Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Arvind Subramanian
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Arvind Subramanian

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

The controversy first came into focus after political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, known for taking a stand against the Union government, put in his resignation.

Ashoka University, a private liberal arts and sciences university located in Sonipat in Haryana, has found itself in the middle of a controversy after two prominent names — political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta and his colleague, economist Arvind Subramanian — resigned as consulting professors from the university.

In a letter that surfaced on Thursday, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who is now known for speaking out against the BJP-led Union government, wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Ashoka University Malabika Sarkar, resigning as a professor. In his email, he wrote that after a meeting with the founders of the University, it has become “abundantly clear” that his association with the 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. In the interests of the University, I resign,” wrote Mehta, who had stepped down as the V-C of the university two years ago.

“A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish. I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment. Nietzsche once said that “no living for truth is possible in a university." I hope that prophecy does not come true,” he added.

Why Arvind Subramanian resigned

Two days after Mehta's resignation, Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic advisor, who had joined Ashoka University as a professor in the Department of Economics in July 2020, also resigned.

In his letter, Arvind Subramanian wrote to V-C Malabika Sarkar that Mehta’s resignation, who he said “is not just a dear friend but a truly inspirational national figure,” has “devastated” him.

“I came to Ashoka University with the aim of teaching students, and building a centre for economic policy to build our national capacity for high-quality research, analysis and communication,” Subramanian wrote. “With the University’s support, especially of key trustees, the Centre has been taking shape – with events, research projects, teams of talented researchers, and resources – beyond what I could have hoped for, especially considering the pandemic-induced constraints.”

“However, the circumstances involving the “resignation” of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who is not just a dear friend but a truly inspirational national figure, have devastated me. I am acutely aware of the broader context in which Ashoka and its trustees have to operate, and have so far admired the University for having navigated it so well,” he added.

“...That someone of such integrity and eminence, who embodied the vision underlying Ashoka, felt compelled to leave is troubling. 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,” Subramanian wrote.

Subramanian was appointed Chief Economic Advisor on October 16, 2014, for a period of three years and was given an extension in 2017. However, he quit the job with close to one year of his tenure remaining and returned to the US. Subramanian's official contract was till May 2019.

Concerned students, faculty write to V-C

Following the two high-profile exits, faculty members, students and alumni of Ashoka University have expressed anguish over Pratap Bhanu Mehta's resignation, saying his exit seems to be a direct consequence of his role as a public intellectual and critic of the government.

While the faculty members have written to the Vice-Chancellor (VC) and board members, saying Mehta's exit has set a "chilling precedent for future removals of faculty,” the alumni council of the university has released a separate statement expressing solidarity with Mehta. The developments came on a day when Arvind Subramanian also resigned as a professor of the university.

While a query sent to the university regarding the developments remained unanswered till the filing of the report, VC Malabika Sarkar told the students and faculty members at a virtual town hall meeting that Mehta was asked to reconsider his decision, but "he has asked to be left alone." The faculty members have noted that Mehta's resignation is a "matter of great anguish."

"In light of media reports that circulated before the official announcement of Professor Mehta's departure from the university, it seems quite plausible that his resignation was a direct consequence of his role as a public intellectual and critic of the government. We are greatly troubled by this scenario," the statement by the faculty members said.

"Mehta's resignation is not just an occasion for sorrow over the departure of a deeply respected and admired colleague. It also raises urgent questions about the university's commitment to academic freedom as well as its internal processes. Even more troubling is the possibility that our university may have acceded to pressure to remove Professor Mehta or to request, and accept, his resignation," it added.

The faculty members said, "We request the university to ask Professor Mehta to rescind his resignation. We also request that the university clarify its internal protocols of faculty appointment and dismissal, and reinforce its institutional commitment to the principles of academic freedom."

The Ashoka University Student Government, Alumni Council and other members of the university community released a separate statement expressing solidarity with Mehta.

"The events that have transpired point to a failure on the chancellor and vice-chancellor's part in protecting the university faculty from external pressures and, more importantly, also point to a failure of the founders to ensure the same," the statement said.

While there is no confirmation on what triggered Mehta's resignation, the Indian Express reported that the founders of Ashoka University met Mehta recently and are said to have raised the “current political environment,” and reportedly “suggested” that his intellectual interventions were "something they could no longer protect."

Protests at the university

Nearly 100 students and faculty members staged a protest in the university. The students said they were "extremely saddened" by the exit of Mehta and Subramanian, who they said were invaluable members of the Ashoka community.

"We strongly condemn these resignations and the lack of transparency from the university about the same. It is unacceptable that we are learning about the exits from news reports and not the university itself," the students said.

At the virtual town hall meeting with the VC that evening, the students and faculty members raised questions on the role of the trustees and founders of the university in Mehta's resignation, which led Subramanian to quit.

The VC told them that she was not a part of any conversation between Mehta and the trustees.

"The trustees have categorically told me to convey on their behalf that they never asked Mehta to resign," she said during the nearly two-hour-long meeting.

The VC also said she asked Mehta to take his resignation back, but he said he did not want to and "wants to be left alone".

The town hall, which was streamed live, was attended by over a thousand students, members of the faculty and alumni.

The students and faculty members wanted the VC to give them the real reason for Mehta's resignation and tell them if the atmosphere of academic freedom in the university is being compromised.

Congress questions BJP over resignations

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra attacked the ruling BJP on Thursday after economist Arvind Subramanian resigned as a professor of the Ashoka University and accused the saffron party of “aiming to put knowledge in fetters.” Tagging a news report about Subramanian resigning as a professor at the Ashoka University, she said the BJP is saying in West Bengal that it wants to create a "Sonar Bangla" but is attacking the original spirit of Rabindranath Tagore. (West Bengal goes to polls this year).

"They go to Bengal and say that they will make 'Sonar Bangla' but are attacking Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore's original spirit. Gurudev Tagore had said, 'Where the mind is without fear...where knowledge is free.' The BJP's aim is to tie knowledge in fetters, to instill fear in the minds of people," the Congress general secretary said in a tweet in Hindi. 

With agency inputs

The News Minute