The problems that arise when politics and academia intersect

See baba, I am not a chancellor, vice-chancellor, professor, lecturer or peon of any grand university. But I like to think I am educated — matlab I have been to a good school and college, got myself a degree (never collected it, though), and have zero complaints to air about the quality of my education. As is the case of millions of others in India, I also think we were pretty fortunate to have been taught by inspiring, even brilliant teachers. We didn’t always agree with their political/social/cultural/religious views, and they never asked for ours. There was never any khitpit in this regard. Some of them wrote well-researched academic papers, some penned blistering newspaper columns, some preferred poetry and a few were published authors. We admired our faculty members and applauded their achievements.

Now suddenly we have an international cause celebre revolving around a genius-prof called Pratap Bhanu Mehta (Oxford, Princeton, Harvard), whose outspoken columns are widely read and energetically dissected. He represents a new breed of progressive thinkers who call themselves ‘public intellectuals’.

So why all the fire and brimstone over his decision to quit? An intellectually celebrated, immensely sought after professor decides to step away from an environment which he feels is not conducive to his politics — so what? It does not signal the end of the world. He is a free man, and entitled to take such a call. No jabardasti to hang around feeling unwelcome, right? But it’s not all that simple, I say! Nothing is as ‘hunky dory’ (love its usage in the Supreme Court this week) as it appears. The chancellor and vice chancellor of the university are strenuously explaining themselves, while the Board of Trustees insists it has nothing to do with the mess. Some of its 100-plus donors are reportedly ‘offended’. Ninety faculty members expressed solidarity with Mehta. Then why are so many red-faced, self-styled spokespeople jumping out of the woodwork?

What is not being spelt out clearly and unequivocally is simply this: Pratap Bhanu Mehta is seen as being openly and virulently anti-government, which may have not gone down well with the bosses at Ashoka.

Fair enough. Which means they are either pro-BJP but not admitting it, or pressure is being exerted on them to tame Mehta and his ilk. Which is it? And what exactly is at stake? One of them candidly admitted in his column that this unpleasantness in the public domain could lead to funds drying up and investors losing faith in the future of the university. Is it then, only about money? Grants? Subsidies? Education is big business today. No harm in protecting one’s investment — but why not be upfront about it?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta had become a ‘political liability’ (his words). If a university calls itself ‘independent’ and claims to encourage liberal thought, why would someone like Mehta be made to feel unwanted? And why now? He has consistently been a critic of the present government, undisguisedly so. Where’s the surprise? Was this not known to those who appointed him? Has he dramatically changed his stance recently? Was there no screening process in place when he joined Ashoka? Was he told he was no longer free to write anti-establishment political commentary if he signed up with Ashoka? As we all know, such sensitive issues are never tabled, much less documented. If the Board now says these issues did not come up during his tenure — of course they didn’t — there’s nothing on record! Who was going to tell Mehta, “Hey, look here old chap — just go easy, won’t you? We are feeling the heat.”

Either you call yourself an unbiased, open and democratic institution, or you declare your political affiliations of whichever shade and colour and leave it there. You cannot have it both ways and pull out the martyr card when things start slipping. The students have the right to know where they stand vis a vis the university’s politics. Look, it’s perfectly okay to say Ashoka is pro a political party — that’s not a crime. Just say it, na? But stop the charade of pretending to be ‘neutral’.

Whether a professor with attitude stays or leaves is hardly the main issue. But it definitely marks a big moment in the university’s alarmingly young history.

Mehta at the moment is a folk hero — he will go on to other academic positions and perhaps bigger things. His critics call him a ‘closet politician’, and say he will cash in on the controversy. But what will Ashoka University do to retrieve some of its dented glory? Rightly or wrongly, public opinion is backing the man whose political leanings cost him a prestigious appointment. It’s now up to the lofty folks at the university to regroup, rethink and come up with some much-needed damage control — before some more grants and funds from donors dry up.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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