New Delhi: In a development with ominous implications for academic freedom in India, the Intelligence Bureau has begun looking into the scholarly paper by a former Ashoka University professor on ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’ and is seeking to interview the author and faculty members of the economics department on the subject. The Wire has confirmed this development from multiple sources.
IB officials visited the private university on Monday armed with newspaper cuttings seeking to meet the author of the paper, Sabyasachi Das, who is currently in Pune. A suggestion that other members of the faculty meet with them to discuss the contents of the paper found no takers as the officials refused to convey their request for information in writing. They then left after saying they would return to the campus again on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, some faculty members were advised to be ready to field questions from the IB officials.
As a ‘behind the scenes’ player, the IB does not have powers that the police and investigative agencies have to formally interrogate anyone or even arrest. The role it plays through its ‘investigations’ is to ‘develop intelligence’ that other agencies then get to act upon.
Das’s paper, published online last month, uses advanced econometric techniques to generate estimates of how many of the marginal seats in the 2019 general election that the BJP won might have been due to some form of ‘manipulation’.
The paper set off a political controversy, with Bharatiya Janata Party leaders denouncing Das’s research. The Wire has learned that some of the businessmen who invested in Ashoka and sit on its board received angry calls from the Prime Minister’s Office as well as from the Union education minister, in which the scholar’s motives were questioned.
While the Haryana-based Ashoka University has often played host to ‘sleuths’ from the state’s local Intelligence Bureau (LIB) – who attend seminars and events to take notes when the topic is even vaguely political – this is the first time the IB has deputed officers from its headquarters to visit the Sonepat campus.
Officials familiar with the working of the IB say that a standard part of the agency’s playbook is to try and establish whether a person of interest is acting at the “behest” of others.
The IB’s interest in Das and his paper comes in the wake of unconfirmed reports that the university is considering inviting the young economist – who resigned when Ashoka publicly distanced itself from his work – to rejoin the faculty.
Coincidentally, Ashoka University’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act license is coming up for renewal in September 2023. The renewal of FCRA licenses has been a tool often used by the Ministry of Home Affairs to go after institutions not fully aligned with the government or the BJP and its affiliated bodies. Sources say that preparation of reports by intelligence sources is often done, especially in matters where the MHA suspects the absence of complete alignment with the government’s ideas or objectives.
Ashoka is at the centre of growing concerns about academic freedom after Das resigned. Senior economics professor Pulapre Balakrishnan resigned soon after, citing the university’s handling of the controversy. “I have resigned my position based on my belief that there was a grave error of judgment in the response to the attention received by Das’s paper on social media. Academic freedom was violated in the response, and it would be unconscionable for me to remain,” he said in his resignation letter.
The economics departments and other faculty members have issued statements in solidarity with Das, and calling upon the university administration to take steps to bring the economist back and provide guarantees that the academic freedom of faculty and students will be respected.
The Wire has contacted the Ashoka University administration for a formal statement on the Intelligence Bureau’s visit and this story will be updated when we hear back.
Note: This story was updated at 1848 to add additional details.