New Delhi – The resignation of one of India’s most prominent intellectuals and a fierce government critic of a major university has sparked student protests and concerns about free speech in the world’s largest democracy .
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a respected scholar of political theory and constitutional law, had long been appalled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, sparking editorials and scathing speeches denouncing the “death of liberalism”.
The former Oxford and Princeton student had already resigned as vice-chancellor of Ashoka University in 2019, apparently because administrators were worried about his frank views, but remained a political science professor.
But last week he threw in the towel, saying the board of the university founded in 2014 as a stronghold of the liberal arts and India’s response to the Ivy League saw it as a “stronghold of the liberal arts” political responsibility ”.
“My public writing in favor of a policy which attempts to honor the constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived as involving risks for the university”, he declared in his letter of resignation.
Ashoka’s founders met Mehta recently and said they could no longer protect him in “the current political environment,” Indian Express reported.
According to the university’s student newspaper, Mehta’s resignation was approved by the council because it would speed up efforts to acquire the land needed for expansion.
The university has yet to comment on the controversy, but things got worse Thursday when Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic adviser to the government, resigned from Ashoka in solidarity.
The fact that the university “can no longer offer a space for academic expression and freedom is worrying,” according to media, citing his letter of resignation.
Students organized several days of protests on the Ashoka campus outside New Delhi, calling for a boycott of classes.
The faculty of the university also issued a statement saying that Mehta’s departure “raises urgent questions about the university’s commitment to academic freedom as well as its internal processes.”
More than 150 academics around the world, including from Colombia, Yale and Oxford, have openly said they were “deeply distressed” that Mehta resigned “under political pressure”.
They said that the values of “free inquiry, frankness, and a strict distinction between the demands of intellectual honesty and pressure from politicians, donors or ideological animosity … are attacked whenever an academic is punished for the content of a public speech ”.
Under Modi, authorities have increasingly used colonial-era laws to arrest people for “sedition,” including a 22-year-old climate change activist last month.
Even the comedians felt the heat with one, Munawar Faruqui, arrested in January just before taking the stage on suspicion that he intended to insult Hindu gods.
Inbound social media rules could see any online content deemed objectionable removed within 36 hours and tech companies forced to disclose the origin of any “malicious tweet or message.”
Indian democracy was demoted this month to “partially free” from “free” by think tank Freedom House.
“Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to the authoritarian influence of countries like China, Modi and his party are tragically leading India itself towards authoritarianism,” Freedom House said.
The V-Dem Institute at Gothenburg University said in a recent report that India had become an “electoral autocracy”.
The government rejected the reports, with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar denouncing the “hypocrisy” of the “self-proclaimed guardians of the world”.
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