New Delhi: Four more departments at Ashoka University have issued statements affirming their solidarity with former economics professor Sabyasachi Das.
Ashoka’s sociology and anthropology, English, and creative writing departments issued their statements on Wednesday (August 16), while its political science department released its statement on Thursday (August 17).
The latter three departments wrote that their faculty will be “unable to carry forward [their] teaching obligations in the spirit of critical enquiry and the fearless pursuit of truth that characterise [their] classrooms” until their demands on academic freedom are met.
Ashoka University has become embroiled in a controversy around academic freedom after Das, an assistant professor in its economics department, resigned following a political row triggered by one of his recent research papers.
Titled ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’, Das’s paper talked about the possibility of electoral ‘manipulation’ in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when the incumbent BJP rode back to power with a greater margin than in 2014.
The university’s administration was quick to distance itself from the paper, and its stand has come under criticism from students, academics and even its own faculty.
This is especially significant given how it nudged and persuaded its reputed political science professor and former vice chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta to resign in March 2021 due to his media writings on the ruling BJP’s politics.
The political science faculty said in their statement today that “by now, the pattern is all too familiar, especially for us as a department”.
They also said that the alleged attempt by the university’s governing body to “investigate” Das’s research has created a climate of fear amongst the academic community.
“We strongly condemn the actions of the governing body. Through its interference and suggestion of constituting a committee, the governing body has questioned the credibility of the peer review system and in effect has cast aspersions against scholars at Ashoka and elsewhere,” their statement reads.
It continues: “Furthermore, the governing body’s actions have signalled to students that critical enquiry can be met with severe repercussions and thus undermines the work that we do within and outside the classroom.”
“Such illiberal action by a leading liberal arts university, which was founded as a bastion of critical thinking, creates a climate of fear amongst the academic community and casts severe doubt on the university’s commitment to academic freedom and critical enquiry.”
Faculty from Ashoka’s economics department were the first to accuse the governing body of trying to ‘investigate’ the merits of Das’s research. The Wire has reached out to the governing body but has not yet received a response.
After Das’s resignation, economist Pulapre Balakrishnan also resigned from his tenured post at Ashoka, in what sources have told The Wire was an act of solidarity.
In a jointly issued statement, the university’s English and creative writing departments also sought accountability from the governing body.
“We also demand accountability from the governing board and senior colleagues responsible for this debacle, and seek affirmation from the governing body that it will play role in evaluating faculty research or make senior faculty carry out this exercise by appointing ad hoc committees or bodies,” it says.
“We hope, too, that Ashoka’s official social media handles will cease putting out statements discrediting academic research by its faculty members in the future.”
The departments also said they wouldn’t be able to meet their teaching obligations unless their demands related to academic freedom were met.
This is a reference to an open letter the economics department wrote on August 16, asking for Das’s position to be unconditionally offered to him and the governing body to assure that it will not interfere in faculty research, both to be done by by August 23.
Sociology and anthropology faculty asked that the governing body also issue an apology to Das.
“We are distressed in the degree to which academic freedom was not respected by the university and the Governing Body. We hope that the Governing Body will extend an unconditional apology to Prof Das and to the faculty. In doing so, we expect them to reaffirm fidelity to the university’s policy on academic freedom and to the ideals on which Ashoka was founded,” their statement said.
But an unnamed faculty member from the university told The Telegraph newspaper that fellow economics faculty members may have also been involved in Das’s ouster.
“The general body wanted him [Das] out, but also wanted to do this by the book. So, they ordered an investigation. Colleagues are not expected to investigate each other’s work like this. That’s why he resigned,” they said.
The professor added: “It is strange that senior economics faculty who participated in this probe have now issued this statement [the one issued by the economics faculty].”