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“Free speech suffered a grievous blow” :Raghuram Rajan on Ashoka University exits

By Priyanka Verma 
Updated Date

Former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan on Friday said that free speech had suffered a “grievous blow” in India with political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta and economist Arvind Subramanian’s resignations from Ashoka University.

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In a social media post on Saturday, Rajan said that Professor Mehta is a “thorn in the side of the establishment” as he “skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments”.

Rajan reacting to the resignation of the academic duo said that if founders of the university feel that their compromises have been made in the greater interest of the university, then they are wrong.

Rajan, who is a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wrote in a LinkedIn post that free speech is the soul of a great university. “By compromising on it, the founders [of Ashoka University] have bartered away its soul.” And if you show a willingness to barter your soul, is there any chance the pressures will go away?,” he added.

Mehta, a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, had resigned as professor from the leading private liberal arts university on Tuesday. The university had refused to say whether his writings and criticism were connected to the resignation. Subramanian quit shortly after Mehta’s exit.

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In his resignation letter, made public on Thursday, Mehta said that his association with Ashoka University may be considered a political liability. “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,” he said. “It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka.”

Rajan observed that it was unlikely that Mehta’s resignation was premeditated. “Professor Mehta’s resignation came in the middle of the teaching quarter, and was so sudden that he pleaded in his resignation letter with the university to make arrangements for his driver, who would otherwise be left jobless,” Rajan said.

The former RBI governor said that before the exits, Ashoka University was considered to be India’s likely competitor to Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford in coming decades”. “Unfortunately, its actions this week make it less probable,” Rajan said.

He added: “The reality is that Professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments.”

Rajan opined that the founders of Ashoka University succumbed to outside pressure to “get rid of a troublesome critic”. “Ashoka’s founders should have realized that their mission was indeed not to take political sides but to continue to protect the right of people like Professor Mehta to speak, for in doing so, they were enabling Ashoka to make its greatest contribution to India’s wellbeing – identifying what is wrong and encouraging us all to remedy it,” he added.

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Former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram reacted to these developments saying this “BJP thought” will “wreck” India and turn it into an autocracy, PTI reported. “The people of India must rise to fiercely resist the attempt to impose one thought all over the country,” he said.

On Friday, more than 150 academicians from leading international universities like Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge had also expressed support for Mehta. In an open letter to the trustees and founders of Ashoka University, the academicians criticized the “assault” on the values, which they said Mehta has always practiced.

A day before that, students and faculty members of Ashoka University staged a protest against Mehta’s exit on Thursday. They demanded that the university bring Mehta back and make the process of resignations more transparent.

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