Raghuram Rajan, top academics back Pratap Bhanu Mehta after his exit

Free speech suffered a grievous blow in India this week, said the former RBI head in his LinkedIn post

Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Prof Pratap Bhanu Mehta had recently resigned from Ashoka University | File Photo: Ashoka University

The resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University in Sonepat has prompted a wave of support from renowned intellectuals across the world, with former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan calling it a blow to free speech.

Prof Mehta had recently resigned from Ashoka University citing the founders’ insecurities over his “public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens.”

As many as 150 renowned intellectuals, in an open letter titled “A Dangerous Attack on Academic Freedom”, have expressed solidarity with the academic known for his writings critical of the government. These intellectuals include Homi K Bhabha of Harvard University, Erwin Chemerinsky of Berkeley School of Law, Rogers Smith of Pennsylvania University, Kate O’Regan of Oxford University, and Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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The letter, pointing out that Prof. Mehta was a prominent critic of the central government and defender of academic freedom, asserted he was targeted for his writings. They further criticised the trustees for forcing him to quit instead of backing him. “The university must be a home for fearless inquiry and criticism,” said the letter expressing support for Prof. Mehta’s “practice of the highest values of intellectual inquiry and public life.”

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Prof. Mehta’s resignation came on Tuesday with the statement “…my association with the University may be considered a political liability” in his resignation letter. Today days later, another faculty at the University, Arvind Subramaniam [former Chief Economic Advisor to Prime Minister] also resigned citing circumstances similar to Prof. Mehtas.

Prof. Mehta and Subramaniam found solidarity from Rajan, former RBI head, who said in a LinkedIn post, “Free speech is the soul of a great university. By compromising on it, the founders have bartered away its soul.”

Wondering what made Ashoka’s founders “to remove their hitherto laudable protection,” Rajan, an economist who now teaches at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said the founders have succumbed to external pressure to get rid of a troublesome critic.

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“Free speech suffered a grievous blow in India this week,” he said in his post, adding, “Ashoka’s founders should have realised that their mission was indeed not to take political sides but to continue to protect the right of people like Prof. Mehta to speak, for in doing so, they were enabling Ashoka to make its greatest contribution to India’s wellbeing – identifying what is going wrong and encouraging us all to remedy it.”

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