By Shriya Rao and Harish Sai, Class of 2018
The tension created around the reputation and image of Ashoka University — a liberal institution — has stirred major debate about freedom of speech and its use within the campus. However, at the core of this issue is the solidarity letter issued and supported by a few members of the Ashoka community. The backlash they received for expressing their opinion in the public sphere was severe and led to further discussion and debate about the University’s intentions. However, before analysing the consequences, we at the Edict feel it is important to understand the origin of the issue at hand. In a crude manner, here is what you need to know.
20 July 2016: Six YIF students of the 2016 Cohort sent out a mass email to the Ashoka community — inclusive of staff, administration and faculty. They summoned a response to the “grave historical injustice and human rights abuses the Kashmiris are [subjected] to” by whom, calling upon the Ashoka community to sign a letter of solidarity condemning the State violence in Kashmir, especially post the execution of HM Commander Burhan Wani.
21 July 2016: The email received a multitude of replies, some that displayed support, while others contested the letter, stating their thoughts on the issue. The most elaborate and important of which was that of a fellow YIF, residing in Kashmir at the time. She was the first to express concern regarding the contents of the letter itself, calling for a revision of the statements made. She highlighted the taunting language, faulty facts and statistics, as well as “the inescapable and serious legal repercussions of the loose usage of these terms.” Additionally, she foretold that “[t]he carelessness of this letter will only strike a blow at Ashoka’s standing.” She further pointed out that Kashmir did require solidarity in the public domain, but this version of the letter, with its multiple unprovable claims, won’t actually help the cause it sought after.
22 July 2016: Another member of YIF body, responded, supposedly to substantiate the claims in the latter’s email, by providing various facts and links. He stated ”that the government has never honestly reported these atrocities, especially when the State machinery is directly responsible for it in the first place.” Signing off, he said that “the option of remaining silent should no longer be an option, whatever form it may take for all of us individually.”
23 July 2016: A response was received by the YIF in Kashmir asking after the true purpose of the letter: “What is our priority here: to convey a vehement condemnation of the human rights violation in Kashmir OR to get into a legal debate with the Indian state?” She re-iterates by stating that she supports a letter condemning the violence in Kashmir, but does not agree with the language used in the said letter to express condemnation.
24 July 2016: A YIF responded confirming the final change in the wording of the letter regarding the various points of contention. The clause “the opinions presented in this letter are held by the undersigned and do not reflect the views of Ashoka University” was also added to the main body of the letter, upon request of the President of The YIF Alumni Council. He questioned the use of the Ashoka identity and inquired into who confirms its legitimacy.
25 July 2016: On this day, the petition was made public on Kafila.
A first year undergraduate, at the time, wrote in opposition of the said letter requesting explanation of the proposed idea — demilitarisation of Kashmir leading to stability in the area. He also questioned what setting this precedent would mean for future complications should they go through with the proposed plebiscite. This question, however, was left unanswered in the public domain.
Another student simultaneously pointed out that “the final draft contains multiple references to [uninformed and incomplete] sources.” He reminded the framers of the letters that by using phrases such as, “Extra-judicial Killing” and “Occupation,” in a derogatory fashion, “[they] are guilty of the same bigotry and partisanship that [they] accuse the Indian state of.” In conclusion, he affirms the writers that the community is in this together, but “request[s] the writers to kindly drop this “Us-Them-Ours-Theirs” debate.”
27 July 2016: The administration announced a new email policy, which required students to gain access from the administration before they send emails across batches. This implied that all emails that might concern the entire student body had to go vie the administration.
28 July 2016: A third undergraduate student notified the Ashoka Community of various Pakistani websites and blogs that were talking about the aforementioned letter. She states that we should have ensured that the words on these articles do not reflect the University’s view, before “all of this garbage [condemning the University]” was published in a public sphere.
29 July 2016: A second year undergraduate, considering the traction the petition and articles had gained in the media, pointed out “the consequences of the petition will not just be borne by the signatories but by all of us as a whole.”
30 July 2016: Rajiv Malhotra, a famous author and Hindu activist, condemned the university for issuing the aforementioned letter. In fact, he even hoped the University Students would retract their statements and in turn issue a counter petition.
Professor Mukherjee sent a message through a student: “I would like to say while Ashoka is trying to teach all you to question, to doubt and even to challenge, I hope we are also teaching our students to be responsible. In freedom responsibility begins. I think as a body all of you need to discuss what your responsibilities are to the institution — how not to harm its image and functioning, how to communicate to the outside world that students of Ashoka enjoy their freedom but are also conscious that this freedom operates in a particular cultural and political context. We need to be more thoughtful and self conscious than active.”
1 August 2016: HoR passed resolution: “The Ashoka University Student Government would like to place on record that the opinions, views and demands entailed in the open letter to the GOI published at https://kafila.org do not represent the views of the entire student body. We support the Governing Body’s resolution dated 26.07.16 condemning the said open letter for misrepresenting its contents as Ashoka University’s official view. The student leaders of the undergraduate body have passed this statement with a majority.”
The Student Government also discussed the issue with Founder of Ashoka University, Vineet Gupta. The conclusions post their conversation is as follows: The letter caused great concern amongst donors and parents alike; Students are “free to hold and express whatever views they want to. However, we need to be cognizant of our context and the situation.”
Further, he stated that the new email policy was put into place due to complaints from students and faculty about spam. However, there was never any direct correlation made between the backlash against the letter and the revised email policy. A bill to govern the use of Ashoka’s identity in solidarity letters was claimed to be pending on the House’s table, as of 1st August when their email was sent.
19 September 2016: Student Government, once again, address the email policy, stating that a significant reason for this change was “because they are unsure of the legal implications that a controversial issue could have and want to play safe here.”
A student, in response, correlated the email restrictions and the Kashmir petition. Further, he question the administration that blamed the student body for accountable for using the University name without prior permission, while being cc-ed on everywhere thread discussing the entire formulation of the letter.
He also saw a further, deep rooted problem with the Administration constantly taking “decisions without feedback or discussion [from the student body].”
Post the aforementioned events, the tension around the letter, and between the Administration, student body and media had mellowed down. However, on October 7th Saurav Goswami and Adil Mushtaq Shah bid their farewell to the YIF batch via email. Popular conjecture is that the reason of this resignation was due to their signatures on the Kashmir Solidarity Letter.
This, once again, stirred controversy and brought into to contention the liberal ethos of the institution.
13 Oct 2016: Both Firstpost India and The Wire published articles raising concerns regarding the Ashoka community’s freedom of speech. The article that caused the most uproar, however was by Indian Express (IE), which had quotes from anonymous students. A student shared her response to the IE representative, Ritika, who reached out to her, for comments. She pointed Ritika, the writer of the Indian Express piece, to The Quint article which is “not as spicy a news story” and highlighted the unresponsiveness of all the the students Ritika reached out to, which brought about the questionable stand that was taken by IE, even in the short video on their webpage, stating sources from the student body.
14 Oct 2016: Four more articles were published regarding this question of freedom of speech: Dawn, YouthKiAwaaz, Firstpost and The Quint. The latter’s article, by Pallavi Prasad, an Alumnus of Ashoka University, became an unofficial defence against the allegedly baseless allegations made in the previously published articles. YouthKiAwaaz published a piece by another YIF alum, Karthik Shankar, who was one of the 88 individuals who signed the petition. In this piece he also wrote about the University’s policies in other domains, truly questioning the universities liberal ethos. Firstpost’s second article uses the resignation of these staff members as a diving board to question the larger role that liberals play in political actions.
SwarajyaMag published a short piece on this issue as well, providing an opinion of the resignation of the two staff members.
Dunya News a Pakistani magazine published a piece regarding this issue, using the Indian Express article as a basis for their opinion.
Business Standard also put in their two cents, citing both Indian Express and The Wire’s articles.
15 Oct 2016: Scroll published yet another article surrounding this debate on freedom of speech. This too was written by a YIF Alum, Ajay Sreevastan.
These articles sparked a heated debate on the Ashoka University — Students Only Facebook page. Some students responded with sarcasm, while others were outraged about the lack of communication between the Administration and the student body.
Most importantly, these discussions brought out important questions and ideas regarding larger issues; one only needs to look at the well-worded statements made by Simrin Sirur and Goutam Piduri on the aforementioned Facebook Group to find this ascension into larger spheres.
As whole, this issue begs a few serious questions: What does it truly mean to be liberal? Does the new email policy curtails one’s freedom of speech or establish boundaries which might be required in a growing institution like Ashoka? From what vantage point is the media speaking when they outright blame the either the Administration or the students, considering they remain outside the fold of the institution?
Disclaimer: To equip the Students of Ashoka to answer these pertinent queries, we have curated the facts. We are not here to sway one’s opinion towards either side, but to surface the facts for those who wish to gauge or assess such a fragile situation.