September 2, 2023
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
Ashoka University, which was highly respected as an academic institution, finds itself at the centre of a huge controversy and with its reputation much eroded. A research paper by Assistant Professor of Economics Sabyasachi Das, which suggested manipulation by the BJP in the 2019 general election, has sparked off a political storm. The paper generated a lot of heat on social media with Opposition parties claiming that it vindicated what they had been saying all along, while the BJP said it was a conspiracy against the government. As we’ve come to expect with this government, Intelligence Bureau officials landed up at the university to speak to Das. Shockingly, Ashoka dissociated itself from the paper, after which Das resigned. This was followed by a massive outcry among faculty members and students, as well as civil society. What does all this say about Ashoka University as well as the state of academic freedom in India?
The controversy struck with less than a year to go for the Lok Sabha election and Ashoka University’s response was spineless, to say the least.
After the paper was completed, Ashoka issued a statement saying: “As a matter of record, Ashoka University is focused on excellence in teaching and research across multiple disciplines, with a vision to build India’s finest university, create social impact and contribute to nation-building.” Noble words, but in the next paragraph it distanced itself from the research. Ashoka said it encourages its faculty to do research, but does not direct or approve projects by individual faculty members. The statement added: “Ashoka values research that is critically peer-reviewed and published in reputed journals. To the best of our knowledge, the paper in question has not yet completed a critical review process and has not been published in an academic journal. Social media activity or public activism by Ashoka faculty, students or staff in their individual capacity does not reflect the stand of the University.”
Das’ paper has found support from other academicians. Titled ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’ and published on July 25, its abstract said: “This paper contributes to the discussion by documenting irregular patterns in the 2019 general election in India and identifying whether they are due to electoral manipulation or precise control, ie, incumbent party’s ability to precisely predict and affect win margins through campaigning.” It added: “I compile several new datasets and present evidence that is consistent with electoral manipulation in closely contested constituencies and is less supportive of the precise control hypothesis. The manipulation appears to take the form of targeted electoral discrimination against India’s largest minority group – Muslims, partly facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers. The results present a worrying development for the future of democracy.”
I want to spend some time reproducing what Das’ paper said.
While calling the Election Commission one of the most powerful election management bodies in the world, it added: “In the past few years, the credibility of the ECI has been called into question, with allegations of bias in the scheduling of elections and arbitrary deletion of names of registered Muslim voters both favouring the ruling party.”
This is a view that has often been expressed by various observers and analysts. It has coincided with the worry over the threat to academic freedom as well as democracy in India intensifying, and I too have published a few episodes on it.
Das’ paper said: “The recent democracy reports of the V-Dem Institute highlight that various indicators of democracy in India, including the autonomy of the ECI, have been declining. Democracy Report (2021) has consequently classified India as an ‘electoral autocracy’. As the V-Dem report points out, the decline in the autonomy of the ECI was one of the important factors contributing to the reclassification of India’s regime type. Similarly, Freedom House has changed India’s status in 2021 from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’. The Supreme Court of India, in a recent judgment in 2023, acknowledged the dangers of a weak ECI and granted it significant autonomy and protection from executive overreach.”
The paper added: “In light of these developments, I first document that the 2019 general election in India that reelected the incumbent party shows significant irregularities in the election data – the density of the incumbent party’s win margin variable exhibits a discontinuous jump at the threshold value of zero. It implies that in constituencies that were closely contested between a candidate from the incumbent party and a rival, the incumbent party (BJP) won disproportionately more of them than lost. I do not find similar discontinuities in the previous general elections for either BJP or INC (Indian National Congress), the other major national party, as well as for state assembly elections held simultaneously with the 2019 general election and those held subsequently. Moreover, BJP’s disproportionate win of closely contested constituencies is primarily concentrated in states ruled by the party at the time of election.”
Das went on to say: “I do not find that the incumbent party did greater door-to-door campaigning than other parties in constituencies barely won by it. On the other hand, I find evidence consistent with electoral manipulation at the stage of voter registration as well as at the time of voting and counting (turnout manipulation).”
He added: “In both cases, the results point to strategic and targeted electoral discrimination against Muslims, in the form of deletion of names from voter lists and suppression of their votes during election, in part facilitated by weak monitoring by election observers.”
Das made it clear that proving electoral manipulation in a robust democracy is tough and required detailed investigation of electoral data in each constituency separately.
Finally, Das said that the erosion of trust in electoral processes everywhere and, given the integrity of India’s electoral institution in the past, his findings present “a worrying development with potentially far-reaching consequences for the world’s largest democracy”.
Among those who lauded the paper was MR Sharan, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland and author of ‘Last Among Equals: Power, Caste & Politics in Bihar’s Villages’. Pointing out that Das had “painstakingly combined lots of varied datasets: election results from 1977 to 2019, EVM turnout data for 2019, voter rolls (including name classifiers), national election surveys, data on counting observers” and so on, Sharan said: “Overall, Das argues that his calculations suggest that the BJP gained about 11 additional seats by these types of manipulation. These are back-of-the-envelope calculations. This is NOT enough to change government formation. The BJP won very comfortably in 2019. However, this is a cause for serious concern for anyone invested in electoral democracy in India. No one piece of evidence cited above may be enough to cause concern, but taken together – this should make us sit up and worry.”
The political responses from the BJP and the Opposition were predictable and, while they are important, I want to stay focused on something else: the response of Ashoka University.
More than 300 academicians in India and other countries issued a statement criticising Ashoka and saying Das had been forced in a way to resign.
The statement said: “We, the undersigned members of the academic fraternity, strongly condemn the forced ‘resignation’ of Sabyasachi Das, Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics, Ashoka University. Das’s paper ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’ which analysed the probability of electoral manipulation by the BJP in the 2019 elections came under significant flak from the party. The University issued a statement dissociating itself from the research. Following this, from what has emerged in the public domain, the Governing Body decided to ‘evaluate’ the ‘merit’ of his paper. Dr Das subsequently resigned. It is clear from this sequence of events that what was at stake was not the academic merit of his paper, but the threat it posed to the ruling party. There has been no detailed academic counter to this paper, only ad hominem attacks in the public.”
Later, Professor Pulapre Balakrishnan of Ashoka’s Economics Department resigned in protest against the university’s handling of the matter and student organisations issued strong statements in support of Das. Other departments followed suit, asking for Das to be reinstated. More than 80 faculty members signed a statement asking for the charter on academic freedom created in 2021 to be implemented.
What Das found was damning of the BJP and, by caving in, the university violated the principles of academic freedom. It makes you wonder whether its claims of being a beacon of liberal thought are worth the paper they are written on. By refusing to stand by Das, Ashoka has failed itself too.
As usual, it was the less powerful, the faculty and the students, who stood up to be counted. Which raises the question, is Ashoka merely a profit-making institution that likes to talk about things like academic freedom but won’t really walk the talk?
Pressuring an academician is equivalent to curbing the freedom to pursue research that may arrive at conclusions uncomfortable for some. If there is disagreement about a paper’s observations, you counter it with data and logical arguments. That’s not what Ashoka did. It merely succumbed.
As always, it seems clear that anyone who questions the BJP or finds anything inconvenient for it will attract a punitive response.
Universities are created to foster free thought. Ashoka University has dealt a blow to that mission as well as to the principle of intellectual freedom.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch you again soon.