Political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned as professor from Ashoka University on Tuesday (16 March). His exit comes less than two years after he stepped down as the Vice Chancellor of Ashoka.
Mehta, an academic who headed a think tank, Centre for Policy Research, before his appointment at Ashoka, has increasingly emerged as a polarising commentator, thanks to his high-voltage polemical writings in his Indian Express columns.
He is feted by his admirers as a one of India's pre-eminent public intellectuals, but his critics dismiss him as a pompous purveyor of punditry who often passes off high-brow prose as profound insights.
Predictably, Mehta’s ouster has been sharply criticised by his fellow ideological travellers who are viewing this episode as another instance of the stifling of dissent by the ruling Narendra Modi dispensation at the centre.
In protest, former chief economic advisor and economist Arvind Subramanian has also resigned from his post at Ashoka. Comments by Subramanian have further lent credence to rumours that the university had read the riot act to Mehta for his consistent participation in partisan debates through his op-eds.
It’s pertinent to note that Mehta is on the international advisory board of V-Dem, the Swedish organisation which recently, in its annual report, said that India was no longer a liberal democracy but rather an ‘electoral autocracy.’
But all of this is actually immaterial vis-a-vis Mehta's employment at Ashoka University.
Everybody should be free to write what they want to within the confines of legal limits, with each journalist or academic choosing to do it on their own time and money. In choosing to conveniently use the Ashoka pulpit, did Mehta do the right thing?
In an incendiary op-ed that he wrote after the Parliament passed the CAA, Mehta appeared to endorse street violence as “resistance” to the current regime. "The direction is going to be set by mob, by brute power, by mobilisation..while..legal and philosophical work is necessary, don’t count on them,” Mehta thundered.
One would argue that it is the fiduciary responsibility of the founding trustees to make sure that anybody who goes out of his way to legitimise mob violence should not be allowed to teach young, impressionable minds.
Mehta was no ordinary academic at the institution. He was placed at the very top - Vice Chancellor of the university. Now, how many vice-chancellors does one see around the world going about indulging in partisan op-edry on a weekly basis?
The job was to run the university - it's a professional assignment. The person has to act as the chief executive of the university and is for all practical purposes the face of the university.
A corporate equivalent would be the Chief Executive Officer of any large-sized company. How many CEOs are you able to see arguing political points in newspaper op-eds?
By choosing to ignore the effects of his partisan writings on the reputation of his university, Pratap Bhanu Mehta did great disservice to the founders of the university who envisioned it as institution with a certain ethos and backed it with a considerable portion of their personal wealth.
It is not about whether he was being Left or Right. The university, by its charter and design, is not supposed to be a partisan institution. What Mehta did had the effect of signalling the opposite. It was neither left nor right, it was wrong!
The second pertinent question here is as to why Mehta would seemingly act in breach of good faith placed in him by those who hired him.
The committee that hired Mehta was obviously impressed with his academic credentials and expected their hire to expend all effort and time to steer their new university. There must have been codes of conduct and briefings about what to do and what not to.
Even small companies have a code of conduct. Does or does not Ashoka have a code of conduct, written or verbally communicated, about whether the number one employee - the very face of the institute - could attack those he may dislike for political reasons?
In any case Mehta stopped being vice chancellor of the university two years ago. Many media outlets were quick to speculate that the well known critic of the government chose to quit his top job rather than stop writing.
If these reports are indeed true, and many would argue that they are true because these reports appeared in left-leaning publications, then we know that the university's founders did not want partisan political journalism from the university's pulpit. It might have been wise for Mehta to pursue his fight without being on the payroll of a institution that clearly didn't want him to be a polarising figure at the university.
In any case, Mehta is now free and he should continue provoking us through his columns. But his friends should stop insisting that Ashoka should employ him regardless of the damage caused to the non-partisan nature of the university and his ostensible refusal to keep himself above the fray.
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