As Another Ashoka University Staffer Leaves, Doubts Over the Institution’s Liberal Nature Remain

By Kedar Nagarajan | 24 December 2016

On 19 December 2016, I received messages from two fellows of the Young India Fellowship, a post-graduate diploma course in liberal studies at Ashoka University, a private, non-profit institution in Sonepat, Haryana, that offers a liberal-arts education. The fellows informed me that Rajendran Narayanan, an assistant professor of mathematics, had resigned from his post. Sanat Sogani, the president of the undergraduate student government at Ashoka, later confirmed that students had been informed of this resignation via an email from Rudrangshu Mukherjee, the vice chancellor of the university.

Narayanan was at least the third person to resign in the preceding few months. On 7 October, Adil Mushtaq Shah and Saurav Goswami, both senior administrative staffers working with the YIF, announced their resignations to the programme’s fellows, via emails. The first YIF fellow told me that both Shah and Goswami had cited personal reasons as the cause for their departure. An email sent to me on behalf of Sachin Sharma, the registrar of Ashoka, said that Narayanan resigned of his own accord as well.

(Over the course of reporting this story, I sent several queries to the administration at Ashoka—including members of its governing body, the vice chancellor, pro vice chancellor, the assistant dean and deputy dean of the YIF. I only received direct responses to a few of my questions, in the form of three emails: one from Diksha Dutta, a media-relations manager at Ashoka; another from the university’s media team; and one sent to me on behalf of Sachin Sharma, the registrar.)

A report published in the Indian Express on 13 October alleged that Shah and Goswami may have resigned under duress. It also stated that Narayanan, too, was being pressured by the university’s administration to resign. The point of contention, the report noted, was a petition that these three staffers had signed in July. The petition—which six alumni of YIF had drafted and circulated—concerned the violence unfolding in Kashmir following the death of the Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. It had been signed by 88 people—84 students and alumni of Ashoka University, Shah, Goswami, Narayanan, and Kunal Joshi, an alumnus who, according to the university’s website, is now a faculty member. Addressed to the central government and the state government in Jammu and Kashmir, it said that the signatories condemned the “violence perpetuated by the Indian State” since Wani’s death. It also asked for a plebiscite to be conducted in Kashmir. On 25 July, the petition was published on the news website Kafila.org. Over the next few days, various publications in both India and Pakistan wrote about the petition.

On 28 July, Ashoka University released a statement on its website distancing itself from the petition and its signatories. The statement vehemently declared that the university “does not endorse” the petitioners’ views. It added that Ashoka “condemns such behaviour” and had asked the petitioners to not use “the good name of the university.” Appended to the statement was a letter that Mukherjee, the vice-chancellor, had sent to the Ashoka community on the same day. In his letter, Mukherjee said that the petitioners had “deliberately” titled the Kafila post in a manner that made it appear that the university had endorsed it, that this was “unacceptable behaviour,” and “must be stopped forthwith.” He added that though Ashoka was “based on the principles of freedom of expression and independent thinking,” this “does not give any member of the Ashoka family the right to give his or her political opinion the stamp of institutional support.” Mukherjee also wrote that he would urge all members of the Ashoka community to “refrain in the future from using Ashoka University’s name to comment on an issue where clearly different people have different points of view.”

Beginning in mid October, I spoke to over a dozen people who were associated with Ashoka University—students, alumni, and faculty members—in an attempt to understand the events that followed the release of the petition, and the reasons for the resignation of the staffers. Despite repeated attempts, both Shah and Goswami declined to speak to me. I contacted Narayanan on 6 December—over four months after the petition was published—but he said that he would not be able to talk to me, as “the dust has still not settled.” I called him again on 20 December, after I was informed of his resignation. Although he did not deny that he had resigned, he declined to comment further. Many students, YIF fellows and alumni I spoke to requested not to be named; several said they did not want to draw the attention of the university’s administration by speaking to members of the media.

But in most of my conversations, both on and off the record, it became evident that while Ashoka University appeared to champion liberal ideals, many members of its community felt that the administration often disregarded their political stances. The second YIF fellow told me that “the authorities do listen,” but often failed to act on suggestions and concerns raised by students and alumni. Several others said that the university had not been transparent in its actions regarding the petition, and that when they attempted to question the administration, they were snubbed.

Collectively, my reporting offered a glimpse into the manner in which Ashoka’s administration had dealt with dissent on its campus, and how this had dampened the progressive spirit of some members of its community. Gutta Rohith, an alumnus of YIF, said, “The environment at campus and among the alumni networks has become claustrophobic.”

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By all appearances, Ashoka University, with a keen focus on the liberal arts, offers a progressive environment—among the university’s faculty are noted liberal academics such as Andre Beteille, a renowned sociologist who is also the university’s chancellor; Jonathan Gil Harris, an author and Shakespearean scholar, as well as the dean of academic affairs; Nayanjot Lahiri, a historian and former professor at Delhi University; and Janice Pariat, an author and critic. (On 1 December, Ashoka announced that when Beteille’s term as chancellor ends, in April 2017, Mukherjee would take his place.) On its academic council are Ramachandra Guha, a prominent historian and author; and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a noted academic and columnist.

“Ashoka’s emphasis on a holistic interdisciplinary liberal education is like a breath of fresh air,” Vineet Gupta, one of Ashoka’s founders and currently its pro vice chancellor, writes in a note on the university’s website. Even before it began conducting classes in its campus, in Sonepat, in 2014, the university’s founders were keen to portray it as a space unlike any that existed in the Indian education system. “Ashoka is for those who’ve said ‘to hell with the current system we have and to hell with going abroad,’” Pramath Raj Sinha, another founder, told the New York Times in 2013. But the tone of the university’s official statement, several students and alumni said, seemed to suggest that Ashoka did not, in fact, welcome all political views on its campus—a sense they said was heightened by the resignations in October.

“I wholly agree that there is a sense of freedom we have here in terms of classroom spaces and subjects being taught etc, that would be hard to find elsewhere,” Sabah Kochhar, a current fellow of the YIF programme, said in a written message. But, she added, “the way they’ve handled this is really uncomfortable and goes against the very things they claim to stand for (on paper).”

Several people told me that they were surprised by the university’s objection to the use of its name, especially since, according to them, the administration was aware of the contents of the petition being circulated. “Everyone including the admin was in the know of the way the final petition was framed,” Nipun Arora, an alumnus of the YIF program, told me. “The university offers liberal arts, and these petitions are very small things, so I can’t understand why an administration would have gone so far as to say we told them not to use the good name of the university. What is that ‘good name?’” Gutta Rohith said.

Email exchanges among the Ashoka community confirmed that the university’s administration was in the loop. The six alumni who drafted the petition had emailed it to students, alumni, faculty members and the administration. On the email thread discussing the petition’s text, several people had responded with suggestions and concerns. Some had also expressed their discomfort with the use of Ashoka’s name. (A staffer from the vice-chancellor’s office responded on the thread, but only to suggest that the emails should be addressed “only to the concerned people.”) One of the people who voiced a concern regarding the use of the name was Karan Bhola, the president of Ashoka’s alumni association, who graduated from the YIF program in 2014. In an email that he sent on the thread on 24 July, Bhola, wrote that the alumni council—an executive council within the alumni association—“in consultation with other stakeholders of the University, has been thinking deeply about this issue and the larger questions it raises for us as a community.” He continued: “For one, there is the question of what the University should lend its name to and what not.” He requested the petitioners to emphasise that the petition was being submitted in their personal capacities “until such time as there is more clarity on policies concerning such engagement.”

Rajesh CS, one of the six alumni who floated the petition, responded the same day, saying that Bhola’s concern had already been addressed. He said the authors had, at the outset, included a clause in the petition that read: “the opinions presented in this letter are privately held by the undersigned and do not reflect the views of Ashoka University.” The next day, the petition was published on Kafila. “Several alumni were uncomfortable with the veracity of the facts and the tone of the petition,” Bhola later wrote to me in an email. “I personally think that only a few suggestions during the petition’s drafting process were incorporated, and that the authors could have been more sensitive to other points of view that were raised within the community.”

On 26 July, as more news reports regarding the petition began trickling in, the governing body of the university held a meeting. The Indian Express report said that the meeting was called to discuss the petition. In the email the media team sent me in mid December, it wrote that this was not correct, and that any reports suggesting so were “wholly inaccurate.” It added that meetings of the governing body are scheduled at the beginning of the year. At this meeting, however, the governing body issued a resolution condemning the petition. It noted that the petition did not have “the approval or sanction of Ashoka University” and that the vice chancellor “must issue a public disclaimer and take appropriate action.” (A copy of this resolution was included in the statement released two days later, on 28 July.)

The following day, on 27 July, student and alumni networks of Ashoka received an email from the administration regarding the university’s mass mailing system, informing them that bulk emails sent by students to alumni would go through a moderator. Earlier, any member of the Ashoka community could use their official university email addresses to send emails to any group—for instance, a student could email all alumni through group email addresses allotted to each batch. A faculty member at the university, who asked not to be named, told me that while it was understandable that the timing of the change “would look suspicious,” Ashoka’s alumni had, in the past, complained that they often received emails that did not concern them. “There had been a discussion about the emails and a requirement to change the system,” Arora told me. But, he said, for the decision to be announced suddenly following the petition’s release, “made us suspicious about what actually led to the decision.”

“The University is not ‘regulating’ emails. Rather, it has started laying down some basic policies regarding broadcasting and spamming on email groups in line with the best practices of Universities globally,” Dutta, the media-relations manager, wrote in her email. “In the University, there is no concern on freedom of speech. In fact, there is so much discussion on a petition because we encourage free speech,” she wrote.

According to the first YIF fellow, the university’s reaction was also surprising because similar objection to the usage of the university’s name was not taken when another petition was circulated in early 2016. In February, members of the Ashoka community released a petition in solidarity with students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, after a few students from the university were arrested and charged with sedition. This petition was signed by over 250 people, including members from the staff such as Aniha Brar, now the assistant dean of the YIF programme. Email exchanges that took place between the members of the Ashoka community in February showed that students, fellows and faculty members had held a meeting and agreed that including a disclaimer—a line specifying that the opinions presented in the petition were those of only the signatories—was sufficient. In an email dated 17 February, Purvai Aranya, a student, wrote: “Everybody agreed that ‘we, the undersigned from Ashoka University’ did NOT implicate the entire university, and simply meant that SOME members of the Ashoka community were in support of the letter.”

“As far as JNU goes, Ashoka was one among many universities whose students had expressed solidarity,” Arora told me. But with the Kashmir petition, he added, “I believe that the university reacted the way that it did because media reports made an assumption that the university as a whole endorsed the petition.” But several students felt that, no matter the reason, the tenor of the university’s response was contradictory to its values. “The university needn’t have condemned the petition, they could have simply said, we do not endorse this view,” Rohith said.

The YIF fellows I spoke to told me that, after the administrative staffers resigned, fellows from the program approached the university’s administration to seek explanations. According to the Indian Express report, on 9 October, 168 of the programme’s fellows wrote an email to Mukherjee, requesting a meeting with the governing body. A YIF fellow who later attended the meeting told me it was scheduled to be held on 13 October. That morning, the Indian Express report was published. “The report made the management dodgy towards us, they felt that we were in the wrong for sharing information that they believed only members of the Ashoka community should be privy to,” the fellow who attended the meeting told me. The fellow added at the meeting—at which Mukherjee was not present—the governing body members claimed that the issue of the resignations was “not as simplistic,” and that Shah and Goswami did, in fact, have personal reasons for resigning. According to the attendee, the administrators said that the two staffers would be taking on positions at the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women. According to its website, Vedica is a multidisciplinary programme exclusively for women, aimed at working as an alternative to an MBA. The programme’s founders include Anuradha Das Mathur, a founder of the media company 9.9 Media. Pramath Raj Sinha, who founded 9.9 Media with Mathur, is also a founder of Vedica. Sinha is a founder and trustee at Ashoka University as well, and a member of its governing body. I sent an email to the address listed on Vedica’s website and to Sinha, asking if they could confirm whether Shah and Goswami were employed there, but I did not receive a response. I also received no responses from Ashoka University’s administration regarding the reason behind this alleged move.

While discussing the reasons they thought were behind the university’s reaction to the petition, several people I spoke to made references to “external pressure” that Ashoka was facing after the petition’s release. “The University was in the spotlight when the news first broke, and the management did not want to receive that sort of attention, so the decision to condemn the petition was not surprising,” the first YIF fellow said. “The resignations coming a full month after the issue regarding the petition blew over, is suggestive of the fact that there was sustained external pressure.”

In mid August, nearly two weeks after the university’s official statement was published, the alumni council of the university sent an email to all alumni of Ashoka. The email noted that the “viral nature” of the petition’s misrepresentation was an “indisputable outcome.”

“This has impacted us more than you may imagine,” the email said. “As students and alumni of Ashoka, we can only see a small portion of the threat that this issue (and how it has been mistreated) has posed to our University.” The email said that while the university’s founders and management had been addressing the “larger repercussions of the event(s),” the events called for the community to be “more thoughtful in representing our identity externally.”

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Though several people I spoke to said that they events that unfolded at Ashoka since July had surprised them, many others said that the university’s reaction instead confirmed their fears. They said that the university did not have a clear track record when it came to encouraging the liberal political discourse it promised, and had, in the past, selectively distanced itself from certain kinds of political engagement. Among the issues they pointed to as examples was the governing body’s reluctance to engage with topics such as caste, or to implement affirmative-action policies.

“It is not that the administration does not engage with us, they do,” Kocchar said. “But, when the issue for reservations was brought up by a group of students in the university, none of the conversations even mildly influenced an actual conversation about a change in policy.” According to a report published in Mint on 10 December, Gupta said that there is no plan to enact any affirmative-action policies.

Rohith said that while the subject matter in many of his classes addressed the issue of caste discrimination, he never felt that there was enough caste diversity in the classrooms themselves. Kochhar echoed this assertion. “We have enriching discussions about caste and class in our classrooms, but then the university itself has very few students from groups with a lived experience of caste or class oppression. I don’t think that there can then be any real learning about these issues until that changes,” she said. “I have signed petitions about reservation, but I never felt that it would amount to much,” Rohith said. “They have the same standard and ignorant argument about merit”—that they admit students based only on merit. He continued: “If this place is supposed to be an agent of change, why aren’t they making this change?”

He added that the university’s commitment to having a conversation about caste was “made clear” by the fact that it did not have an anti-caste-discrimination cell, which is mandated by the University Grants Commission. According to UGC guidelines, it is mandatory for universities to have an anti-ragging, anti-sexual harassment and an Equal Opportunity Cell, along with an anti-caste-discrimination officer. In a document on its website, the UGC notes that Ashoka has the first two. The email sent to me on behalf of Sharma, the registrar, said that Ashoka “is UGC compliant in its policies.” “Currently, we have a system for ‘Student Grievances Redressal’ through which students can seek support on any problems that they face. The University does not collect caste data and does not discriminate on any grounds,” the email said. “The matter of setting up an ‘Equal Opportunity Cell’ is under consideration and a decision will be taken by the University soon.”

Rahul Maganti, an alumnus of the YIF programme who was also one of the six people who floated the Kashmir petition, pointed to another instance that he said reflected the university’s selective political engagement. In January 2016, the administration invited Manohar Lal Khattar, the chief minister of Haryana, to be the chief guest at an event on campus. According to Maganti, Madhavi Menon, a professor of English at Ashoka and the director of its centre for studies on gender and sexuality, protested the choice to invite Khattar. He said that Menon cited Khattar’s views on khap panchayats as the reason for her objection. “But he came anyway, and it was she that had to decide not to attend the event,” Maganti said. I reached out to Menon several times. She refused to comment, saying “she was not speaking to journalists about stories.”

Several people I spoke to mentioned that Ashoka worked in close proximity with the government of Haryana. “Everyone is aware that the founders are well connected to people in political power,” the faculty member said. The chief minister’s office is associated with Ashoka University, through a programme called the Chief Minister’s Good Governance Associates (CMGGA), an initiative of the Haryana government that began in 2016. The CMGGA website describes it as a programme for “young, promising leaders excited to work with the State machinery and who embody highest levels of integrity, passion for development and service to others.” The website says that Ashoka is the knowledge partner for this program, and that it facilitates “the process of selection, recruitment, training, mentoring and monitoring the work of the Associates.” The associates work in tandem with the deputy commissioner and district officials of Haryana and are required to “deliver on regular mandates given from the Chief Minister’s office,” and “ensure the success of flagship initiatives taken up by the Haryana government.”

Kochhar told me that, over the past few weeks, students and some faculty members had told others in the Ashoka community that “you should learn to engage, and put your point across in a manner that doesn’t antagonise, and not become one of those political, slogan-carrying students.” “I think the very fact that so many students are worried about coming on record is revealing about the way things are here,” she told me. “I understand that many students feel like they have gotten a lot from the university, but why can’t you criticise something that you love and are loyal to?” She added: “The university reasons that it is ‘apolitical.’ But, personally, I find that’s a very flimsy ground to take.” “Many of us are upset about some of the decisions that have been taken by the management,” a third YIF fellow told me. “I am clear in my belief that you cannot be liberal for 364 days of the year and suddenly choose not to be on a day where it really counts.”

Disclosure: Nikita Saxena, the web editor of The Caravan, is an alumnus of the Young India Fellowship, and was previously employed with 9.9 Media. Christophe Jaffrelot, a contributing editor at The Caravan, is also a member of Ashoka University’s academic council.

Kedar Nagarajan is a web reporter at The Caravan.

READER'S COMMENTS

2 thoughts on “As Another Ashoka University Staffer Leaves, Doubts Over the Institution’s Liberal Nature Remain”

What’s creepy about the disclosure ?? What IS creepy is that educational institutions have to pay (or choose to pay) obeisance due “sustained pressure” against individual expressions.
“The University was in the spotlight when the news first broke, and the management did not want to receive that sort of attention, so the decision to condemn the petition was not surprising,” the first YIF fellow said. “The resignations coming a full month after the issue regarding the petition blew over, is suggestive of the fact that there was sustained external pressure.”
Perhaps the students (and faculty) would have done well to include a strong condemnation of Pakistan’s covert militarisation of the Kashmir Valley in their petition and appealed for a plebiscite in POK too !

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