Free Speech Clamp Down Charge Roils Ashoka University

In addition to staffers resigning unexpectedly, the university's decision to moderate its students' emails has raised concerns about their freedom of speech.

New Delhi: Indian philanthropists and policymakers may like the idea of “a liberal education at par with the best in the world” but it is not clear how receptive the administrative soil of India will be to the freewheeling, democratic campus culture that usually comes along with it.

If recent developments at Ashoka University are any indication – two senior administrative employees have resigned and an assistant professor is allegedly being pressured to leave in the wake of a petition condemning the Indian government’s use of force in Kashmir – the attitude towards dissent at India’s most prestigious private university appears to be even more illiberal than what prevails in public universities. It is also apparent that the attitude of state governments  – which have the power over land allotment and other facilities – and the views of donors on what constitutes inappropriate behaviour by members of the university, may be an added impediment t0 the freedom of expression on campus.

While the official narrative at the university is that the two employees – Saurav Goswami, deputy manager of academic affairs and Adil Mushtaq Shah, programme manager of academic affairs – submitted their letters of resignation citing “personal reasons”, the timing of their departure has made students and alums suspicious of the developments. One student, who did not wish to be named, told the Indian Express, which broke the story on Thursday morning:

“Until two weeks ago, they (Goswami and Shah) had no intention of leaving; they were busy planning guest (speaker) sessions for December. And then, out of the blue, we find emails announcing their resignation. It seems too much of a coincidence that the only two employees who signed the petition resign together and leave the university the same day”.

Ashoka University’s administration has been at odds with its student body, past and present, in addition to professors and other employees ever since members of the community published an “Open Letter condemning the State Violence in Kashmir’ on July 25.

Petitions and open letters by college and university members on controversial political subjects are a common phenomenon on campuses in the West and in India too, and rarely attract the ire of administrators.

At Ashoka, however, the administration reacted to the letter’s circulation by releasing a statement the very next day that not only dissociated the university from the petitioners  but also condemned the initiative. This despite the fact that the letter in question clearly states, “The opinions presented in this letter are privately held by the undersigned and do not represent the views of Ashoka University.”

Rahul Maganti, who graduated from the university earlier this year, called this step an “overreaction” by the administration. He told The Wire that the swiftness with which the university convened a meeting of its governing body to discuss the matter also belied the graveness of the letter which was published independently of the institution. “Convening the governing body is a big thing. It’s not done often, not even for a lot of important issues such as discussing reservations for students. So it is unprecedented that it was convened the very next morning.”

Maganti thinks the administration is sending a clear message to its students, that it will make sure their voices are “scuttled”.

What remains unclear though is the private university’s sensitivity to the expression of political ideas by its students and employees – something which happens all the time in public universities.

The Wire reached out to Imran Ali, vic president, external engagement, for a comment on the controversy but he said, “We have no comment to offer.”

When the Indian Express tried to contact the university’s vice chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee,  on Wednesday, Ali   responded by email saying, “As a policy, the institution does not comment on internal matters to the media. As a pioneering liberal education initiative in India, Ashoka University believes in freedom of thought and expression, in line with best practices at the finest universities in India and abroad. This philosophy guides all aspects of the institution’s functioning.”

One former researcher at the university told The Wire that the administration had come under some pressure earlier this year when a section of the Ashoka fraternity joined students and faculty members across India and even the world in issuing a letter of solidarity with the JNU students charged with sedition. But after the Kashmir open letter, some of the university’s private funders allegedly threatened to withdraw their support if such campus initiatives did not cease.

After the governing body passed its resolution on July 27, the vice chancellor sent an email to students and alumni informing them that messages sent from their official email ids would go through a moderator.

An undergraduate student told the Indian Express, “That communication evoked strong reactions from students and alumni who felt that the act of moderating emails exchanged between them was equivalent to curbing basic freedoms of conveying opinions and views. Moreover, the Kashmir petition was circulated among students via email and so, it was obvious why this decision was taken.”

Maganti too agreed that it was probable that the email’s timing was linked to the Kashmir petition but according to him the email caused a “small furore” not a major upheaval.

However, the reaction of students to the email ‘moderation’ prompted a clarification from Mukherjee. He stated that the administration was not opposing freedom of speech or “attempting censorship”. According to an email he sent, the moderation is to “set up an email protocol in line with best practices at top universities across the world. Over the last few months we were receiving a lot of complaints from founders, faculty, alumni and students regarding spam and the IT department is attempting to set that right.”

Maganti dismissed the explanation as flimsy but also added, “the episode ends there” with specific regard to the email policy.

However, the surprise resignations of Goswami and Shah have raised questions amongst the student body, alumni and professors again. Renewed debate and conjecture over the administration’s actions resulted in 168 students writing a letter to Mukherjee on October 9 asking for answers regarding the circumstances surrounding the resignations. “As students we want to know if Ashoka is still a place where free speech is valued. We don’t want an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ situation but we need an explanation as to what is happening in the university,” a Young India Fellow who signed the email to Mukherjee told the Indian Express.

The consequences of that email, if any, are currently not known, though Maganti said that the administration plans to hold a meeting to address students’ concerns.

The Wire’s attempts to contact faculty members from Ashoka University were unsuccessful, with scholars there having taken a uniform decision to refrain from speaking to any external sources on the matter, echoing the university’s official policy mentioned earlier.

In recent weeks, another university in Haryana – the Central University of Haryana at Mahendragarh – has been in the news in the wake of a campus performance of the play Draupadi by the award-winning author Mahashweta Devi. The performance was objected to by the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the BJP, and an attempt made to file a case of sedition against the students and teachers involved in the play’s production for allegedly showing the Indian army in poor light.