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Ashoka row: Academicians from Harvard, Yale, Oxford come out in support of prof Mehta

By Saima Siddiqui 
Updated Date

New Delhi: More than 170 academicians from prestigious international varsities, including Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge, on Saturday, came out in support of scholar and professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who resigned from the Ashoka University this week, stating that the founders of the institution made it “abundantly clear” that his association with the institution was a “political liability”.

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However, an open letter addressed to the varsity trustees, administrators and faculty state that the signatories were “distressed” to learn of Mehta’s exit under “political pressure from Ashoka University”.

“A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, he had become a target for his writings. It seems that Ashoka’s Trustees, who should have treated defending him as their institutional duty, instead all but forced his resignation,” the open letter read.

“We write in solidarity with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and to reaffirm the importance of the values that he has always practiced. In political life, these are free argument, tolerance, and a democratic spirit of equal citizenship. In the university, they are free inquiry, candour, and rigorous distinction between the demands of intellectual honesty and the pressure of politicians, funders, or ideological animus. These values come under assault whenever a scholar is punished for the content of public speech. When that speech is in defense of precisely these values, the assault is especially shameful,” the letter further states.

The signatories of the open letter include Homi K Bhabha, Anne F Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University; Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean at UC Berkeley School of Law; Rogers Smith, Christopher H Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania; Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Kate O’Regan, Professor of Human Rights Law at Oxford University; and Danielle Allen, director of Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

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Reports of Mehta’s exit started to make rounds on March 17, however, the crisis at Ashoka University in the wake of Mehta’s resignation deepened Thursday.

Calling the exit “ominously disturbing”, for academic freedom, Mehta’s colleague and former Chief Economic Advisor in the Modi government, Arvind Subramanian, sent in his resignation, too. After which the students started to protest and demanded that Pratap Bhanu Mehta be offered his job back with a public acknowledgement of the pressures behind his resignation, as well as a divestment of the trustees’ powers to the university staff, students and faculty. Following this the faculty issued a statement calling for Mehta’s return, and at least two more faculty members are said to be on the verge of quitting.

Mehta’s resignation letter read, “My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university.”

Furthermore, senior Congress leader Ashwani Kumar said the “forced” resignation of Mehta is a rude reminder that freedom of thought is welcome only as long as it is not a political liability. The “trustees of the premier educational institution”, he said, are “clearly the principal villains, in not standing up to those who wanted Mehta to pay the price for his intellectual integrity”.

“They have forfeited their claim as trustees of the institution by acquiescing in the project to tame informed voices of dissent,” he said in a statement.

“The attack on academic freedoms is the most pernicious of devices to stifle opinion and to promote intolerance in the battle of ideas thereby robbing democracy of its defining distinction”.

“This is the moment for academia and public intellectuals to collectively fight for their space as keepers of national conscience and to remind the powers that be, that the power of their pen will not be captive to the lure of wealth or to the brute power of a muscular State,” he said while arguing that “this is a time to act and assert our collective conscience in defense of our cherished values,” he appealed to all, including “thinkers and public intellectuals not to be silenced into submission in this moment of test”.

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