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From a Liberal to a Comprador Campus

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By Sidharth Mishra

The resignations of social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta and economist Arvind Subramanian from the faculty of Ashoka University has started a discussion about a liberal university unable take the load of ‘political liability’. For those who may not know, Ashoka is a private university which marketed itself as a liberal centre of learning albeit at a huge fee.

With resignation of the two dons, and believing what they have mentioned as the reasons for them quitting to be true, the whole marketing pitch of the Ashoka University has come a cropper. Ashoka is not a place for poor seeking knowledge but largely a finishing school for the rich seeking a seat in the universities abroad.

Having a pantheon of professors with a foreign connect has by far been its best marketing instrument attracting students from rich Indian, and largely upper-caste families, who could not make it to centres like Delhi University on the account of reservations, with just 40 percent of the seats available for them. These professors often issue ‘academic visas’ for the campuses abroad

Good liberal campuses are known for the possession of elitisms arising out of intellectual arrogance amidst its residents, both faculty and students. Elitism does pervade the Ashoka air too but it has more to do with Mammon than Apollo. The Ashokan culture is more about aping the western world than discussing the Indian society.

So, the hue and cry raised over the two Ashoka dons resigning, in the western world populated with Indian voices, for sure would not have many ascribing on the Indian campuses, who are fighting their own battles for ideological egalitarianism. Given this backdrop, the crisis at Ashoka University is more of commerce than of expression.

And if one needed an evidence, it’s there in the joint statement issued by the university as a move to control the damage to its marketing façade. “We acknowledge that there have been some lapses in institutional processes which we will work to rectify in consultation with all stakeholders. This will reaffirm our commitment to academic autonomy and freedom which have always been at the core of the Ashoka University ideals,” said the statement issued jointly by Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar, Mehta, Subramanian, and Ashish Dhawan, the Chairman the university's Board of Trustees. And as a post-script, the statement also added that they, “continue to believe strongly that Ashoka University should embody a liberal vision and commitment to academic freedom and autonomy.”

Having said this about the Ashoka incident, it however cannot be said in the same vein that the other Indian campuses are not under the threat of ideological parochialism.  And it’s also true that the pandemic of ideological parochialism did not hit the Indian campuses post-2014. Even intellectuals like Ramchandra Guha, among the foremost critics of the Narendra Modi government, have been critical of the Indian campuses being turned into fiefdoms of the Left in the pre-2014 era, with little space for any other thought or philosophy.

The problem post-2014 has been the inability to sift out the good from the ordinary, with the wearing of ideology on the sleeves being the only criterion for acceptance. This has led to the creation of a very pedestrian pantheon of professors inviting the jibe and the sneer of even those intellectually rich who may not be a cardholder of the Left as much as they may not be flag-bearer of the Right despite being a patriot, if it were a parameter for selection.

Indian campuses are having issues from funding to populating but certainly the crisis at Ashoka doesn’t qualify to be the leading the symptom of the ailment. It’s just a side reaction.      

(First Published in The Sunday Standard)

 

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