It all started nearly three weeks ago with a working research paper publicly shared on the Social Science Research Network by a young assistant professor of the Ashoka University, a premier liberal arts university, and has since led to his and a senior’s resignation, a welcome pushback from faculty in the elite campus besides fierce debates about the paper and liberalism in the elite university. Titled ‘Democratic backsliding in the world’s largest democracy’, Sabyasachi Das’ paper analyzed data sets to indicate that there might have been manipulation by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 general elections. Basically, the young professor indulged in election forensics — decoding election results for legitimacy using statistics and election data — to spot patterns. Many evaluators observed that the dramatic title went far ahead of what was demonstrated. Routinely, the paper would have been peer reviewed and, perhaps, modified.
However, it caught the attention of the BJP and soon followed a rather pusillanimous statement by the university distancing itself from the paper and its author. It appeared that its governing council — mostly wealthy capitalists emulating the American private liberal arts university system — had caved in to possible pressure from the ruling party, which hardly underscored the university’s values. Hearteningly, the economics department and other departments too issued public statements demanding unconditional reinstatement of the professors, called out the “interference” of the governing council, and asked for the Academic Freedom Committee as a firewall between academics and the capitalists.
This is not the first instance to hit the university. It appears that Ashoka University wants to sail two boats at once: liberal academic freedom and submission to the establishment of the day. This is untenable and makes for the worst kind of academic space. What it also signals is similar systematic scuttling of academic freedom in premier public universities such as Viswa-Bharati.