There is little doubt that, after having donated several hundred crore rupees to set up a world-class institution “committed to maintaining the highest intellectual and academic standards”, the founders of Ashoka University have dealt it a big blow. The precise details of who in the government called them up—and when—remains shrouded in mystery, but the fact that there was even a discussion with the former vice-chancellor (VC) Pratap Bhanu Mehta on his columns in The Indian Express becoming a problem is worrying.
After all, if there wasn’t a call, or a series of calls over time, why would the founders even have a conversation that has to be not just uncomfortable but also makes a mockery of the university and founders’ talk of “free enquiry, academic freedom and intellectual independence”?
While this may have been done in a cordial manner, without actually asking Mehta to stop writing, if the university’s future was seen to be at risk, it is not surprising that he should have graciously opted to exit, just as he did from the VC’s post a few years ago. It doesn’t help that the founders discussing this with Mehta in the absence of the current vice-chancellor was problematic, though this is now being finessed as “some lapses in institutional processes”.
What makes the surrender especially worrying is that Ashoka was the last place this was supposed to happen. It is amazingly well-funded thanks to the selfless generosity of its founders; let the current problem not detract from the fact that Ashoka’s founders and donors have already donated `1,100 crore to the university. Ashoka’s founders are, mostly, highly-pedigreed and successful individuals who have dealt with government pressures before and have studied in institutions abroad where such independence is a given; it was a desire to create such institutions in India that got them together to devote both time and money—the university is a not-for-profit venture—to create Ashoka.
As it happens, the local government in Haryana has also treasured the university since it was part of the strategy to make the state the country’s education hub by attracting partnerships with global leaders; part of Ashoka’s USP has been its potential to forge alliances with leading universities abroad.
If a university like Ashoka can come under pressure, how can those in government-run universities and colleges hope to remain insulated? Can a Delhi University professor, or one in Bihar, whose salary is paid for by the government, hope to write a stinging critique of, for instance, bank nationalisation or the retrospective tax or demonetisation and not risk losing out on promotions if the government of the day is impatient with criticism?
Indeed, when the UPA government insisted that reservations for OBCs be carried out, most expected Infosys’s NR Narayana Murthy to oppose this at the IIM Ahmedabad where he was chairman of the board. While Murthy had the stature to oppose it and to step down if the government went ahead—think of the embarrassment to then prime minister Manmohan Singh if Murthy had resigned in protest—he quietly fell in line.
None of this is to say that every criticism of the government by Mehta was justified, or that Ashoka’s faculty has always used its freedom wisely; one faculty member signing a petition floated by some Ashoka students calling the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in Kashmir an “extra-judicial execution” some years ago and asking for a plebiscite comes to mind immediately. Indeed, it is not just Ashoka, several leftist historians have taught their own version of history for decades in most Indian universities.
But the only way to fight one set of ideas is with another set; as former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee put it, the reply to a book can only be another book. The government cannot, in any democracy, be the sole arbiter of what is right and what is not. The frequency with which most political parties over the years, at both the Centre as well as the states, slapped sedition charges on those who have opposed their view, however, suggests that there is a danger of this becoming accepted practice. The recent rules on digital media—and bringing digital news outlets under Section 69 of the information technology Act—are yet another manifestation of the government wanting to exercise control over the narrative.
While governments are, in any democracy, only answerable to the people in the ultimate analysis, the role of the courts, of academics and intellectuals, of the media is equally important. If, for instance, those criticising the government know that, were it to act against them, the courts will ensure their safety—by granting bail, in ensuring fair investigations etc—not just once, but each time, they will feel more secure in voicing their opinion.
The sad truth, however, is that the government retains most controls on all levers of power, whether it is the price at which you will sell your goods—like the vaccines against Covid-19—or the various permissions that you still need to do business. In such a situation, how many firms or individuals really want to openly take on the government; it is only when courts regularly intervene to order the government to grant a clearance or to stop interfering in market-pricing that this will change. Academics, intellectuals and the media, on the other hand, generally find it a lot easier to call out poor policy as, by and large, governments have been loath to act against them. That is why, even for those who disagree with what it teaches, it is important that Ashoka’s freedom remains intact.