Ashoka Trustees’ Meet, Plot or News Columns: Why Did Mehta Resign?

What led to PB Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University and what followed in the campus after the news broke.

6 min read
What led to PB Mehta’s resignation as professor at Ashoka University? And what has been the fallout of his decision?

Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta's exit as professor at Ashoka University has turned the spotlight back on the issue of ‘academic freedom’ in the country.

Mehta, a vocal critic of the ruling Narendra Modi government, wrote in his resignation letter:

“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.”

The University is in damage control mode, with the Vice-Chancellor organising a town hall comprising angry students and faculty members on Thursday, 18 March. While the students have vowed to intensify their protests further – demanding that Mehta be reinstated.

But what led to his resignation in the first place? And what has been the fallout of his decision?

Resignation Followed Meet With Ashoka Trustees

A report in The Indian Express, quoting sources, said that Mehta's resignation letter was sent to Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar soon after he met with Ashoka University trustees, including Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Raj Sinha.

The Quint’s message to Dhawan, chairman of Board of Trustees at Ashoka, on whether the trustees wanted Mehta to quit or not, has so far elicited no response.

Mehta, in his resignation letter, had mentioned, “After a meeting with founders, it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability.”

Vice-Chancellor Sarkar, during the town hall with students and faculty on Thursday, denied having knowledge of any such meeting.

A political science undergraduate student, who attended the town hall, told The Quint:

“When the students asked about Mehta’s meeting with the trustees, the Vice-Chancellor said she did not know of any such thing – and that she wasn’t consulted before Mehta handed in his resignation.”

Further, Sarkar told students at the town hall that Mehta had refused to take back the resignation despite her reaching out to him.

Her response was to an email sent by one of the trustees, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, on Thursday morning to the students and faculty, saying, “I understand that Malabika has spoken to Pratap to consider withdrawing his resignation. He is considering it.”

Resignation Over Land Acquisition Deal, Claims Student Newspaper; V-C Denies

The Edict, a newspaper published by students of Ashoka University, cited an anonymous source and claimed the decision “was motivated by an understanding that if Professor Mehta resigned, the University’s efforts to acquire a new plot of land to expand the campus would get much smoother.”

Additionally, formal recognition for the fourth-year post-graduate diploma, Ashoka Scholars’ Program, was also hinted at as being part of the deal.

The newspaper also said, “In a heartfelt email to his students thanking them for ‘being an inspiration,’ Professor Mehta revealed that 'after discussions with the university about prevailing circumstances, it became clear... that it was best to move on.’”

Sarkar, in the town hall, denied the allegations and said the newspaper’s source is not credible.

‘Ominously Disturbing’: Arvind Subramanian Quits in Solidarity

Two days after Mehta’s resignation, noted economist Arvind Subramanian also tendered his resignation as professor at the University, in solidarity with Mehta.

“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,” he had said, after resigning.

Mehta’s resignation came two years after he stepped down as Vice-Chancellor of Ashoka University, considered to be one of the foremost private liberal arts institutes in the country, citing a desire to return to full-time academic life.

Students Vow to Escalate Protests

After the two resignations, students and faculty members staged a protest on campus and started a social media campaign, to garner support for the two professors.

In a statement issued by the ‘Ashoka University Student Government,’ the students have put forth the following demands:

  • A public acknowledgement from the founder of the university on Mehta’s statement that he felt like a “political liability”. In addition, the students have also asked for assurance that Professor Mehta would be given a ‘public unconditional offer letter’.
  • An open meeting with the student body.
  • Divesting of administrative powers and roles from founders. “We must create a body with both members of the faculty and student body to serve as a medium to discuss matters with the founders and the administration,” a statement from the student body read.

The students body further said that they will protest until these demands are met and will also organise a two-day boycott of the classes on 22 and 23 March.

“If these demands are not met by Tuesday, we will be organising a separate movement demanding that the Vice-Chancellor resign.”
Ashoka University Student Government 

The university made several attempts to placate the students – like the town hall on Thursday followed by a late-evening virtual meeting, attended by over a thousand students and faculty members, to discuss their plan of action.

Students who attended the virtual meeting told The Quint that they were miffed with the Vice-Chancellor for repeatedly denying that there were external pressures that led to Mehta’s resignation. One of the undergraduate students, who was part of the town hall, said:

“I can understand that the Vice-Chancellor might have been kept out of the loop during Mehta’s meeting with the trustees. But, she had received his resignation letter, which clearly shows that his reasons were not ‘personal,’ as was told to us.”

Earlier, on Thursday, the faculty released a statement on the resignations:

In light of media reports that circulated before the official announcement of Professor Mehta’s departure from the university, it seems quite plausible that his resignation was a direct consequence of his role as a public intellectual and critic of the government. We are greatly troubled by this scenario. Even more troubling is the possibility that our university may have acceded to pressure to remove Professor Mehta or to request, and accept, his resignation. This would fly against the principles of academic freedom on which Ashoka University has been set up – and which Professor Mehta, in his time as ViceChancellor and University Professor, has so scrupulously fought to defend. It would also set a chilling precedent for future removals of faculty, curtailing our sense of who we are as researchers and teachers.

However, when the student representatives asked professors to give permission for uploading the faculty statement on their personal social media handles, one of the faculty members replied with this:

Ashoka Trustees’ Meet, Plot or News Columns: Why Did Mehta Resign?

Who is Pratap Bhanu Mehta?

Mehta, a prolific writer and a critical thinker, has been an ardent critic of the government’s policies in various articles written for The Hindu, Financial Times, The Telegraph, and is an editorial consultant for The Indian Express.

He has also been criticised for defending Modi prior to 2014. Dismissing concerns over fascism, in an article in April 2014, he wrote, “It is easy to dismiss this concern over fascism as the hyperbole of a crumbling elite that has often used moral outrage as a substitute for addressing genuine political challenges.”

At Ashoka University, Mehta takes classes on ‘Indian civilisation’ and ‘Western Political Thought’. An undergraduate student at Ashoka University who has attended Mehta’s classes said, “His classes used to be very engaging and informative. He would always ask students to speak up and debate. He would give the space for students to disagree with him.”

Mehta has served on many central government committees, including India’s National Security Advisory Board, the Prime Minister of India’s National Knowledge Commission, and a Supreme Court-appointed committee on elections in Indian universities.

He is also on the editorial boards of many academic journals, including the American Political Science Review, the Journal of Democracy, and the India and Global Affairs. He also served as president of the Centre for Policy Research, one of India’s most distinguished think-tanks. He was also a professor at NYU Law School’s Global Faculty.

Earlier, he was a visiting professor of Government at Harvard University; associate professor of Government and of Social Studies at Harvard, and for a brief period, professor of Philosophy and of Law and Governance at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Mehta holds a BA (first class) in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford and a PhD in politics from Princeton. He received the 2010 Malcolm Adiseshiah award and the 2011 Infosys Prize for Social Sciences - Political Science.

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