If not for the sheer pusillanimity of the Ashok University management, the forced exit of Pratap Bhanu Mehta from the so-called liberal arts institution would have been a parody of the Indian film Sholay.
In that film, iconic character Gabbar Singh, a bandit, boasts that when kids in villages miles away cry, their mothers hush them up by warning: “So jaa, nahin to Gabbar Singh aa jayega. (Sleep, otherwise Gabbar Singh will come).”
The point of the bandit’s brag was basically this: Such is my terror that people start crawling even when not asked to bend.
You can see all the signs and symptoms of the Gabbar syndrome in the drama surrounding Mehta’s resignation as professor from the Sonepat-based varsity.
In his resignation, Mehta wrote: “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.”
“It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka. A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish. I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment. Nietzsche once said that ‘no living for truth is possible in a university.’ I hope that prophecy does not come true.”
According to reports, Ashoka’s founders, including Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Raj Sinha, met Mehta recently and are said to have referred to the “current political environment,” while “suggesting” that his intellectual interventions were something they could no longer protect.
According to The Edict, a newspaper published by students of the varsity, there was a strange twist in the plot, or, perhaps a plot in the twist.
“A source, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Edict that the resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta was endorsed by the Founders of the University. This endorsement, according to a senior faculty member with whom our source spoke, was motivated by an understanding that if Prof Mehta resigned, the University’s efforts to acquire a new plot of land to expand the campus would get much smoother. Additionally, formal recognition for the fourth-year post-graduate diploma, Ashoka Scholars’ Program, was also hinted at being part of the deal,” the in-house newspaper reported.
Consider the farce and the fear: One of India’s top intellectuals has been asked to leave so that the varsity may acquire a plot of land. Or, even if that’s not true, the management found his political views in the “current environment” too inconvenient for the varsity.
Not even asked to bend. But, they began to crawl. Because, Gabbar aa jayega.
Mehta, a public intellectual and political scientist, writes a weekly column in The Indian Express, and occasionally in other publications. In one of his more famous pieces titled ‘While we are silent’, he had warned about India’s silence on the government’s systemic attacks on the country.
“Then they came for institutions. They always had…They drew up a list of institutions that remained unscathed: Parliament, the IB, bureaucracy and you name it. They then went after those. They used institutions as instruments of their political design. They demoralised every single branch of government. But we did not speak out. After all, this was reform by stealth. Destroy government from within.”
Ironically, Mehta had written this scathing article in 2013, against the then UPA government.
Those who have followed Mehta’s intellectual trajectory know that he has always positioned himself as a critic of the government of the day. His loyalty, as he mentioned in his resignation, is “in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens.”
And herein lies the tragedy of today’s India: Even a “liberal arts” university, founded and funded by the private sector, can’t support a free thinker, critic and a defender of the Constitution and Indian’s democratic values.
As Mehta argued in his column in 2013, the government–this time led by the NDA–has subverted most of the sarkari institutions. Unlike in 2013, when the media was fiercely critical of the government, in today’s India, journalists have either been co-opted or silenced, leading to a milieu where dissent and criticism are considered too risky to voice or express.
Tragically, India’s corporate sector, the one that should have been free of fear, has been wagging its tail even more vigorously than government institutions, in response or even anticipation of his master’s voice. Except for stray voices like that of Rahul Bajaj, India Inc has been bending and genuflecting without even being asked.
Mehta’s resignation underlines two grave maladies of our times. In an ideal democracy, institutions that are supposed to promote free thinking, criticism and democratic values should be free of profit motive, the pulls and pressures of balance sheets and bottom lines. In India, many of these institutions–varsities and media houses–have come under the direct control of corporates, whose business interests often clash with the idea of free speech and critical thinking.
It is futile to blame the government for this conspiracy of silence and sycophancy. The government, as Mehta pointed out in 2013, will always do what it has to–silence dissent, weed out criticism and create an environment of fear. All governments, especially those run by insecure rulers, want total control and 100 per cent compliance. In its bid to achieve this, authoritarian governments remain at war with critics, thinkers and public intellectuals till it wins, or there is a backlash.
Mehta’s resignation, and the cowardice of the Ashoka management, leave us in doubt that the government is winning this war. And most of India is quaking in fear just because Gabbar aa jayega.
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)