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Academics at one of India’s leading private universities are threatening to strike after a colleague who authored a paper suggesting electoral manipulation favouring Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party was pushed out.
Sabyasachi Das, formerly an assistant economics professor at Ashoka University, last month circulated a paper presenting evidence that it said indicated voter suppression that benefited the Bharatiya Janata party in several swing constituencies in the 2019 general election.
The paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, set off an uproar, with the BJP strongly denying Das’s work. The university governing body distanced itself from the academic and asked an internal committee to investigate his work, according to several staff members, leading Das to resign this month.
Ashoka faculty have decried the university’s response, which they said amounted to an effort to push Das out and highlighted the shrinking space for academic freedom in India. Another economics professor, Pulapre Balakrishnan, resigned this week. “My resignation is related to the issue of academic freedom,” Balakrishnan told the Financial Times
Multiple departments, including the economics and political science faculties, have threatened to stop teaching over what they called the governing body’s “interference” ahead of the start of term this month.
They called on the university’s management to offer Das his former position “unconditionally” and make assurances that the governing body “will play no role in evaluating faculty research”.
The university’s actions “pose an existential threat to the department”, the economics department said in a statement.
Ashoka University was founded in 2014 on Delhi’s outskirts by prominent Indian entrepreneurs and investors as an answer to US-style liberal arts universities, attracting high-profile academics in a country that has long prioritised natural sciences and engineering.
“You need people who are willing to question power,” Ashish Dhawan, one of the founders, told the FT in 2018. Dhawan did not respond to a request for comment.
Critics have accused the Modi government of cracking down on civil society since taking power in 2014. The Centre for Policy Research, a prominent think-tank, was stripped of its tax-exempt status and ability to fundraise abroad. The BBC and other media outlets have also faced tax investigations following critical reporting.
In 2021, Ashoka’s former vice-chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned under alleged management pressure over his public criticism of Modi. Mehta declined to comment.
Ashoka was creating “a space where faculty can enjoy as much academic freedom as they can,” said Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science who joined the university in 2014. “What all of us did not account for . . . is the rapid transformation and deterioration of the political climate.”
He added: “In moments of crisis, the solutions sought by members of the governing body have been interference.”
“We are relatively privileged as a private university,” said another staff member who preferred to remain anonymous. “Public universities are fighting this every day.”
Das’s paper, which was published for discussion in July, analysed 2019 voting data in several constituencies that it said was “consistent with electoral manipulation” that favoured the BJP. It argued that the data was evidence of “strategic and targeted electoral discrimination against Muslims”, including names deleted from voter lists.
The BJP fiercely denied the paper’s conclusions. Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s information technology department, said that the paper contained “big claims. Does the evidence stack up? The answer is no.”
Ashoka said that while it “values research that is critically peer-reviewed and published in reputed journals”, Das’s paper “has not yet completed a critical review process”. The university added that it made “extensive efforts to dissuade” Das from resigning.
Several academics have also critiqued Das’s findings, though they also denounced the attacks on him. In publishing his paper online for discussion ahead of peer review, Das “did not violate any accepted norm of academic practice”, the economics department said.
Das and Ashoka University did not immediately respond to requests for comment.