Difference in Degree

The conservative vision of liberal education in India

30 September 2023
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
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

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.

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    Ravikant Kisana is an Associate Professor of Cultural Studies. His research and writing are at the intersections of caste, gender and urbanisms. 

    Keywords: Ashoka University universities academic freedom caste discrimination higher education Caravan 2023 Rewind: Perspectives
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