Ashoka University Student Body Meeting Unanimously Calls for Reinstating Sabyasachi Das

Senior economics professor Pulapre Balakrishnan, who quit just after Sabyasachi Das did, is meanwhile not going to reconsider his departure, he writes in a letter.

New Delhi: The Vice-Chancellor of Ashoka University, Somak Raychaudhary, was asked to reconsider the exit of assistant professor Sabyasachi Das and to do so unconditionally in an open meeting hosted by the student body on August 16, it is learnt.

At the meeting attended by 500 odd persons, students, alumni and faculty expressed their growing dismay regarding academic freedom at Ashoka University.

Ashoka is a private university based in Sonipat, Haryana. It is now the centre of debate around academic freedom after Das resigned following a political row triggered by his research paper 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.

Senior economics professor Pulapre Balakrishnan is meanwhile not going to reconsider his departure, it is also learnt.

At student-led meeting, faculty members speak of talks with governing body

Ashoka University’s campus news outlet The Edict reported that the meeting was held on August 16 in which faculty members across departments expressed solidarity with Das and the economics department.

Edict identified among others Jonathan Gil Harris, Janice Pariat, Madhavi Menon, Arunava Sinha, Bittu, Bastian Steuwer, Jasleen Kaur Bagga, Krittika Bhattacharjee and Gilles Verniers as having attended it.

The report said that Arunava Sinha, Professor of Practice in Creative Writing, had told attendees that an ad-hoc committee was formed to decide whether Das violated the freedom of expression terms stipulated in the faculty policy handbook on academic freedom.

“Sinha emphasised that this committee aimed to evaluate the context surrounding the paper rather than its actual content,” it said.

This committee had Chancellor Rudranghsu Mukherjee, Vice-Chancellor Somak Raychaudhury, the Secretary to the Government of the Haryana Education department (in his absence, the Director of the same body), founders Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Raj Sinha, Madhu Chandak, Puneet Dalmia, Siddharth Yog, Deep Kalra and Ziaa Lalkaka.

Das initially agreed to cooperate with committee proceedings, but later put in his papers. Senior faculty from the economics department tried to get Das to withdraw his resignation but the latter was adamant that he would not do so unless alleged restrictions placed on him when it came to speaking about this paper were lifted.

Faculty at the meeting had unanimously agreed that Das must be reinstated.

Balakrishnan’s letter

Pulapre Balakrishnan had quit the university close on Das’s heels. As The Wire had reported, 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.

In an August 19 letter to Chancellor Mukherjee and founder and trustee Pramath Raj Sinha, Balakrishnan has urged the governing body to consider inviting Das to return to the post, if they have not already.

“As for myself, I am moving on. 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 wrote.

He added that the freedom to write critically about economic policy had been one of his stated clauses while joining.

“You may recall our first meeting at the IIC’s coffee lounge in 2014. As for myself, I recall having asked you two questions. I had stated that I had for at least two decades by then been writing critically about economic policy in India and intend to continue to do so were I to join Ashoka’s faculty. Rudrangshu had responded by saying that the University did not expect its faculty to take any particular view on the matter,” he wrote.

“Next I had declared that I was associated with the public campaign to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (some tact was needed there, I guess). Pramath had responded by saying that, while the University appreciated the disclosure, it made no difference to it. I wish to place on record that in these eight years I have been here, the University has been true to its word. I have written extensively in the media, marched on the streets for my rights and expressed my thoughts in class without the slightest restraint placed in my path,” he wrote.

Balakrishnan noted that the university also bank-rolled the publication of his book ‘India’s Economy from Nehru to Modi’ in its Hedgehog and Fox series. “I did not have to meet anyone or even submit a proposal for this. The publisher informs me that the project was approved the moment that it was proposed. The study is the culmination of my professional work thus far, and is a no-holds-barred look at the economic history of our country, including, needless to mention, the present. For these opportunities afforded to me, I express my deepest gratitude to the foundation that you represent,” he writes.

The last parts of the letter act as a warning of times to come and what Ashoka University seeks to lose when it doesn’t uphold academic freedom:

“Finally, I am aware of the challenges you face in taking forward the mighty adventure that is Ashoka University. I was among the first faculty representatives of the IIM Kozhikode, have headed an autonomous economics research institute in the public sector and now run a modest private educational trust. In all these situations I have seen how terrifying it can be to deal with the government. Last night I was on national television on the issue of academic freedom in this country, where I spoke of the pressures from government that independent initiatives in higher education in this country face. As I continue to speak in future, some attention may inadvertently be drawn to Ashoka. However, anyone reading this document, which I intend to make public at some stage, cannot but recognise the brave and selfless attempt to provide India with a thriving space for intellectual activity that it represents.”

Meanwhile, the economics department of the university said considering the welfare of students, teaching will not be disrupted due to their protest. “Our demands in the open letter stand. The welfare of students is of utmost priority to the Economics department. Therefore, teaching at no point will be disrupted. While we carry on with our academic responsibilities, we reserve the right to protest in other ways,” the department said in a tweet posted on Saturday, August 19.

It also thanked all departments of the university who issued statements in solidarity with the demands in their open letter. “We have had meetings with the GB members and the VC and have been assured that a resolution is underway. We hope that our combined efforts yield favourable outcomes,” the economics department added.