Second Professor Quits as 'Democratic Backsliding' Row Continues to Roil Ashoka University

The resignation of senior faculty member Pulapre Balakrishnan is likely to fuel fears that Sabyasachi Das's exit was prompted by the university's handling of the controversy his paper on the 2019 elections had caused. BJP leaders came out strongly against the young economist.

New Delhi: Close on the heels of the resignation this week of economist Sabyasachi Das from Ashoka University following the political controversy triggered by one of his recent research papers, a second professor in the economics department, Pulapre Balakrishnan, has put in his papers.

While Das was an assistant professor, Balakrishnan is a full professor who joined the private university in 2015 after working at Oxford University, the Indian Statistical Institute, the Indian Institute of Management in Kozhikode and the World Bank. He is the author of several well-regarded books, including most recently India’s Economy from Nehru to Modi, published by Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University in 2022.

Though Balakrishnan’s resignation has not yet been announced by Ashoka and his resignation letter is not public, sources at the university said the senior economist had decided to leave “in solidarity” with Das.

On Monday, soon after The Wire broke the story about Sabyasachi Das quitting, Ashoka vice-chancellor Somak Raychaudhury said the university had accepted Das’s resignation. Seeking to address concerns about the university’s unhappiness with his research paper on the 2019 elections that had angered the Bharatiya janata Party, Raychaudhury said:

“Members of the faculty have the freedom to teach and carry out research in the areas they choose. The university affords its faculty and students the most enabling environment for academic freedom at an institution of higher education. This academic freedom also applied to Mr. Das.”

However, Balakrishnan’s resignation is likely to fuel fears that Das’s exit was prompted by the university’s handling of the controversy caused by his July 25, 2023 paper – ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’.

The university publicly dissociated itself from his research in a tweet on August 1 and also questioned its quality on the grounds that it was not peer-reviewed.

In fact, it is common practice for academics in leading universities across the world to upload drafts of their research for comment and discussion prior to eventual publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and Ashoka was widely criticised by academics in India and abroad for distancing itself from Das in this way.

Soon after he was hired in 2015, Ashoka University issued a press release noting that the “faculty strength at Ashoka has more than doubled this year as the best academics and scholars join the University from India and across the world”:

“Pulapre Balakrishnan, Professor of Economics, shares his motivation to join Ashoka and says, ‘Ashoka has projected itself as committed to providing a world-class education in the liberal arts in India. This attracted me, as education outside the natural sciences and engineering has not received its due here. But above all, it is important to aim to be world class in whatever you do.’”

Apart from the fallout on Ashoka, news of Balakrishnan’s resignation will be seen as further evidence of the imperilled state of academic freedom in India.

The Wire reached out to the Ashoka University administration in an attempt to seek a comment on Balakrishnan’s resignation and will update this story when we receive a response.