Depending on who you ask, you can describe Ashoka University in multiple ways and they’d all be accurate to varying degrees. Some call it the privately-funded, billionaire sibling of the 1100-acre India-wrecking ball politely known as Jawaharlal Nehru “University.” Others call it a truly liberal university where free speech, open debate and dissent is encouraged. Still others call it a lavish paradise of Far-Left academic parasites who discovered that a highly effective way of fighting capitalism was to guilt-trip capitalists and “earn” corporate-sized salaries. Then there are others who say that it is a private Town Hall Square whose unifying edifice is an abiding aversion towards and intractable hatred of the Hindu civilizational ethos of India, one of whose chief exponents include the RSS, sections of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It would be unfair to impute political or ideological motives to the founders, trustees, and sponsors of the Ashoka University, but the fact remains that since its founding years, it has not infrequently been in the eye of repeated storms, all of which are politically coloured by and emanate from the Far-Left ideology. When Ashoka University began its operations, a former NASA scientist and one of India’s accomplished scholars called it a retirement home for washed-up Nehruvians after reading the names of marquee of folks that occupied its highest academic echelons. In those days, this marquee comprised the following names (partial list): Andre Beteille, Kaushik Basu, Sunil “Idea of India” Khilnani, Ramachandra Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Ever since, this list of Extreme-Left academics has only grown in number and clout.
Fundamentally, Ashoka University, like any university is an educational institution, which means that it has a solemn duty to be accountable to the nation and the larger Indian society given the fact that hundreds of parents have entrusted to it the future of their children and indirectly, the future of the country itself, to whatever degree.
This is not to tar the university as a whole with a negative brush but to raise a critique against a specific problem area inside it. No matter how hard Ashoka or others try to deny or underplay it, the university continues to suffer ignominy almost solely owing to this problem area. In fact, if anything, Ashoka University has largely become synonymous with this bunch of extreme Leftist academics who have carved out a plush ideological conclave for themselves within it and have converted it to a laboratory of neo-Marxist excesses.
Here is a testimony wafting straight from an Ashoka undergraduate student. She pointedly asks, “Is Ashoka a Safe Space for Political Discourse?” The answer: yes, only if you toe the Left line. It is a well-argued piece based on surveys and feedback she had collected, and worth reading in full. Here is a representative excerpt revealing the situation on the ground at Ashoka University:
Capitals in the original
Needless, this toxic environment in the student community can only be created and nurtured by the powers that be, chiefly the academicians occupying high office. This is the area where Ashoka resembles JNU, where since its inception, Communist ideologues and party workers masqueraded as academics but what they did in practice was create at least two generations of ideological soldiers who in turn became lecturers and professors. A more vicious and determined variety of inbreeding is yet to be found.
In recent years, leading this pack of Marxist ideologues cloaked as professors at Ashoka University was Pratap Bhanu Mehta who recently quit, arrogating the moral high ground to himself where none existed. Other influential academics at Ashoka who share his ideology include but are not limited to Madhavi Menon, Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Dilip Simeon, Amit Chaudhuri, Maya Mirchandani, and Anjum Hasan. Dilip Simeon is a former Naxalite (of the Charu Mazumdar variety) while Maya Mirchandani used to work at NDTV, the Congress Party’s media extension counter. Needless, all of them have venomous hostility against the current Prime Minister of India and regard Hindutva as akin to Nazism.
For a university that prides in calling itself as Liberal, these are red flags that it can no longer ignore. Nor can it explain them away under the excuse that it is a private university and those who so wish may not join it. Even thirty years ago, the common perception and operating faith was that education was a central pillar contributing to nation-building. This was an abiding faith among both the founders of and teachers in educational institutions. From that high point to this low, the fall has been swift and deadly. Where once, vast swathes of professors and high-ranking academicians brought purity of purpose and high-minded duty towards education to today’s abyss where academicians have debased themselves to becoming ideological pamphleteers of hatred.
The fracas surrounding Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s recent exit also needs to be seen in this light among others. He has himself advertised the fact that he harbours a visceral hatred for PM Narendra Modi’s government on occasions too numerous to count. What is perhaps now largely forgotten is his record during the UPA regime of unhinged corruption and scams and scandals. He kept his lips tightly zipped during that dark era except when the corruption was too huge and brazen to ignore. At that belated awakening, he would write a 4,500-word essay to basically say this: Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi should look into the matter. Pratap Bhanu Mehta was (is) as Lutyens as Lutyens gets. Here’s a brief list of the cushy positions he has held in the past:
Member-Convenor of the Prime Minister of India's National Knowledge Commission under Manmohan Singh
Board member of NIPFP, under the Ministry of Finance
Executive Committee Member of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library from which resigned in 2016
It need not be explicitly said that these were prizes showered from the bountiful treasure-chest of the Congress-Left ecosystem’s patronage—direct or indirect.
Exhibit one: In 2009, the notorious Rajiv Gandhi Foundation sent a high-level delegation to China led by Veerappa Moily. As the then head of the Centre for Policy Research, Pratap Bhanu Mehta was one of the prominent members of the delegation.
But it was after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister that Pratap Bhanu Mehta began to become progressively unhinged. Week after week, he began an ongoing saga of serialized invective against Narendra Modi, the BJP, and what he calls “Hindu nationalists,” mainly in the Indian Express
Neither did it stop merely at Modi.
In an egregious column, he accused the Supreme Court of “slipping into judicial barbarism.” Some reasons he cited in its support: the SC did not give timely hearings in electoral bonds, it denied bail to “patriots” (his words) like Sudha Bharadwaj and continued to imprison the anti-CAA terrorists who he terms were protestors.
Then, in a bizarre piece on the Ayodhya verdict, he invented pure insanity: “Ayodhya’s Ram temple is first real colonisation of Hinduism by political power.” What does this even mean?
Perhaps Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s decisive moment of reckoning arrived when he wrote an open screed of hate abusing not just the Modi government but the supreme court, yet again. Nor was it merely hate. The piece titled The morning after CAB: It will be a mistake to rely just on Supreme Court, was a naked call for mob violence against the CAA law. Read this and be very scared.
Given the fact that he wrote this subversive tract when he was still working at Ashoka University, what is the exact message he’s trying to convey to his students there?
The inescapable conclusion after reading scores of such violent polemics is this: if Ram Guha is the perfumed version of Kavita Krishnan, Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the perfumed version of Ram Guha.
Then, there is also the grave question of Mehta’s involvement with insurrectionist global organisations, chiefly funded by the likes of George Soros.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is a Board Member of Namati, an NGO global conglomerate funded by George Soros.
Most recently, he was also on the Advisory Board of V-Dem, a highly dubious organization operating from Sweden, which published a spurious report on March 11, 2021, “downgrading” India’s democracy. As of that date, Mehta was still working at Ashoka.
A section of the media has doubted that Pratap Bhanu Mehta was asked to leave owing to government pressure on Ashoka but that point is really moot. The real question is that of propriety. Given the high position he had occupied and the influence he had over both the faculty and students, the nonchalance with which he ran a sustained campaign of vilification against the highest constitutional bodies of the country is truly stunning. More dangerously, his association with alien entities known for their breaking-India activities is what pulls Ashoka University itself into the ambit. Thus, whether the university asked him to quit or whether he realized that he had bitten off more than he could chew is incidental in the larger scope of things.
If proof for this is required, look no further than the predictable reactions his resignation has elicited.
The usual Far Left suspects at The Wire, Scroll and The Print have engaged the high gear shilling, in his support. The typical homilies of “free speech threatened at Ashoka,” how Ashoka has “retreated from its promise” of creating a “space that will give students resources to think and question,” “craven surrender by Ashoka’s founders…” the familiar script repeated ad nauseam with alterations of prose. Unless you are under any sort of illusion, let it be said that these are not assertions of moral righteousness but the flock protecting and supporting one of its own. And apart from protection and solidarity, these are also veiled threats launched against the founders and sponsors of Ashoka. Then there are also open threats delivered in the tenor of a hardened street thug.
Then we also have the self-righteous anger emanating from individuals. Leading the charge is Arvind Subramanian who also resigned in the immediate wake of Mehta’s exit. His resignation letter makes it clear that Mehta was his “dear friend.”
But on the brighter side, Mehta’s exit has revealed even more interesting truths. The hardly-known truth that Sheldon Pollock, a scholarly vandal of Sanatana traditions and Sanskrit, was a consultant to Ashoka University in 2013. Quite obviously, Pollock is upset at the departure of his friend. He expresses his displeasure with a mix of angst and a warning tainted with colonial tones:
The common and uniform themes characterizing the support for Pratap Bhanu Mehta are these:
How Mehta was a scholar of great repute and integrity
How he fostered a culture of learning and scholarship
How he was very “independent-minded”
How his credentials are totally eminent
How he was an inspirational figure even to senior faculty
The most important: how his resignation is the outcome of his fearless criticism of the Modi government.
Those who have been following the SOP of the Far Left for some time will immediately recognize a glaring skullduggery, which is also a logical fallacy known as Appeal to Authority. Eminent Extreme-Left artistes like Pratap Bhanu Mehta have perfected the art and craft of creating halos around themselves perhaps under the mistaken assumption that these halos serve as impenetrable shields that protect them from critical questioning by those who don’t toe their line or differ from or oppose them. In my experience, the greatest among such artistes till date is the late U.R. Anantamurthy.
Unfortunately, in vastly changed times, and more importantly, in real life, halos are unreal and therefore invisible. Tribal Leftists could only sustain them as long as they could enforce opacity on truth using brute political power.
The tragedy with faux eminences like Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the fact that they continue to confound illusion with reality, a perennial fount that waters perpetual disappointment at multiple levels in one’s personal, professional and social life.
The latest news at the time of writing this is a threat that other academics will resign from Ashoka University following Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exit. Which is pretty commendable. Cleaning up should begin somewhere.
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