism is silenced are doomed societies, which eventually succumb to the weight of their authoritarianism and groupthink.

Ashoka's founders should have realized that their mission was indeed not to take political sides but to continue to protect the right of people like Professor Mehta to speak, for in doing so, they were enabling Ashoka to make its greatest contribution to India's wellbeing - identifying what is going wrong and encouraging us all to remedy it. If Ashoka's founders believe they have compromised with the powers that be in the greater interests of the university, they are wrong. Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul. And if you show a willingness to barter your soul, is there any chance the pressures will go away? This is indeed a sad development for India.

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