Why did Pratap Bhanu Mehta leave Ashoka university?

Students are staging a sit-in in the atrium to seek answers on Ashoka’s top professor’s abrupt resignation.

It was March, and most mornings on campus were foggy and cold; you needed a jacket and a mask to walk to the mess for breakfast since the air was filled with mist mixed with smoke from nearby factories. I used to get up about 9.30 a.m., have to breakfast, and then take a shower and get dressed since I could never grab food without first having a shower. I used to go to breakfast without having a shower only on days when I was too late to have breakfast because I slept too much. I generally wake up about 9.30 a.m. when the floor bhaiyas empty the dustbins linked to our dormitories, the sound of the dustbins emptying into plastic bags, and the bhaiyas muttering about how much they despise their supervisor who has assigned them nighttime duty. But that day was different; my mother called me in the morning, and I answered the phone and told her I was in class despite the fact that I was sleeping; I couldn’t tell her I was sleeping because she would scold me, but she said, “I don’t care if you’re sleeping; I just called to see if your professor had quit Ashoka.” I’m not sure why, but my parents are quite interested in my professors, particularly Pratap Bhanu Mehta; she used to ask me if I had seen him on campus if I had courses with him, and whether he stayed on campus. Even if my mother couldn’t comprehend what she was saying, I believe his brilliance, wisdom, and his intellect penetrated the remote and hidden corners of a middle-class family. I couldn’t understand what she meant by quit, but I got up and checked my phone; I thought news had just come in and no one at Ashoka knew about it, so I went through some more websites and found that he had quit Ashoka university, no reasons were mentioned in the article, there weren’t many articles at the time, and no official statement had been released by the university, so I read the article and forwarded to my batch’s Whatsapp group to ask students if they knew what was going on; no one responded on the group at the time. But now it was apparent that Pratap Bhanu Mehta had resigned, but why had he resigned in the midst of the semester and so abruptly remained a mystery. Has he received a new job offer? Was he sick? Were there any threats to his life because of his forthright and honest articles? Is it possible that the government exerted any type of pressure?

It was around 11.30 p.m., and the story had started to build up, with additional stories pouring in from other websites and WhatsApp groups being swamped with articles, and there were rumors circulating about the unexpected resignation. There was no big pressure on the university trustees until now since the students were preoccupied with their daily activities, such as finishing assignments, going to the gym, and so on. The students were not angry enough until now to turn into a large movement, but something else was planned to happen that would pit founders against students. The departure of Professor Arvind Subramanium was the final straw, followed by a tweet from Mr. Ramchandra Guha, one of the historians who had visited Ashoka University for several guest lectures and whose wife had developed Ashoka University’s emblem. The tweet went viral on the internet, and students began asking questions of the administration because there was something they didn’t know and had every right to know. Many students came to Ashoka because they wanted to be taught by Professor Pratap, and many professors came to Ashoka because it promised academic integrity and commitment from top management. Suddenly, I had a strange sensation about the institution I had so much trust in; I didn’t feel secure here longer, and I could see how the institution I thought was strongly guarded against the government’s advancing authoritarian tactics was slowly being infiltrated. The most likely reason they left the university was that the founders needed to raise money for expansion and needed donors who could pump money into the institution, which was becoming difficult to do because business houses must be wary of political opinions and their open critique of the government in this difficult and intolerant political environment.

Ashoka University was established as a project to completely transform the Indian educational system, a project that values academic integrity, allows students to explore subjects in an already rigid and obsolete educational system, and serves as a beacon of hope in a fading and failing educational system. With that hope, a lot of hope and optimism was attached to this university, not only by Indian students but also by people from all over the world who wanted to be a part of this project; universities from all over the world respected this establishment for the principles it managed to hold; it was an oasis in the desert. But what occurred on March 16, 2021, shattered those hopes; a series of circumstances must have led up to this point because it is something that cannot just happen; it is far too substantial a blow for an institution to lose two of its most recognized faces.

Mr. Pratap Bhanu has been my professor since my first year, and I’ve had the ability to observe and interact with him. One thing is for certain: he is a man with strong principles and values. Then how could a man with all these solid values and principles have bowed to the force and decided to resign in the middle of the semester when he could have simply told everybody the reality and stood firm because it wasn’t just any university; it was the university he established and not only established but also provided with all the resources necessary to become a great university? Students and teachers would have rallied around him, expressing their displeasure with how he had been pushed to resign by senior management. Returning to the premise that he must have been ousted because the founders intended to acquire a set amount of money to expand, build more residences and academic blocks and pump more money into research, strengthen the science department, and so on. He must have believed that this was beneficial for the institution since the university needed to expand at some point and that this was a step in the right direction, therefore he left.

Massive protests were organized on campus, but I knew these protests wouldn’t bring the professors back because they would go against principles. People gathered in the atrium with placards, there was art on the walls with various slogans and quotes, but the students, with the exception of a few, didn’t understand the purpose of the protest or how important it was for them. It was not an isolated incident; it was part of a larger pattern that was being followed across India, and it was part of the government’s larger objective. The state has detained numerous individuals with the aim of controlling what is taught in universities and schools. If you regulate thoughts, you control the masses. Most students went to the protests because others did, and it became an excuse to skip classes; students were not motivated to fight for a cause; most protests fail because they are not persistent and continuous. I recall there being no classes for a week because people didn’t grasp the significance of the protest and how it might serve as a model for other institutions to link all the protests. I believe the students gave up and did not care; I believe the problem with Ashoka students is that they are not sufficiently motivated to facilitate essential transformation; the majority of Ashoka students are wealthy and come from well-off families; I don’t mean all of them; I mean the bulk of them; they haven’t been through the struggle. Students are self-centered and only want to deal with issues that affect them directly; whatever they learn in books and papers, they never really get its actual meaning since they have not experienced it or will not experience it because they have all the means to avoid those issues. It’s like looking at something from afar but not engaging and experiencing it. As a result, issues that do not affect you will never be addressed; it will just become a research project for others. After the numerous resignations, the students at Ashoka were indifferent since they knew there would be other professors to step in. They were not losing in any manner; nonetheless, the students here lack vision and are unable to grasp the big picture. They were only concerned about their grades, degrees, and the amount of money they had spent. The gathering at the protest site gradually thinned out, enthusiasm faded, voices were subdued, and eventually, people forgot. Even professors like Prof. Bittu came forward to say that the faculty will support and be with you, yet something was lacking. I believe it was a one-off event; we were unable to tie it to the larger national movements that were unfolding, and we were unready to become a voice for students at other universities. The accusations against the founders grew worse by the day; they were branded “spineless” and accused of caving in to government pressure. Others said that they had commercialized the institution and were therefore undermining the university’s principles; they wanted more money, thus they took such a move. No one wanted to talk about it; there was no effective communication from the management and the founders; everything was opaque; no one wanted to talk about it openly; the professors were not permitted to say anything for fear of losing their jobs. People who are demonstrating will ultimately crumble if they do not understand why they are protesting or the cause for which they must stand. This is what happened in a few days, students forgot and moved on.

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