On 19 December 2016, I received messages from two fellows of the Young India Fellowship, a post-graduate diploma course in liberal studies at Ashoka University, a private, non-profit institution in Sonepat, Haryana, that offers a liberal-arts education. The fellows informed me that Rajendran Narayanan, an assistant professor of mathematics, had resigned from his post. Sanat Sogani, the president of the undergraduate student government at Ashoka, later confirmed that students had been informed of this resignation via an email from Rudrangshu Mukherjee, the vice chancellor of the university.
Narayanan was at least the third person to resign in the preceding few months. On 7 October, Adil Mushtaq Shah and Saurav Goswami, both senior administrative staffers working with the YIF, announced their resignations to the programme’s fellows, via emails. The first YIF fellow told me that both Shah and Goswami had cited personal reasons as the cause for their departure. An email sent to me on behalf of Sachin Sharma, the registrar of Ashoka, said that Narayanan resigned of his own accord as well.
(Over the course of reporting this story, I sent several queries to the administration at Ashoka—including members of its governing body, the vice chancellor, pro vice chancellor, the assistant dean and deputy dean of the YIF. I only received direct responses to a few of my questions, in the form of three emails: one from Diksha Dutta, a media-relations manager at Ashoka; another from the university’s media team; and one sent to me on behalf of Sachin Sharma, the registrar.)
A report published in the Indian Express on 13 October alleged that Shah and Goswami may have resigned under duress. It also stated that Narayanan, too, was being pressured by the university’s administration to resign. The point of contention, the report noted, was a petition that these three staffers had signed in July. The petition—which six alumni of YIF had drafted and circulated—concerned the violence unfolding in Kashmir following the death of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. It had been signed by 88 people—84 students and alumni of Ashoka University, Shah, Goswami, Narayanan, and Kunal Joshi, an alumnus who, according to the university’s website, is now a faculty member. Addressed to the central government and the state government in Jammu and Kashmir, it said that the signatories condemned the “violence perpetuated by the Indian State” since Wani’s death. It also asked for a plebiscite to be conducted in Kashmir. On 25 July, the petition was published on the news website Kafila.org. Over the next few days, various publications in both India and Pakistan wrote about the petition.
On 28 July, Ashoka University released a statement on its website distancing itself from the petition and its signatories. The statement vehemently declared that the university “does not endorse” the petitioners’ views. It added that Ashoka “condemns such behaviour” and had asked the petitioners to not use “the good name of the university.” Appended to the statement was a letter that Mukherjee, the vice-chancellor, had sent to the Ashoka community on the same day. In his letter, Mukherjee said that the petitioners had “deliberately” titled the Kafila post in a manner that made it appear that the university had endorsed it, that this was “unacceptable behaviour,” and “must be stopped forthwith.” He added that though Ashoka was “based on the principles of freedom of expression and independent thinking,” this “does not give any member of the Ashoka family the right to give his or her political opinion the stamp of institutional support.” Mukherjee also wrote that he would urge all members of the Ashoka community to “refrain in the future from using Ashoka University’s name to comment on an issue where clearly different people have different points of view.”