Former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan is the latest among a host of global academics to voice their distress over the exit of two renowned intellectuals, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramaniam, from Ashoka University earlier this week citing alleged curbs on free speech. "Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul," said the economist and a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. A group of around 150 other highly regarded intellectuals from across universrities have also expressed concern at the development through an open letter, terming it a "dangerous attack on academic freedom".
In a LinkedIn post, Mr Rajan wondered what motivated Ashoka's founders "to remove their hitherto laudable protection". "...Ashoka's founders have succumbed to outside pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic," he surmised.
"The reality is that professor Mehta is a thorn in the side of the establishment. He is no ordinary thorn because he skewers those in government and in high offices like the Supreme Court with vivid prose and thought-provoking arguments," Mr Rajan said.
An eloquent and consistent critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, Mr Mehta quit as Ashoka University's Vice-Chancellor in July 2019 but continued as a professor. On Tuesday, however, he abruptly resigned from that position, too.
In his parting letter to Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar, the 54-year-old wrote, "After a meeting with Founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens is perceived to carry risks for the university. In the interests of the University I resign."
Ashoka University is India's first such institution dedicated to the liberal arts and entirely privately-funded.
Two days after Mr Mehta's departure, the Prime Minister's former Chief Economic Advisor, Arvind Subramaniam, resigned as faculty. He had joined the University as late as July 2020.
"...the circumstances involving the 'resignation' of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta...have devastated me...that someone of such integrity and eminence, who embodied the vision underlying Ashoka, felt compelled to leave is troubling," Mr Subramanian wrote in his resignation letter.
In a short open letter to the trustees, administrators, and faculty of the university, a bunch of some 150 international academics has expressed solidarity with Mr Mehta to reaffirm "the importance of the values he has always practiced". "In political life, these are free argument, tolerance, and a democratic spirit of equal citizenship," the letter said.
Signatories to the letter include, among others, Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, University of Chicago Professor of Law and Ethics Martha C Nussbaum, and Ashutosh Varshney, the Director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University.
Former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram reacted to these developments saying this "BJP thought" will "wreck" India and turn it into an autocracy, PTI reported. "The people of India must rise to fiercely resist the attempt to impose one thought all over the country," he said.
Faculty members, students, and alumni of Ashoka University, too, have expressed their anguish, saying Mr Mehta's exit seems to be a direct consequence of his role as a public intellectual and critic of the government, PTI reported.