Difference in Degree

The conservative vision of liberal education in India

Vice President Venkaiah Naidu at Delhi’s OP Jindal Global University, on 7 August 2018. While it is easy to hyperfocus on Ashoka University following its latest controversy, issues of political silencing are endemic to the entire private university system. Press Information Bureau
30 September, 2023

Ashoka University, an elite, private, liberal-arts institution, was recently in the eye of a very public controversy regarding a research paper written by a member of its economics faculty, Sabyasachi Das. The paper suggested that there were irregularities in the pattern of how close-fought electoral contests tended to break in favour of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, implying malfeasance in the electoral process. Soon, BJP supporters on X organised a systematic campaign to discredit the findings while also targeting the university. In an unprecedented move, Ashoka’s social-media handle unilaterally distanced itself from Das’s paper and his work, on 1 August. He resigned from his position soon after, but the storm refused to calm down.

One after another, individual departments of the university issued statements condemning the sequence of events that led to the resignation. They called for his reinstatement and asserted the need for academic autonomy for faculty. But, as of the publishing of this article, Das had not been reinstated. The university also sidestepped accountability for its social-media statement. The situation worsened when the Trivedi Centre for Political Data—housed within Ashoka and set up by the political scientist Gilles Verniers—announced that it would dissolve itself.

The liberal incredulity at this turn of events seems entirely misplaced. While new private liberal-arts universities—Ashoka foremost among them—have advertised themselves as sites of cutting-edge research and academic freedom, they have frequently submitted in similar incidents of political muzzling. To list but a few from Ashoka alone: in 2021, the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned after claiming that he was a “political liability,” and in 2016, the mathematician Rajendran Narayanan quit after signing a petition condemning state violence following the killing of the Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani.

While it is easy to hyperfocus on Ashoka, the issues that create these controversies are endemic to the higher-education sector in India, particularly within the nascent private university system that has sprung up in the last decade. It is a malady, to a certain extent, embedded in the vision and framework of such institutions, whose exorbitant fee structure and entrance exams ensure a student population that is nearly entirely Savarna. The sensibilities of unsurprisingly conservative parents also bleed onto the campus space, with student life being carefully regulated, while being deaf to concerns around sexual harassment or mental-health issues. Most of these concerns are papered over by expansive advertising campaigns that push a vision of these universities as abodes of critical thinking and pedagogical training, but this claim to superiority is largely unproven. What remains flagrantly visible among the students and faculty, who pass through these spaces with a hastening turnover, is a liberal education with a conservative vision.