Education

Arvind Subramanian Too Resigns From Ashoka, Says Varsity Can No Longer Provide Academic Freedom

The former CEA's resignation throws more light on the circumstances which led to the exit of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government.

New Delhi: Former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian has also resigned from Ashoka University, saying Pratab Bhanu Mehta’s exit two days earlier shows that the university even “with its private status and backing by private capital” can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom.

The news, first reported by the Indian Express, throws more light on the circumstances which led to Mehta’s resignation.

Subramanian joined the university as a professor in the department of economics in July last year. He is also the founding director of the Ashoka Center for Economic Policy, which the university had said would “be devoted to doing research and analysis on policy issues related to India and global development”. According to the Indian Express, his resignation will come into effect at the end of this academic year.

While Mehta, a frequent and vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, did not comment on the reasons behind his decision to quit, Subramaniam’s letter to the university’s vice-chancellor Malabika Sarkar seemed to hint that it was forced by the university, as he put the word resignation in double quotes.

This claim was already made by noted historian Ramachandra Guha, while the university’s independent student newspaper, The Edict, reported that Mehta felt after discussions with the university about “prevailing circumstances … it was best to move on”.

“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,” Subramanian said, in his letter.

Nevertheless, he said he was troubled by the fact that Mehta – a man of “integrity and eminence” and one who “embodied the vision underlying Ashoka” – felt compelled to leave. “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 letter says, according to the Indian Express.

Mehta was previously Ashoka University’s vice chancellor, stepping down two years ago. University sources told The Wire that the issue then was the trustees’ “unhappiness” with Mehta’s newspaper pieces – he is a regular contributor to the Indian Express – and that he chose to resign as VC rather than stop writing.

When the university was asked if Mehta’s decision to leave Ashoka altogether was also tied to his columns, the varsity spokesperson sidestepped the question. The only statement made by the university was, “During his tenure as Vice-Chancellor and member of faculty, he has contributed immensely to the University. Ashoka University wishes him well for his future endeavours.”

While Mehta’s exit is seemingly linked to his criticism of the BJP government at the Centre, Subramanian’s decision to quit as the CEA was also seen as a result of his “uneasy relationship” with the party and the Sangh parivar.

The full text of Subramanian’s resignation letter to Ashoka Univeristy’s VC Malabika Sarkar is reproduced below.

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Dear Malabika,

As you know, 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. 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. The exciting sense was growing that some of our long-term goals would be achieved. And I was really enjoying getting to know and work with the brilliant students and colleagues of Ashoka.

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.

But 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.

So it is with a sense of deep regret and profound sadness that I am writing to submit my resignation from the University which will take effect from the end of this academic year. I wish you and the University, and especially its gifted and motivated students–who are the heart of Ashoka–success in the future.

Sincerely,

Arvind

PS: As a courtesy to my colleagues in the economics department, and in the interests of transparency, I will be sharing this email with them.