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Mehta ‘was all but forced to quit under pressure’, academics say in open letter

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A group of academics from American, Canadian, and British universities has written an open letter saying they are distressed to learn of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation “under political pressure” from Ashoka University.

“It seems that Ashoka’s Trustees, who should have treated defending him [Mehta] as their institutional duty, instead all but forced his resignation,” said the letter to the trustees, administrators, and faculty of Ashoka University.

The letter called Mehta a “prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom” and added he had become a target for his writings. It cited Mehta’s resignation letter in which he said his “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.”

Mehta, a political commentator, resigned from the university on March 16. Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic advisor to the government of India, put in his papers as a professor at the university two days later citing the circumstances involving Mehta’s resignation, which he said devastated him. “…someone [Mehta] of such integrity and eminence, who embodied the vision underlying Ashoka, felt compelled to leave is troubling. That even Ashoka—with its private status and backing by private capital—can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing. Above all, that the University’s commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka,” said Subramanian, who joined Ashoka University as an economics professor in July 2020 two years after he stepped down as the chief economic advisor.

In a separate statement, former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan called free speech the soul of a great university and added “by compromising on it, the founders of Ashoka University have bartered away its soul”.

“Ashoka’s founders should have realised that their mission was indeed not to take political sides but to continue to protect the right of people like Pratap Bhanu 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 wrote on LinkedIn.

Rajan also referred to Subramanian’s departure. He added both his and Mehta’s resignation letters suggest the founders of the university have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of “a troublesome critic.“ “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. It is not that he has much sympathy for the opposition either,” Rajan said.

He called Mehta an equal opportunity critic just as how a true academic should be.

In their letter, the academics expressed solidarity with Mehta and reaffirmed 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, candor, and a rigorous distinction between the demands of intellectual honesty and the pressure of politicians, funders, or ideological animus,” the open letter said.

“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 academics underlined the university must be a home for fearless inquiry and criticism. “We support Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his practice of the highest values of intellectual inquiry and public life.”

The signatories to the letter include Bruce Ackerman, Yale University, Sana Aiyar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Danielle Allen, Harvard University, Sunil Amrith, Yale University, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York University.

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