Ashoka University claimed it did not coerce two managers and one professor to leave the university for signing a Kashmir petition along with 85 students. But two emails by the university’s Faculty Council, an elected body representing all Ashoka teachers, say otherwise.
Mathematics professor Rajendran Narayanan; Saurav Goswami, deputy manager of academic affairs; and Adil Mushtaq Shah, programme manager of academic affairs, signed a petition in July 2016 condemning the violence over Hizbul militant Burhan Wani’s death and calling for a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir.
Narayanan resigned from the university’s mathematics department citing “ethical reasons” on December 15. Goswami and Shah resigned on October 7, 2016, sparking a debate over curbs on freedom of speech on campus.
The Faculty Council emails show that the Governing Body of Ashoka, which includes Vice-Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee, had discussed the sacking of Narayanan in a meeting on August 1, 2016 and this proposal was communicated to the Faculty Council on September 20.
In October 2016, the Faculty Council had four members: Aparna Vaidik, associate professor of history; Maya Saran, assistant professor of mathematics; Gilles Verniers, assistant professor of political science and Alex Watson, professor of Indian philosophy. The Council was reconstituted with new members in November last year.
The Governing Body includes, besides Vice-Chancellor Mukherjee, Ashoka founders Pramath Sinha, Vineet Gupta and Ashish Dhawan.
The Faculty Council, in an email sent to all teachers on October 8, said it had resisted the plan to fire Narayanan.
“The Faculty Council feels that Rajendran’s dismissal would deal a death-blow to Ashoka’s vision. It will be difficult to make a case of personal or professional misconduct against Rajendran as his colleagues will vouch for his integrity, or of having violated University guidelines because there were none at the time he signed the petition. Therefore, notwithstanding the Founders’ track record in upholding freedom of speech, for which we are extremely grateful, this would very much be seen as a case of faculty dismissal consequent on exercise of free speech.”
This email further states, “The Council felt that the internal fallout (of Narayanan’s dismissal) will be that some faculty will move away, including some of our most dynamic faculty, and there will be much internal mistrust and discord that will place unsustainable strain on faculty-leadership relations. Externally, future faculty recruitment and tie-ups will be affected. Perhaps we may even be opening the door to further bullying and coercion at the hands of parties who are demanding the dismissal. In trying to save Ashoka we would have lost it.”
A second email sent by the Faculty Council on October 11, 2016, states that Goswami and Shah were “asked to resign by the founders” for their participation in the Kashmir petition. It also states that Narayanan’s “proposed dismissal” was a “result of the fallout of the Kashmir petition”.
In this email, the Faculty Council said that Narayanan’s proposed sacking was a “response to the pressures being placed on the founders by various powers.”
This email also contradicts the university’s stand that the two staffers were not forced to leave the institution. It states: “The two employees who had signed the petition — Adil and Saurav, from the YIF (Young India Fellowship) team — have already been asked to resign by the founders. The Council learned of this only last week after the fact. This has supported our belief that there is a high probability of the Governing Body carrying out Rajendran’s dismissal as well.”
According to sources, the first email of the Faculty Council had evoked a strong response from the teachers at Ashoka, who wrote several emails to the administration rallying in support of Narayanan. Acknowledging their opposition to the proposed dismissal, Mukherjee wrote to all teachers on October 10 saying, “I write to assure you that no decision on Rajendran has been taken nor will it be taken in a hurry. I will also convey the spirit and substance of the views of the Faculty Council and those of the faculty, who have expressed their views on the matter, to the Governing Body.”
The Indian Express could not reach Saran, Vaidik, Watson and Verniers for comment on Tuesday. Replying to questions sent via email, Narayanan wrote, “Yes. The emails were sent to all faculty members. I am aware of both the emails — the Governing Body’s proposal to dismiss me and the Faculty Council’s recommendation not to dismiss me. And, this just confirms what I had said earlier. It was surprising that the administration denied that there was a proposal to dismiss me.”
The university administration did not clarify whether Sinha, Mukherjee, Gupta and Dhawan had met the Faculty Council on September 20 to inform them of the proposal to dismiss Narayanan and if the Faculty Council had advised against it. “Thank you for your questions addressed to our Vice-Chancellor and some of our Founders. The university has answered all of your questions regarding this matter in some detail in the past and we feel there are no further comments we have to offer,” Ali Imran, vice president, external engagement at Ashoka University, said in his reply today.
The Indian Express had first reported on the resignation of the two managers on October 13. Mukherjee, in a statement issued to all students on October 23, 2016, had asserted “that that no staff or faculty have been dismissed for expressing their opinion by signing a petition.” In response to The Indian Express’s queries in January this year, the university had stated that there wasn’t any proposal to sack Narayanan.
Ashoka University is a private educational institution built through “collective public philanthropy.” It is backed by big names in business and academia including Sanjeev Bikhchandani of naukri.com; Sid Yog, managing partner, Xander Group; Puneet Dalmia, MD & CEO, Dalmia Bharat Cement; Pramath Raj Sinha, founding dean, Indian School of Business; and sociologist Andre Beteille who is the Chancellor of the university.
Ashoka started the Young India Fellowship (YIF) programme six years ago and first opened its door to undergraduate students in 2014.
The university, according to its mission statement on the website, aims “to help students become well-rounded individuals who can think critically about issues from multiple perspectives, communicate effectively and become leaders with a commitment to public service.”
For many on the campus, though, these words seem a little out of place since the petition on Kashmir. Once the petition went public, the university promptly held a meeting of its governing body to discuss this petition and passed a resolution on July 26, condemning the act of misrepresenting Ashoka University in the public domain.
The debate on curbing free speech started once the university changed its email regulations the same week. On July 27, the Ashoka community was informed that emails from alumni to students and vice versa will go through a moderator.
On October 7, 2016, Shah and Goswami resigned, which prompted 168 YIF fellows, of the current batch of 225, to write to Mukherjee urging him to clarify their reservations. Although the two employees quit on personal grounds, the timing of their resignation, many said, was because the management had made its “displeasure” felt to them after the petition went public.