“It looks like everyone has forgotten professor Sabyasachi Das,” commented a fourth-year student from the economics department on festivities marking a new session at the Ashoka University in Sonipat, close on the heels of a controversy.
Atrium, one of the main halls, was packed with stalls for campus clubs – the crowd was the most bloated at another where students were getting their face painted amid Bollywood numbers.
Just two weeks before this campus gala on August 31, Sabyasachi Das was allegedly told to resign as an assistant professor of the economics department, days after he had published a research paper exploring the possibility of electoral manipulation in favour of the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. His resignation was immediately accepted by vice-chancellor Somak Raychaudhary, who said his research was perceived by many as the university’s view. The university said that the paper, titled ‘Democratic backsliding in the world’s largest democracy’, was not even peer-reviewed.
But discontent brewed on campus. Four days later, Pulpare Balakrishnan, a full professor and author of several books, resigned to protest Das’s exit.
And on August 16, the economics department issued a demanding the reinstatement of Das and Pulpare, threatening to suspend classes until their demands were met. The political science and English and creative writing departments issued similar statements while the departments of sociology, anthropology and media expressed solidarity.
But just three days later, the departments said that though their demands were still valid, teaching will never be disrupted as “welfare of the students is of utmost priority”.
What exacerbated the tension was a similarity to the episode involving professors Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramaniam’s resignations in 2021. In its aftermath, the university had promised a , but this never materialised. And after the exit of Das and Balakrishnan, the Ashoka University Student Government, the elected student body, also demanded that they be informed about the constitution of the proposed panel.
The student body, on August 15, also demanded that both the faculty members be reinstated and the administration hold an open town hall with the students – in 2021, the then V-C Malabika Sarkar had held an open town hall with over 1,500 students after Mehta and Subramaniam’s resignations. But their demands are yet to be met with student representatives and the administration remaining tightlipped on the issue.
V-C Raychaudhary held a private meeting with the student body on August 26, unlike the open town hall that followed the resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta. The student body sent an email to the students that the V-C had assured that he was in “regular contact” with professor Das and other members of the economics department and was hopeful of a “positive outcome from these discussions”. The V-C had also reportedly said that issue was “evolving” and he hopes to “hold a town hall later this semester”.
A week into the new session, even though none of the faculty or student demands have been fulfilled, the university has not witnessed even a single protest. This, despite students claiming that the episode is negatively impacting their classes and research.
‘Classes as usual’
“We are in wait,” said a student body member. But most don’t think the demands will be met. “The students here are not as left liberal as the Twitter audiences believe them to be. There’s a lack of a strong student political environment.”
Several undergraduate students from the economics department told Newslaundry that their faculty members have not spoken about the issue in class.
In fact, the “only time” the matter was discussed in the classroom was when “the professors warned us not to talk to the media” about it, alleged a third-year student.
A fourth-year student said that even the economics department “seemed to be far removed from the incident”. “It is sad. Even the economics professors are continuing their classes as usual, without any discussions on what happened.”
A faculty member confirmed that the department has not addressed students over the issue. “It has been a tough time for the faculty members as well, but it has been encouraging to see everyone coming together. We are not talking to the media because we don’t want to siphon the positive solutions promised by the university.”
Decline of student activism, lectures on academic freedom
Ruhaan Shah, a fourth-year political science student and former member of the student body, who was also involved in the protests after professor Mehta’s exit, said the student body has “not pushed for any protests” this time.
“In 2021, it was the students who took the charge to protest and make calls for class boycotts which was later supported by the faculty. But it is not the case this time. The student body has not pushed for any sort of protest. They have not given any ultimatums to the administration that if their demands are not met, they would take any strict action. They should have pushed for the protests.”
He said the university has not held a single protest in over two years. “When a protest was held over the death anniversary of Rohith Vemula, merely 30 of over 2,000 students on the campus turned up…It is the death of student politics.”
Another fourth-year student said that in 2021, “at least there was a facade that students were being heard. This time even the V-C’s assurance that he is trying to bring back professor Das rings hollow.”
A fourth-year student of philosophy said the campus earlier saw protests over a range of issues, from the citizenship law to environment regulations, but dissent has significantly declined on campus. “We would plaster posters and paint graffiti on the campus to protest earlier. But now you cannot even spot a single poster. It is because with each new batch, the students’ involvement in politics is decreasing.”
A fourth-year English department student said the lack of protests is due to the university being privately funded. Another student said such colleges need to adhere to the “rules of the state”. “No matter how much Ashoka boasts about its left liberal values, but at the end of the day it is a capitalist institute…It cannot produce Bhagat Singhs or Umar Khalids.”
However, students from the departments of political science, and English and creative writing said their professors were “trying to keep left liberal values alive”.
A third-year student of English and philosophy told Newslaundry: “I don’t want to name the professor. But she spent 90 minutes discussing the incident concerning professor Das. She was troubled by the fact that everything is going back to normal. She spent an entire class answering our questions and talking about academic freedom.”
Aparna Chaudhari and Madhavi Menon, faculty members of the English department, recently sent emails to students announcing a series of lectures on academic freedom beginning September 4.
The economics department students who spoke to Newslaundry said the exit of two faculty members meant higher class strength and less individual attention.
More impacted were those who were carrying out research under the two faculty members, said students.
Newslaundry could not independently verify the precise number of students who were researching under the two faculty members at the department which has over 500 students.
A fourth-year economics student, who was doing research under Das’s supervision, said it was a “big loss”. “He was a rare professor. The most humble and approachable unlike other professors on the campus. He used to answer the most stupid doubts of the students without a shred of judgment. That is rare at Ashoka.”
Another student called the episode a “wake up call”. “The incident has shown that the university is not going to stand by us if at all our research takes on a political establishment tomorrow. This is going to impact the kind of academics that come out of the university.”
A fourth-year political science student claimed that Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation had also impacted the students. “After his exit, the number of students who took the course fell by half. The university’s star attraction is its faculty but if they are unable to retain them then what is the point of it?”
Meanwhile, the student representatives are waiting for clarity from the administration. “We don’t know the next date of communication with the administration. The V-C has also delayed the town hall.”
Newslaundry reached out to V-C Raychaudhary for comment. This report will be updated if a response is received.
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