The controversial resignation on March 16 of Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta from the faculty of the high-ranked Ashoka University (AU, estb.2014) has provoked universal condemnation of the promoter trustees of this new genre, crowd-funded private liberal arts university established to maintain the highest standards of academic independence and institutional autonomy for which the Oxbridge universities and Ivy league colleges of the US are renowned.
In his letter of resignation, Mehta wrote that after a meeting with the founder-trustees of AU, it became “abundantly clear” to him that his association with the university as professor of political science had become a “political liability” for the institution. In an indirect reference to the BJP/NDA government at the Centre, Mehta wrote that “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 backstory of Mehta’s resignation is that during the past decade, Mehta, an alum of the blue-chip Oxford (UK) and Princeton (US) universities and former president of the Delhi-based Centre for Public Policy Research which he nurtured into the country’s most respected think tank, has emerged as the nation’s foremost public intellectual. His incisive reflections on politics, the Constitution and law published in the multi-edition Indian Express has a nationwide readership running into millions. However, it is unsparing in its unbridled criticism of the BJP/NDA government led by prime minister Narendra Modi.
The brunt of Mehta’s animus towards the BJP in particular, is that it is a Hindu majoritarian political party hell-bent on promoting the militant hindutva philosophy/ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor organisation of the BJP committed to transforming India into a Hindu rashtra in which Muslim and other religious minority communities will be demoted to second class citizenship.
By definition, the prime duty of the founder-trustees of the university is to protect the interests of the institution in which they have invested huge resources and nurtured into a premier liberal arts university in record time. In retrospect, they grievously erred in inviting the high-profile anti-establishment Mehta to come aboard the university in 2017 as vice chancellor and two years after he voluntarily resigned that position, retaining him as a faculty member even after the BJP — which it’s common knowledge is no respecter of constitutional niceties — swept General Election 2019.
In the circumstances, with the trustees having painted themselves into a corner and well aware of the great damage that the bull-in-a-china shop BJP could do to this great project, Mehta did the right thing by putting in his papers. In the final analysis, Mehta was obliged to make a choice between his fundamental right to free expression, and preservation and progression of a great university built to last. It was the correct choice in the larger public interest.