The Significance of Ashoka University’s Teachers Calling for a Strike Over Academic Freedom

There have been numerous violations of academic freedom in universities and colleges across India. But the Ashoka teaching community’s response to Sabyasachi Das’s resignation deserves praise.

Written by Apoorvanand

In perhaps the first of its kind, the academic community of an Indian university — that too a private one — is prepared to go on strike for the cause of academic freedom. It should be regarded as a significant moment in the history of higher education in India as academic freedom has never been an issue important enough for teachers or students to take this extreme step of halting their work.

We did not see teachers and students of the Jodhpur University organising a strike when Rajshri Ranawat, an English teacher, was suspended for holding a seminar and inviting scholars like Nivedita Menon. She had to fight a battle on her own against her suspension. Similarly, the academic community of the Central University of Kerala did not make the suspension of Gilbert Sebastian an issue. He was penalised for teaching a class on fascism. Neither have we heard any action from the teaching community of the institute of Kolhapur, which sent Niranjana Desai on leave for telling her students that rapists could be from any community. We have also not heard about any protest for the faculty member of the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce who was arrested and suspended for a talk he gave in his class.

There have been numerous violations of academic freedom in universities and colleges across India, but no such strikes were organised by the teaching community, despite their history of protesting against various service-related issues.

The students and teachers of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protested in 2016 after its students were attacked during a protest. But after that we have seen how academics watched anxiously while their colleagues were being attacked, penalised, and even jailed to defend their right to academic freedom.

The JNU incident was treated more as a political reaction to a political attack even when we know that it was essentially a matter of academic freedom. Students like Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, Rama Naga and others were attacked for having organised a meeting at the campus on the subject of Kashmir. However, beyond its strong and vocal protest, we have not seen the teaching community convey to the authorities that teaching is meaningless if academic freedom is compromised. So, if a teacher is persecuted for his research, teaching cannot go on as usual.

It is this step that makes the protest by Ashoka University’s academic community extraordinary. It centres the question of academic freedom in a way not done before. Ashoka University’s academic community needs to be supported for its spirited defence of Sabyasachi Das.

The case of Ashoka University

Nearly all the centres and departments of the university have come out in support of Das, who was forced to resign after his research paper on possible manipulation of the election process in the 2019 general elections was attacked by the members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Students and teachers have questioned the stand of the management, asking it to reinstate Das.

His research paper argued that there was a possibility that the election process was manipulated in closely contested seats to benefit the BJP.

As the research paper created excitement within academic circles, its sampling, methodology, and findings were under examination. But the BJP members took offence and unleashed an online attack on Das.

Many of us have faced such an attack for writing an article or making a speech. However, in most of the cases, the university administration did not think it necessary to intervene. But in the case of Das, the members of the governing board intervened, forcing the administration to institute an enquiry to look into the merits of the research paper.

It was an extraordinary step by the university administration to have even thought about such a step. Looking into the quality of a research paper and whether it is academically sound or not is not the job of the administration. This is best done by peers. But here, the governing board thought otherwise.

In doing so, it was entering an area which wasn’t in its purview. It was attempting to dictate to the teachers how research should be conducted. We learnt that there were well-intentioned suggestions made to Das to change the title of the paper to make it sound more neutral and ask him to refrain from talking about it till the enquiry was over. He was free to teach, however.

All this was absurd and made no sense. This is because the administration was effectively telling the academic community to not trust Das. What was to be investigated in the paper? Das had already invited the academic community for comments and discussion.

In any case, the governing board interfered with academic work which was outside its domain. Is there any guarantee it wouldn’t restrict the university from inviting people who are disliked by the current regime?

Ashoka University’s governing board has shown that it succumbs to pressure from the regime. It chose to part ways with a celebrated scholar like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who had consistently questioned the ruling establishment.

Before that there were dismissals of a faculty member and another employee for their being part of a petition on Kashmir. On both these occasions there were murmurs of protest but no decisive step taken by the university community to defend its space which is academic.

Another line of argument

The academic community at Ashoka University can only direct its protests towards the governing board. There is an ongoing debate in the public sphere regarding the wisdom of targeting these board members. The argument put forth is as follows: It was only due to pressure from members of the ruling BJP that the board was compelled to take action. They are acting with the intention of safeguarding the university, and they believe that a small sacrifice can be made for greater objectives. It’s important not to cast blame on the governing board, as we must acknowledge that they had good intentions when they established this university, with the betterment of liberal education in mind.

Accountability should be placed, the argument goes on, at the regime’s doorstep for coercing the administration into taking this unwelcome step. The governing board has numerous responsibilities to sustain the university, unlike Das, who appears to be primarily concerned with his academic integrity. These board members are taking on a difficult task for a higher purpose and are willing to accept being seen as compromised individuals. It’s crucial to remember that they have been pressured into taking this step.

This argument sounds persuasive and is also true to a great extent. Das was not served with a notice proactively by the board. It didn’t seem to have any problem with the paper. But it couldn’t disregard the opinion of the ruling regime at the cost of the university. Keeping in mind the interest of hundreds of students, scores of faculty members and the image of the university, it had to take the unwelcome step.

But should we accept this line of argument? Remember how Rutgers University backed Audrey Truschke when she was attacked on social media by some ‘Hindu groups’ for her so-called “Hinduphobic statements”? The university could have easily distanced itself from her. However, it did not. That is how the administrators of a university are expected to behave. They have to defend their faculty and students from external pressure and attack and not the other way around.

Ashoka University’s community must demand answers from its board. In this context, the fight isn’t against the government as there is no government involvement here. Let the board members explain their actions against Das and provide insights into their previous decisions.

It is encouraging to see the faculty members and students of Ashoka University rising to the occasion to fight for academic freedom. That it was not done on earlier occasions should not make it any less important.

Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University.

This article was originally published in The Wire



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