'Existential Threat to Economics Dept': Ashoka's Faculty on Sabyasachi Das Row

The row first started with Das writing a paper titled 'Democratic Backsliding in World’s Largest Democracy'.

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Reporter : Saptarshi Basak

Cameraperson: Yash Bhanot

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Senior Editor: Shelly Walia

Days after the controversy surrounding a research paper on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections written by Sabyasachi Das, an economics professor at Ashoka University, that led to his purported resignation, many faculty members have come out in solidarity with him.

In a strongly worded letter from the economics department, dated 16 August, the faculty categorically stated that "Professor Das did not violate any accepted norm of academic practice."

More importantly, they demanded that Das be unconditionally given back his position at Ashoka University and that the governing body "will play no role in evaluating faculty research through any committee or any other structure."
The row first started with Das writing a paper titled 'Democratic Backsliding in World’s Largest Democracy'.

"The actions of the governing body pose an existential threat to the department. It is likely to precipitate an exodus of faculty, and prevent us from attracting new faculty," it further noted.

Ashoka University's political science department also issued a statement, "unanimously" supporting Das.

In the wake of Das' resignation, another professor from the economics department – Pulapre Balakrishnan – has also reportedly resigned.


Das' Research Paper and Ashoka's Response

The row first started with Das writing a paper titled 'Democratic Backsliding in World’s Largest Democracy' that was posted on SSRN's (Social Science Research Network) website on 25 July earlier this year.

Das, an assistant professor at the university, basically argued that in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP's victory may have been characterised by electoral manipulation in the form of targeted electoral discrimination against Muslims, partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers.

This paper received a lot of backlash, mostly from the right-wing intelligentsia and media.

Shortly after, Ashoka University put out a statement that said that the university "does not direct or approve specific research projects by individual faculty members."

"To the best of our knowledge, the paper in question has not yet completed a critical review process and has not been published in an academic journal," the statement added.

A summary of the paper alongside a comment can be found here.

The Quint reached out to Das on 2 August about the raging controversy, to which he replied, "Right now I am not engaging with any media. I want to first get the paper published so that it is formally vetted via peer review. Maybe after that, I will engage."

Das' Resignation

Two days ago, on 14 August, The Wire reported that Das had resigned. Shortly after, it was reported that the university had accepted his resignation.

The vice-chancellor of the university, Somak Raychaudhury, said the following in an official statement posted on Ashoka's website:

"Ashoka University confirms that Dr Sabyasachi Das, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, has submitted his resignation. Dr Das is currently on leave from Ashoka, serving as visiting faculty at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics (Deemed to be University) in Pune. After making extensive efforts to dissuade him, the University has accepted his resignation."

By this time, discontent had already started brewing on Twitter, questioning how a university that claims to be a fertile ground of liberal education values, could treat one of its own in such a manner.

Then, another faculty member reportedly resigned.


Balakrishnan's Resignation

Citing sources, The Wire reported that Pulapre Balakrishnan, also of the economics department, had resigned – most likely out of solidarity with Das.

Balakrishnan, a full-time professor, was trained as an economist at the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, according to the university's website. He has also "held appointments at the University of Oxford, the Indian Statistical Institute (Delhi Centre), and the Indian Institute of Management (Kozhikode)."

His resignation has not yet been announced by Ashoka University. Neither has his resignation letter been made public.

The Quint has reached out to Professor Balakrishnan for a comment. We will update this article when a response is received.


Faculty Expresses Solidarity With Das

Apart from the letter from the economics faculty, another letter "on academic freedom" was sent to the vice chancellor and the dean of faculty on 13 August.

Signed by 82 members of the faculty, including Balakrishnan, the letter stated that this is "not a crisis that will go away by wishing that papers like Professor Das' will not be written in the future, because that is not a realistic possibility in a working institution."

The row first started with Das writing a paper titled 'Democratic Backsliding in World’s Largest Democracy'.
The row first started with Das writing a paper titled 'Democratic Backsliding in World’s Largest Democracy'.

Asserting that "to stifle critique is to poison the lifeblood of pedagogy," the signatories asked for a Committee for Academic Freedom to be created immediately in order to "bring much-needed transparency and procedural fairness whenever such issues arise."

Meanwhile, the Department of Political Science at Ashoka University also put out a statement backing Das and condemning the actions of the governing body.

"Through its interference and the suggestion of constituting a committee, the Governing Body has questioned the credibility of the peer review system and in effect has cast aspersions against scholars at Ashoka and elsewhere. These steps have besmirched the name of the university and its claims of becoming a top research institute. Furthermore, the Governing Body's actions have signaled to students that critical enquiry can be met severe repercussions and thus undermines the work that we do within and outside the classroom," read the political science department's statement.

The department also reiterated the economics department's demands to:

  • Unconditionally offer Prof. Sabyasachi Das his position at Ashoka.

  • Affirm that the Governing Body will play no role in evaluating faculty research through any Committee or any other structure.


Repeat of March 2021?

Ashoka University, a private college located in Haryana's Sonepat, whose education is centered around liberal arts, had seen a similar episode play out in March 2021, when scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta tendered his resignation from the university.

In his resignation letter, Mehta said, “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. In the interests of the University, I resign.”

Just two days after Mehta quit, renowned economist Arvind Subramanian also resigned as a faculty member.

In his statement, Subramanian said that he felt troubled that someone like Mehta, with “such integrity and eminence who embodies the vision underlying Ashoka, had to leave."

He had called it "ominously disturbing" that "even Ashoka – with its private status and backing by private capital – can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom."

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