Ashoka Univ row: Free speech in India suffered 'grievous blow', says Rajan

Eminent economist Raghuram Rajan has said free speech suffered a "grievous blow" in India with the resignations of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian from the Ashoka University and that the varsity's founders have bartered away its soul.

Earlier this week, the Sonipat-based Ashoka University -- a leading varsity that offers courses in liberal arts and sciences -- found itself at the centre of a controversy after political commentator Mehta and economist Subramanian resigned.

In a Linkedin post, former RBI governor Rajan said that free speech has suffered a "grievous blow" in India this week as professor Mehta, one of India's finest political scientists, resigned from the Ashoka University.

"The reality is that professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments," he said.

On the recent developments at the varsity, Rajan -- who is a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business -- said, "Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul."

He further said, "And if you show a willingness to barter your soul, is there any chance the pressures will go away? This is indeed a sad development for India," Rajan said.

Mehta's exit from the varsity was followed by the resignation of professor Subramanian, also a former chief economic advisor of the Narendra Modi government.

Rajan also quoted a few lines from Subramanian's resignation letter which said, "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.

"Above all, that the University's commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka."

Rajan noted that if Ashoka's founders believe "they have compromised with the powers that be in the greater interests of the university, they are wrong".

According to Rajan, it is not that Mehta has much sympathy for the opposition either. "As a true academic, he is an equal opportunity critic. He is, and I hope will continue to be, one of the intellectual leaders of liberalism in India," the former RBI governor said.

Rajan also quoted Mehta from his resignation letter that said, "After a meeting with founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the university may be considered a political liability."

Rajan opined that Mehta and Subramanian's statements suggest that Ashoka's founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of "troublesome" critics.

He added that Ashoka's founders should have realised that their mission was indeed not to take political sides but to continue to protect the right of people like professor Mehta to speak.

According to Rajan, a good university creates an environment where ideas for progress and change arise.

"Static societies where criticism is silenced are doomed societies, which eventually succumb to the weight of their authoritarianism and groupthink," the former RBI governor noted.

He further said Ashoka University, till this week, was considered India's likely competitor to Cambridge, Harvard, and Oxford in coming decades. "Unfortunately, its actions this week make that less probable."

He also opined that as an institution, the university should not take political sides.

A query sent to the varsity on the recent developments remained unanswered till the filing of the story.

The faculty members at the university on March 18 had written to the vice chancellor and board members, expressing anguish over Mehta's resignation.

The alumni council of the university had also released a separate statement on March 18 expressing solidarity with Mehta, who stepped down as the VC two years ago and resigned as a professor earlier this week.

The faculty members have noted that Mehta's exit has set a "chilling precedent for future removals of faculty" and is a "matter of great anguish.

The leadership team of Ashoka University includes Dhruv Agarwala (Co-founder and CEO PropTiger), Sanjeev Aggarwal (Co-Fonder Fundamental Partnership and Helion Ventures), Vishwavir Ahuja (MD and CEO, RBL Bank), Pramod Bhasin (Founder Genpact, Chairman Clix Capital), Amit Chandra (MD, Bain Capital), Ramesh Damani (Investor and Chairman, DMart), Nirmal Jain (Founder and Chairman, IIFL Holdings) and Gautam Kumra (Managing Partner, McKinsey India).

(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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