– Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat (Haryana) and a member of Compost Heap, an academic think tank
One of the drawbacks of academic controversies is that they surface without articulation of genealogy, or context. They erupt as scandal, evoke a few personalities, allow a trail of gossip, and fade quickly. The recent controversy around Ashoka University (AU) has that drawing room flavour. It will cease to command attention or meaning soon.
The genealogy of Ashoka University can be traced back to the writings of Patrick Geddes, India’s first sociologist recognised as the inventor of town planning. Geddes wrote about the modern university in an inimitable way. He argued that a university is incomplete without dissenting academics. The holism of the university as an intellectual powerhouse needs the creative power of dissenting perspectives. Thus, every Western university system grew by absorbing intelligent dissenting viewpoints within its environment. This is precisely the balance that Pratap Bhanu Mehta provided as an autonomous and dissenting force within Ashoka University.
In this particular case which forced Mehta’s resignation as vice chancellor in 2019 and as professor of political science on March 15, one should bear in mind that Ashoka’s financiers have always been ambivalent about dissent. They should have known it is normative in the university system.
Nor is Mehta’s resignation a unique case for AU, promoted seven years ago with high aspirations. In 2017, the AU management fired a young lecturer for his public stand on retaining the special status of Kashmir, claiming it threatened the university. Even more embarrassing was the resignation of Prof. Meena Surie Wilson, head of AU’s women’s leadership cell. A brilliant professional with deep roots in Asia and the US, Surie discovered that the cell was without real content. As she sought to write its curriculum, she discovered the university trustees wanted to use money officially allocated to her department for other purposes. She challenged it quietly but firmly and chose to resign over the issue in 2018. The integrity and dignity of that protest should not be forgotten.
If Prof. Surie challenged the ethical integrity of Ashoka, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a formidable public intellectual, became an example of political and intellectual autonomy, a status unacceptable to its founder-trustees, who envisioned AU as an investment opportunity rather than a truly independent liberal arts university. The follow-up resignation of Arvind Subramaniam, former chief economic advisor of the BJP/NDA government at the Centre who had signed up as AU faculty, highlights this structural weakness.
There is a second facet of this controversy that needs underlining. This situation is not peculiar to AU. It is common to a whole chain of universities ranging from Jamia Islamia, Aligarh, Delhi, Hyderabad and JNU which are desperately struggling for academic and intellectual freedom within an insidious political environment. This issue goes beyond colourful personalities like Mehta to the basic character of universities as intellectual terrain. The threat to emasculate the autonomy and diversity of the university has been one of the RSS-BJP combo’s priority objectives.
Against this backdrop, one should not be lulled into believing that the regime’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 guarantees academic autonomy. NEP 2020 deceptively promises little streams of administrative and financial autonomy at the cost of intellectual and political freedom. It comments about diversity and autonomy but regards education as an assembly line process requiring minimal operational freedom. It also views the structural problems of the country’s archaic education system as technical issues unconnected with philosophy and ethics. The university is reduced to a skilling academy, without any awareness of the theory of knowledge which is necessary to create new knowledge. One has to be aware that functional literacy and authoritarianism often weave into each other. NEP 2020 is an embodiment of such limited vision.
I believe it’s time to call a spade a spade. Dr. Kasturirangan, the architect of NEP 2020, is an influential technocrat who has authored two insidious reports. His report on the Western Ghats challenges the ecological possibilities of democracy and NEP destroys the university as an ecology of plural knowledges. The logic is clear: supporting Mehta is also a challenge to NEP 2020, and the ruling regime which has no understanding of the plurality of universities.
This is why the university must respond collectively to Mehta’s protest and resignation from AU. While it is individually inspiring, it should focus the attention of academics on raising similar questions, especially on the recent protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act at Jamia. What frightens the regime is a prospect of a Shaheen Bagh-style protest not just at a liberal Ashoka, but in Delhi and Aligarh universities and the IITs. If they are added to the 130-day protest of farmers on the peripheries of Delhi, it would expose the mediocrity of the BJP/NDA government.
Against this backdrop it is time that academics reinvent the university with a rigorous independent evaluation of NEP 2020. The impact of such a project will be unimaginable. It will challenge the Macaulayite authoritarianism of the ruling dispensation.