Frontlist | ‘We live in complicated times …’: Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes to students, faculty

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Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who had recently quit as professor from the Haryana-based Ashoka University, wrote separate letters to his students and colleagues to express his gratitude for the support extended by them during his exit from the university.

Mehta, a frequent critic of the government’s policies, had quit the university earlier this week and said that his association with the institution may be a “political liability”. Two days after his exit, renowned economist and former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian also put in his papers.

What may have made Pratap Bhanu Mehta a ‘political liability’ at Ashoka University

In his letter to the students, whom he called “superheroes”, Mehta said that he was “overwhelmed” by the outpouring of affection and support he received over the last one week.

“Your protests instantly grasped what we, your elders, failed to adequately understand. Your protest was not about two individuals. It was about Ashoka’s institutional integrity,” he said.

Indicating that his exit from the university is final, Mehta said that he now wants to “close this chapter” and urged his students not to press on the matter further.

“The underlying circumstances that led to the resignation will not change for the foreseeable future, in my case, at any rate. So I must close this chapter. I urge you not to press on this matter. I know you will be disappointed. But if I may exercise one last bit of professorial discretion: your mission is larger than the fate of two Professors,” he said.
Here’s the full text of the letter …

Dear Superheroes,

This is the most difficult letter I have ever written. I wanted to write earlier. But we are still processing the train of events that led to my resignation, along with Prof. Subramanian. I was personally overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection and support you have displayed over the last week. Your solidarity means to me more than I can ever express in words. It is affection that will overwhelm me whenever I will remember this week.

But the deeper reason why this is difficult to write is this. Ashoka as an institution stands indicted before your bracing moral clarity and deep political wisdom. Your protests instantly grasped what we, your elders, failed to adequately understand. Your protest was not about two individuals. It was about Ashoka’s institutional integrity. But it was also about the dark and ominous shadows that loom over India democracy. As we worry about Ashoka, you also reminded us that the challenges we face pale in comparison with what our academic colleagues in universities elsewhere in India face. You connected the dots. Your protest was focussed on Ashoka. But it was about values larger than Ashoka. As many of you know, one of my favourite quotes is from George Eliot, “the right to rebellion is the right to seek a higher rule, and not to wander in mere lawlessness.” Your “rebellion” was grounded in a concern for freedom and democracy. You carried it out with dignity, grace and I might add, based on memes some of you shared, some serious artistic creativity.

So what can we, those who let you down, say to you? The first thing I will say is this. In all candour, this episode will be seen to have hurt Ashoka’s reputation. But in a larger sense Ashoka’s reputation will be enhanced, not by what the University did but what you did. You may lose a couple of Professors. But anyone looking at you will wonder in admiration. The poise and articulacy with which your defended important values and demanded accountability should make anyone want to associate with this university. You are its beating heart and soul and nothing can damage that. Second, it is not for me to intercede in this matter. But I imagine your voice will, in the long run make Ashoka a better university and get it to recommit to its ideals and values. So your outpouring is already a victory of sorts. You have taught us by example, what we were badly trying to teach you by lectures. You should be proud of yourselves. You should be confident that you will create a better world. You have already accomplished Ashoka’s mission.

In institutional contexts, principles and values cannot be replaced; individuals always can. So my plea to you is this. It is time for me to move on. Teaching at Ashoka, particularly the last couple of years, has been an absolute joy. It reinforced the one conviction I have carried my life without fail: students never ever let you down. So giving up the company of Ashoka students and colleagues, disrupting our lives, and leaving a fine university, is not an easy decision. But it is, for me, the only honourable thing to do, consistent with my values; values I think you share. I also believe it is in the best interests of the university. It is often said that you cannot swim in the same river twice. In the contrarian spirit of Ashoka, I tried by resigning twice!! I hope even you might forgive me for not wanting to tempt fate again. The underlying circumstances that led to the resignation will not change for the foreseeable future, in my case, at any rate. So I must close this chapter. I urge you not to press on this matter. I know you will be disappointed. But if I may exercise one last bit of professorial discretion: your mission is larger than the fate of two Professors.

I hope the Trustees and Faculty will work with you to secure your renewed trust and confidence. With your guidance they will be able to secure the institutional autonomy and freedom Ashoka needs. You embody the courage, reasonableness and understanding of democratic values that will take the university forward. I request you to work with them to make Ashoka a success.

We live in complicated times. India is bursting with creativity. But the dark shadows of authoritarianism are also hovering over us, putting us all in often uncomfortable and sometimes dishonourable positions. We will have to find principled and intelligent ways of overcoming this condition. Most of us are reduced to lamenting this looming darkness. I leave Ashoka with the conviction that a young generation is emerging that will provide what Vivekananda said we needed. We don’t simply need people who cry darkness. We need someone who can shine the light. I am confident, all of you can and will.

I am from a small town Jodhpur, and there is a saying in Marwari that begins “Dharam reh si, reh si dhara” (where there is dharma the earth is preserved). My conversation with you on these matters has been a source of immense pleasure. But the good thing about his conversation is that it continues wherever we are, through the texts I so enjoyed with you this year: Plato, Mahabharata, Montaigne, Hobbes, Marx, Beauvoir, Kant and many others. But what you taught us is something more valuable: that liberal values are more about having a character than they are about professing a creed. It is a character you have in ample measure. I am eternally grateful to you.

Thank you so much.

With the highest admiration,

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

In a separate letter to his colleagues, Mehta expressed his “deepest admiration” to the faculty for releasing a strong statement in his support following his exit.

In a joint statement to the vice-chancellor, the faculty had expressed “deep anguish” over Mehta’s exit and said it seems to be a direct consequence of his role as a public intellectual and critic of the government.

“That statement is a testament to the brilliance and values that make you such a distinctive force in Indian Higher Education. I feel privileged to have been a part of this faculty,” Mehta said in his letter to the fellow professors.

Mehta rued that Indian universities have a long history of “government interference and academic abdication” but now the oxygen of liberal values is being sucked out of the larger environment.

He called on his former colleagues to take a pioneering role in meeting these new challenges.

Here’s the full text of Mehta’s letter to the faculty …

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I write to thank you for the personal support you have extended to me and Arvind over the past week or so. But perhaps more importantly, I want to register my deepest admiration for your collective commitment to principle, and the precision and eloquence with which you articulated it in the Faculty statement. That statement is a testament to the brilliance and values that make you such a distinctive force in Indian Higher Education. I feel privileged to have been a part of this faculty.

I wanted to share with you that my resignation, which was accepted immediately after submission, stands. It was difficult to ignore the personal appeals for reconsideration that you made, and the arguments the students put forward with a heartfelt clarity. But the circumstances that prompted my resignation in the first place have not changed in the slightest degree. As much as we might wish things had turned out differently, moving on is the right thing to do. And it may also, I hope, turn out to be in the best interests of the university.

In the case of some of our colleagues I owe you a special debt. Some of you moved jobs, even moved across continents, based on the word I gave you as Vice-Chancellor. I will not pretend that this episode has not shaken our faith in the Ashoka project. But the silver lining is that it has also reminded us of how many people across the world are rooting for our success. I would like to think that the university you had set out to create is still a viable project, perhaps even all the more necessary, after what has just transpired. The success of Ashoka is vital for Indian Higher Education. It is also important for preserving the space for free inquiry and thought. If we just think of our students, any doubts about the importance of this project will melt away. I refuse to believe that a faculty body as talented and vigorous as ours cannot, in dialogue with the Founders, and Administration, renew the Ashoka ideal.

I recognize the challenges we face. Around the time that Ashoka was conceived, many of us, in parallel were having conversations around what it would take to build a great university in India. We were convinced India could be a global leader in higher education. The principle obstacles were going to bureaucratic regulation, political patronage, finance, and an institutional vision that measured up to India’s promise. Ashoka was pioneer in meeting all these challenges and setting new benchmarks of what was possible in India.

But it is hard to deny the fact that the challenge any university will now face is one we had never imagined facing. Indian universities have a long history of government interference and academic abdication. But now we are approaching a condition where the oxygen of liberal values and protections is being sucked out of the larger environment. We have to ask the uncomfortable question: What will it take to build liberal universities in a country marked by illiberal politics? Our colleagues in public universities have been facing this for a while. Now this growing contradiction is coming home.

So Ashoka will have to take a pioneering role in meeting these new challenges. I think the way in which Faculty and Students raised these issues has renewed our faith that Ashoka can rise up to the challenge. On a more personal note, I cannot even formulate my debt of gratitude to all of you. The intellectual excitement, commitment to teaching, and sheer fun you brought to the place will stay with me, as will the numerous friendships Ashoka has gifted me. I will forever, be presumptuous enough to think of myself as part of this faculty, wherever I end up. No other honour will measure up to this honour.

Warmest best wishes,

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

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