‘Bartered Away Its Soul’: Rajan Blames Ashoka Univ for Mehta Exit

“Free speech suffered a grievous blow,” wrote Raghuram Rajan slamming Ashoka University. 

Published
India
3 min read
File image of former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan.
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“Free speech suffered a grievous blow this week,” wrote former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan, slamming Ashoka University for the resignation of scholar and political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta from his position as professor of the university.

Joining the growing chorus of criticism and outrage among the global academic community over Mehta’s departure under “political pressure,” Rajan’s scathing three-page statement tore into the university for “succumbing to outside pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic” of the ruling establishment.

In a stinging attack on the university, Rajan wrote, “Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul.”

The resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta on 16 March followed by that of former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian from Ashoka University has triggered an avalanche of reactions from the academic fraternity in India and abroad.

As the exit of the two high-profile professors snowballs into an image crisis for the university, professors and scholars have criticised the administration for its “intolerance” and “spinelessness of trustees”.

While Mehta wrote that it was made clear to him that his writing “carried risks for the university,” Subramanian stated that the university’s failure to “provide a space for academic expression and freedom” was “disturbing.”

International Scholars Slam Ashoka University

Rajan’s statement comes alongside a scathing open letter by academics and scholars from across the world to the trustees and administration of Ashoka University expressing their “distress” at the resignation of Mehta “under political pressure.”

The letter, signed by nearly 180 academics, expresses support to Mehta and slams the trustees of the private university, who, it says, “all but forced his resignation” instead of “defending him as their institutional duty.”

The letter, titled ‘A Dangerous Attack on Academic Freedom, states, “a prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, he had become a target for his writings.”

Signatories to the letter include professors from Universities of Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, Brown, Princeton, McGill, Columbia, California, and Chicago.

Ashoka University ‘Bartered Away Its Soul’: Raghuram Rajan

Rajan’s letter, while expressing strong support for Mehta as “one of India’s finest political scientists,” rips into the university, its founder, and administration for setting back liberalism by its actions.

“Ashoka, for those who do not know, till this week was considered India’s likely competitor to Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford in coming decades. Unfortunately, its actions this week made that improbable.”
Raghuram Rajan

In his statement, Rajan wonders what exactly motivated Ashoka’s founders to remove their hitherto laudable protection of liberal values. 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.”

Economist Subramanian, in his resignation statement had noted “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.”

Referring to these remarks, Rajan further added “these statements suggest that Ashoka’s founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get ride of a troublesome critic.”

Rajan, who also holds a faculty position at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, cautioned that “as an institution, the University should not take political side.” Instead, the university’s mission should be to continue to protect the right of people like Mehta to continue to speak, he added.

The 54-year-old concluded by summarising Mehta’s departure as a “sad development for India,” questioning the university’s ability to rid itself of the political pressure it appears to have succumbed to.

“Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it the founders have bartered away its soul. And if you show a willingness to barter your soul, is there any chance the pressure will go away? This is indeed a sad development for India.”
Raghuram Rajan

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