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Ashoka University Departments Unite in Support of Former Professor Amid Academic Freedom Debate

The departments of sociology and anthropology, English, creative writing, political science, philosophy, psychology, and media studies have all voiced their concerns over the university's handling of academic freedom.

Image credit: Ashoka Universty

New Delhi: In a remarkable display of solidarity, at least eight departments at Ashoka University have issued statements affirming their support for former economics professor Sabyasachi Das. This comes in the midst of a growing controversy surrounding academic freedom at the institution, triggered by Das's resignation following a political dispute stemming from one of his recent research papers.

The departments of sociology and anthropology, English, creative writing, political science, philosophy, psychology, and media studies have all voiced their concerns over the university's handling of academic freedom. The sociology and anthropology, English, and creative writing departments jointly released their statements on August 16, while the political science department followed suit on August 17 and separate statements by the rest were circulated on X (formerly Twitter) on August 18.

Expressing their commitment to principles of critical inquiry and fearless pursuit of truth, three of the departments communicated that they would refrain from fulfilling their teaching responsibilities until their demands related to academic freedom are met. These demands centre on ensuring an environment that fosters independent research and discourse, free from external interference.

The Department of Media Studies stated in its statement: “Our department, as a collective of diverse practitioners in the media space, is well aware of both the realities and perceptions of pressure on free expression in our digitally mediated, social media driven information landscape. We are firmly of the view that a consultative approach involving the faculty in dealing with such pressures, is the only way forward.”

The Department of Economics, in an open letter on August 16, has asked for Das’s position to be unconditionally offered to him and demanded the governing body’s assurance that it will not interfere in faculty research -- both to be done by August 23.

The controversy has followed a research paper titled "Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy," authored by Das, which discussed the potential for electoral manipulation in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This paper ignited a political storm, prompting Das's resignation and highlighting divisions within the academic community.

The university administration's swift disassociation from the paper drew criticism from various quarters, including students, academics, and its own faculty. This event carries additional weight due to the university's history, including the resignation of prominent political science professor and former vice chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta in March 2021, which was attributed to his media commentary on the ruling party's politics.

The political science faculty, in their statement, emphasised the recurrent pattern of stifling academic freedom and expressed concerns about the alleged attempts by the university's governing body to scrutinise Das's research. The faculty condemned the governing body's actions, asserting that they cast doubt on the credibility of the peer review system and undermine the university's commitment to open inquiry and critical thinking.

Faculty members from Ashoka's economics department were the first to question the governing body's involvement in evaluating the merits of Das's research.

The controversy's ripple effects extended to other departments, with economist Pulapre Balakrishnan also resigning in a show of solidarity with Das. The English and creative writing departments, in a joint statement, echoed the calls for accountability from the governing body and senior colleagues responsible for the situation.

The Department of Psychology, expressing its “unwavering support and solidarity” with Dr Das and Dr Balakrishnan, demanded that the duo be offered their positions back unconditionally.

As demands for academic freedom continue to gain traction within the university, the sociology and anthropology faculty has gone a step further by requesting an apology from the governing body to Das. They express distress over the apparent disregard for academic freedom and hope for a reaffirmation of the university's commitment to its founding ideals.

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