‘Ashoka University, Prove Your Liberal Credentials Once And For All’

Posted on October 14, 2016 in Campus Watch, Staff Picks

By Karthik Shankar:

Who knew petitions had such power? As I write this, I’m trying to clarify my thoughts on the entire brouhaha now that our ‘internal conflict‘ has come out in the open.
I’ll admit upfront that I’m not privy to the details of the latest episode in this unfolding saga – why the two ex-employees (both ace individuals who certainly don’t deserve to have their names printed across the pages of national dailies for this) quit or were let go. What I can certainly emphasise repeatedly is that our university mishandled the entire situation right from the time our petition on Kashmir blew up.

I was one of the 88 people who signed that petition and I’ve only watched in horror as this issue transmogrified into this all-consuming political black hole. After the petition was extensively covered both in the Indian and Pakistani media, the fallout was intense. Apparently, investors backed out of the university and several parents also withdrew their children’s admissions. In an environment where spouting even remotely anti-national opinions immediately places a noose around your neck, this sort of reaction should not surprise anyone.

Of course, even before these ramifications, we understood that expecting unequivocal support from the petition was a tall order. Kashmir is far too divisive and the language of the letter was incendiary. Yet, the university had the opportunity to prove that liberal education was not just a buzzword that was used for marketing purposes.
Sadly, the manner in which our letter was disowned was disappointing. The university didn’t just clarify that it didn’t represent the opinions in the letter; it also reiterated that it “condemned such behaviour.” Moreover, within days our email accounts were moderated, preventing open communication access between the alumni and current students of Ashoka.

Now, the university has a host of founders with strong roots in the corporate world. Many of them are smart, seasoned businessmen who are undeniably open to students’ concerns. But, a university is not a corporation. The problem, I think, comes with the dichotomy between universities, which are meant to be spaces that foster diverse political views, and the business world, which rewards sycophancy to the government in power. In a BJP-ruled country, it’s not surprising that the two would chafe against each other.

Admittedly, even those of us who attended Ashoka exemplified this cognitive dissonance. We railed against social inequity but barely batted an eyelid while we were waited upon by an army of cleaning staff. We were safely ensconced in our picturesque campus, constructed on agricultural land, while Jats were clamouring for quotas in the state.

Still, it’s time to say it. Any attempts that seek to leave our politics outside the campus are not only unfeasible but anti-democratic. The university can’t have its cake and eat it too.

It can’t host exemplary anti-caste historians like Uma Chakravarti on campus but continue increasing the economic barriers to the marginalised by raising fees year after year.

It can’t wince at the thought of students using their alma mater’s name for ‘unpalatable’ political opinions, yet continue to crow about its students national and international accolades

It can’t cultivate an atmosphere that is conducive to left-leaning politics and then cry foul when students and faculty targets the management’s hypocrisies. Most of all, the university has to understand that liberalism is not a shiny garb that can shed at will.

The truth is that I really want all this to get sorted out. The one year I spent at Ashoka was wonderful and illuminating. There were multiple times when the university’s liberal spirit truly shined through: when the founders spent hours discussing our concerns even though they were harshly castigated by some, when the university changed its curfew policy because a large number of us thought it was patriarchal, when professors themselves criticised the university’s reservation policies.

Now of course I understand how hard it is to stand up against injustice especially in this repressive political environment. At an event in August, I was confronted by a new student of the university. He asked me why I had ratified such a petition. I politely explained my stance while trying to deflect any argument. Later on, however, I realised that on my part, I had done nothing more than pay lip service to peace in Kashmir by signing the petition. After all, it didn’t affect my political, social or professional life.

The path isn’t as easy for Ashoka, which for all its financial backing is still a fledgling university that hasn’t received UGC recognition for all its courses, but I hope the university sticks the landing. The management seemed to have no qualms when we drafted a letter in solidarity with JNU. It’s when liberal politics creates, what some might call, the many- headed-hydra in your own backyard, that your resolve is truly tested.

At the end of the day, I’m still rooting for you Ashoka. Liberalism isn’t about supporting our petition, it’s about defending our right to say it anyway. And admitting the university made an error isn’t a sign of weakness, but an affirmation of the university’s liberal ethos. Time to put your money where your mouth is, Ashoka University and prove your liberal credentials once and for all.

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