Attempts to control academic freedom gives rise to protest by faculty, Ashoka University and IISc an example

In Ashoka University, faculty threaten an “exodus” in solidarity with resignation by assistant professor for research paper; faculty of IISc intervene when Teesta Setalvad not allowed to give speech on harmony
Ashoka University; Sabyasachi Das (Image courtesy: Ashoka University)

Attempt to exercise control over freedom of speech and expression as well as academic freedom of professors of Ashoka University are not sitting quite well with the faculty, with many threatening to walk out. To provide a context, a research paper titled ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’, authored by Sabyasachi Das, an assistant professor at Ashoka University drew sharp criticisms. In his paper, Das argued that the BJP won a disproportionate share of closely contested parliamentary seats in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, especially in states where it was the ruling party at the time.

After the research paper led to political mudslinging between the BJP and the opposition parties, Ashoka University distanced itself from the paper. The university said it was “dismayed” by discussions on Das’s research paper and that while it encourages its faculty to carry out research, it does not “direct or approve specific research projects by individual faculty members”.

The said research paper was published on the Social Science Research Network on July 25. Pursuant to this, Sabyasachi Das resigned from his post at Ashoka University, which was accepted by the university vice-chancellor. As per a report of India Today, the university’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Somak Raychaudhury referred to the same and said, “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.”

After resignation was tendered by Das, in a week, two other faculty members also quit Ashoka University in solidarity with him. Protesting against the management, Pulapre Balakrishnan, another professor in the economics department, put in his resignation papers. The faculty members of the university have warned that the governing body’s “interference” in the process to “investigate the merits” of the research was likely to “precipitate an exodus of faculty”. Furthermore, the colleagues of Das have written to the governing body, threatening a “faculty exodus” if Das is not offered reinstatement.

“The offer of resignation by our colleague Prof Sabyasachi Das and its hasty acceptance by the University has deeply ruptured the faith that we in the faculty of the department of Economics, our colleagues, our students, and well-wishers of Ashoka University everywhere, had reposed in the university’s leadership,” the letter said, as provided by India Today.

In addition to this, the faculty members also threatened to stop taking classes unless “questions regarding basic academic freedoms are resolved”.

“Unless these questions regarding basic academic freedoms are resolved before the start of the Monsoon 2023 semester, faculty members of the department will find themselves unable to carry forward their teaching obligations in the spirit of critical enquiry and the fearless pursuit of truth that characterise our classrooms,” the letter stated, as reported by India Today.

As per Professor Somak Raychaudhury, “the faculty’s freedom to teach and research, underlining the institution’s enabling environment for academic freedom” is under question, as per the India Today report. Raychaudhury has further emphasised that the university does not direct or moderate faculty and student research, maintaining that academic excellence remains a core value

Faculty of IISc rise against attempt to control academic freedom

The Ashoka University is not the only university where the faculty are taking matters of attempt to control academic freedom into their own hands. On August 16, civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad was scheduled to give a speech on harmony at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) on the issue of “communal harmony and justice”. The said talk was organised by a students’ group and was scheduled to begin at 5 pm.

As per a report by the Telegraph, she was “disallowed” hours before the event and was denied entry. The Telegraph reported that Setalvad was initially denied entry to the institute and her entry was blocked. In her own words, Setalvad stated that the security had her picture and was not ready to allow her inside the campus. “It was surreal and unfortunate to have my photograph displayed on the security officer’s phone and stopped. I would however rather remember the dignity and quiet courage of the student organisers (I hope they do not face reprisal for this) and faculty members who sat through the intense discussion right through till 8 pm. Communal harmony, justice peace building and hate cannot be taboo subjects in a premier science institute and in any public private space in 21st century India”, said Teesta Setalvad speaking to SabrangIndia.

As per the report, only after the faculty intervened was Setalvad able to address a gathering of 40 students and four faculty members outside a canteen on the campus instead of the auditorium, as was planned.


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