A prominent critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, Pratap Bhanu Mehta said his public writings were “perceived to carry risks for the university”
Academician and political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta, whose resignation from Ashoka University last week reignited a discussion on the consequences of criticising the ruling BJP, wrote to students – whom he addressed as “superheroes” – on Sunday, praising them for their “bracing moral clarity and deep political wisdom” and “rebellion grounded in a concern for freedom and democracy”.
In his letter Mr Mehta, a vocal critic of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government, spoke of “dark shadows of authoritarianism” that needed to be fought in a “principled and intelligent” manner, and indicated he drew comfort from the “poise and articulacy with which you (the students) defended important values and demanded accountability”.
“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,” Mr Mehta wrote.
“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, serious artistic creativity… ” he added.
Students have announced a two-day boycott of classes starting Monday to protest this issue.
Describing himself as “personally overwhelmed” by all the support, Mr Mehta said that, contrary to what some may expect, Ashoka University’s reputation would only be enhanced by the students’ protests, which “should make anyone want to associate with this university”.
“You are its beating heart and soul and nothing can damage that… your voice will, in the long run make Ashoka a better university and get it to recommit to its ideals and value” he said.
“We live in complicated times. India is bursting with creativity. But 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,” Mr Mehta wrote.
A critic of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, Mr Mehta quit as Vice Chancellor in July 2019. On Tuesday he resigned from the faculty too, saying his “association with the university may be considered a political liability“.
Around 150 intellectuals from some of the world’s best known universities and colleges wrote an open letter on Sunday, expressing solidarity with Mr Mehta, who is regarded as one of India’s top scholars on politics and political theory, constitutional law, governance and political economy.
Their exits – from what is said to be India’s first privately-funded institution of higher education that is dedicated to the liberal arts – have sparked widespread protests, including calls from other faculty members asking that the university ask Mr Mehta to rescind his resignation.