Academics and Opposition MPs have expressed shock over news reports that the Intelligence Bureau had visited Ashoka University in Haryana this week.
The Wire news portal reported on Tuesday: “IB officials visited the private university on Monday armed with newspaper cuttings seeking to meet the author of the paper, Sabyasachi Das, who is currently in Pune. A suggestion that other members of the faculty meet with them to discuss the contents of the paper found no takers as the officials refused to convey their request for information in writing. They then left after saying they would return to the campus again on Tuesday.”
The news portal added: “Coincidentally, Ashoka University’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act licence is coming up for renewal in September 2023.”
Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) also reported: “A team from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) knocked on the doors of Ashoka University on Monday and Tuesday.... Sources on the campus confirmed to IANS that a team of IB sleuths visited the university looking for Das, whose research paper suggesting voter manipulation in the 2019 general elections triggered a row.
“However, the IB sleuths were informed by the varsity authorities that Das is on leave. The IB officials then requested to meet other faculty members in the economics department.”
Security agencies neither confirmed nor denied the two reports. Till Tuesday evening, Ashoka vice-chancellor Somak Raychaudhury and economics department head Ashwini Deshpande had not responded to emails from this newspaper asking about the reported visit of the IB officials.
“We have now gone beyond the absurd,” Jayati Ghosh, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, told this newspaper.
Ghosh initiated the public outcry over the resignation of Das earlier this month after Ashoka distanced itself from his working paper titled, “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy”. The paper alleged probable electoral manipulation by the incumbent party in 2019.
Ashoka’s governing body (G.B.) initiated an inquiry on the paper. Das’s senior colleague Pulapre Balakrishnan quit, and said he did so because “academic freedom was violated in the response” of the varsity to Das’s paper.
Mridula Mukherjee, former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and former chairperson of the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Historical Studies, told this newspaper: “If The Wire’s story is true, it is a very sad situation because this will have a chilling effect on young scholars pursuing independent research. How will we attract bright young minds to academics in India?”
A former senior faculty of Ashoka told this paper: “IB regularly visits many institutions, so no surprise. It is also part of FCRA protocols that IB visits institutions before renewal…. We went through all this at (his current employer when their renewal was due). And no surprise the government is acting more thuggish.”
Congress MP and communications head Jairam Ramesh wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “By sending the Intelligence Bureau after an academic in a premier private university — for analysing with evidence democratic backsliding in India — the Modi government is only proving the point about Murder of Democracy in India. Truly unprecedented!”
Trinamul MP Jawhar Sircar wrote on X: “Is BJP worried that cat is out of the bag? Otherwise, why would almighty Intelligence Bureau descend on Ashoka University — to grill Dr S Das. He was made to quit as his advanced econometric techniques revealed that all was not well in 2019 elections!”
Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Jha posted on X: “‘Third Reich’ is back in such proximate corridors. And that too at a time when we have gone for the tagline -- ‘Mother’ of ‘Democracy’ hosts G20.... Jai Hind Intelligence Bureau at Ashoka University, Wants to Probe ‘Democratic Backsliding’ Paper.”
In his letter to the management on August 19, Balakrishnan, the economics professor who quit, added: “News is that the governing body has decided to invite young Sabyasachi Das to return to the post from which he had resigned.... I was among the first faculty representatives of the IIM Kozhikode, have headed an autonomous economics research institute in the public sector and now run a modest private educational trust. In all these situations, I have seen how terrifying it can be to deal with the government.”
Last week, the economics department said it would stop teaching if Das is not offered the job he quit, and that the G.B. stop evaluating faculty research. Other departments joined this call to go on strike or offered solidarity. They also drew support from several teacher groups in other universities. However, the economics department withdrew the ultimatum on August 19 after undisclosed assurances from the G.B.