Did Ashoka University Misrepresent Facts on How the Kashmir Petition Issue Was Handled?

Emails sent by the faculty council reveal that the resignations of those who signed the petition may not be independent decisions, as the administration has claimed.

New Delhi: Ashoka University in Sonipat, which has been questioned for its handling of a petition on Kashmir last year signed by students and certain staff members, is under the scanner again for having misrepresented facts on why staff members who were signatories later resigned.

An Indian Express report has revealed that emails sent by the faculty council (elected representatives of teachers at the university) to other faculty members don’t corroborate with what the university administration has been saying in public.

Mathematics professor Rajendran Narayanan, deputy manager of academic affairs Saurav Goswami, programme manager of academic affairs Adil Mushtaq Shah and 85 students signed a petition in July 2016 against violence in Kashmir after Burhan Wani’s death and demanded a plebiscite in the state. Goswami and Shah resigned from the university on October 2016 citing ‘personal reasons’. Students, alumni and observers, however, were suspicious of the timing of the resignations. The university maintained that they had not asked anyone to resign.

However, an email from the faculty council sent on October 11, 2016, quoted by the Indian Express, clearly states otherwise. The university’s founders, the email says, asked the two to resign. “The two employees who had signed the petition — Adil and Saurav, from the YIF (Young India Fellowship) team — have already been asked to resign by the founders. The Council learned of this only last week after the fact. This has supported our belief that there is a high probability of the Governing Body carrying out Rajendran’s dismissal as well,” the email says.

Narayanan resigned from the university in December 2016 citing ‘ethical reasons’, allegedly after months of pressure from the university administration. The university administration had told students that nobody would be removed on the basis of the petition, yet another email from the faculty council, sent on October 8, 2016, demonstrates that a proposal to fire Narayanan had been floated and was under review, the Indian Express reported. The faculty council said in the email that they were resisting the plan. The email said,

“The Faculty Council feels that Rajendran’s dismissal would deal a death-blow to Ashoka’s vision. It will be difficult to make a case of personal or professional misconduct against Rajendran as his colleagues will vouch for his integrity, or of having violated University guidelines because there were none at the time he signed the petition. Therefore, notwithstanding the Founders’ track record in upholding freedom of speech, for which we are extremely grateful, this would very much be seen as a case of faculty dismissal consequent on exercise of free speech.

… The Council felt that the internal fallout (of Narayanan’s dismissal) will be that some faculty will move away, including some of our most dynamic faculty, and there will be much internal mistrust and discord that will place unsustainable strain on faculty-leadership relations. Externally, future faculty recruitment and tie-ups will be affected. Perhaps we may even be opening the door to further bullying and coercion at the hands of parties who are demanding the dismissal. In trying to save Ashoka we would have lost it.”

According to the Indian Express, when these emails were sent, the faculty council had four members: associate professor of history Aparna Vaidik,assistant professor of mathematics Maya Saran, assistant professor of political science Gilles Verniers and professor of Indian philosophy Alex Watson. However, the council was reconstituted in November.

Speaking to the Indian Express, Narayanan said, “Yes. The emails were sent to all faculty members. I am aware of both the emails — the Governing Body’s proposal to dismiss me and the Faculty Council’s recommendation not to dismiss me. And, this just confirms what I had said earlier. It was surprising that the administration denied that there was a proposal to dismiss me.”

On the university website, vice chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee says that “The education that is offered in Ashoka University is directed to equip students to deal with life. Here students are taught to read, to question and to think for themselves. They are also taught how to communicate their thought logically and lucidly through writing and speech. By enabling students to think critically, Ashoka aims to empower students to be better citizens of and for the world. Ashoka aspires to open the windows and doors of a student’s mind.”

It remains to be seen whether students are encouraged to “question” the university administration’s misrepresentation of facts as well.

The vice chancellor and media relations office at Ashoka University had not responded to The Wire‘s request for comment at the time of publication.