The resignations of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian from Ashoka University have justifiably attracted global attention particularly in academic circles. These letters of resignation raise a host of questions about the contemporary political moment under which societies are operating. Several thinkers have observed the larger spectre of authoritarianism as indicated in the letter by Mehta, and some have albeit, in limited sense, observed the incapability of capital in being a vanguard of liberal values which Ashoka purportedly aims to nurture on campus. The binary of academic freedom versus freedom of association does not explain the crisis at Ashoka in its entirety. The questions to be addressed are: one, what explains the breakdown of institutional culture at Ashoka, and two, how to define State and citizen relationship?
Arvind Subramanian observed in his resignation letter, “Ashoka – with its private status and backing by private capital – can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing”. The nascent crisis of institutional culture at Ashoka is not merely an aberration or an anomaly as several thinkers would like to argue – because of its private nature. This crisis is entrenched into the hegemony of capital in the context of education as a social good, and the spectre of authoritarian rule which is brewing across India and the world.
At the heart of theorization of capital and its relationship with the ideal of “ultimate” human freedom, lies the hegemonic prerequisite of constant perpetuation of material power through accumulation of wealth. The dominant discourses surround principled assumption of capital – the human capital theory posits the instrumentality of education to perpetuate capital or profit in the market. The close conjunction between hegemony of capital and the authoritarian State exhibits a greater threat to the actualization of freedom and liberty. In a liberal democracy, there are essential prerequisites – equality and autonomy. These foundational principles signify self-limitation on the part of the State and therefore the independence of the agents outside the State against unwarranted influences. Thus, public and private differentiation forms the bedrock of liberal existence. The combination of authoritarian State and capital hegemony transgresses the principle of self- limitation and autonomy signifying breakdown of public private distinction.
Within this hegemony lies the questions of accommodation and demobilization. Ralph Miliband, a British sociologist of the Laskian generation has argued that the cultural reality of capital hegemony is the illusion of accommodation of social democracy and justice while placing downward pressure to undermine social equality. In the words of economist Prabhat Patnaik, “spontaneous tendency of capitalism” is the upside-down version of Kantian notion of the tendency which he argues is synonymous with freedom. However, Patnaik argues that the tendency is rather synonymous with the power of capital which cannot be restrained by the mechanisms of the State. Ralph Miliband observes that capital hegemony is perpetuated by the spheres of education, media and churches – the ideological apparatus of the State. Therefore, commoditization of education in private universities essentialises the supply of cheap labor which involves exclusion of several social categories.
Sustainability of capital order necessitates the State power to demobilize disadvantaged social categories and voices of dissidence in order to fend off disruption or ‘inconvenience’. Exclusion and demobilization go hand in hand in any capitalist modern State system, as the coercive State apparatus serves the interests of the cultural and economic bourgeoisie to sustain capital hegemony. Bringing back Ralph Miliband, he argues that bourgeois elites possess no greater enterprise than subordinate non-dominant classes of society to accept existing socio-economic order. As Marx argued, a corporate entity is akin to a capitalist State which enables the “bourgeoisie” and “master craftsmen” to sustain material interests.
Ashoka University was a unique and unprecedented experiment in Indian democracy to challenge historical consensus over potentiality of private capital to be a vanguard for liberal values: capital hegemony would undo decades of Statist stint towards de-aligning caste and class relationship through the principle of social justice.
In this regard therefore the experiment sought to align freedom of expression as a cardinal principle of academic freedom with freedom of association. Then what seems to be the crisis of the moment? How do we define the State (public-political) and citizen (private) relationship in an increasingly illiberal democracy? Post-colonial Indian experiment with liberalism and democracy has been marred by complications and popular scepticism. It has often been chastised as a bourgeois imposition on the masses. The State has historically captured disproportionate influence in our collective social and political existence with certain justifications - In terms of State led social reform efforts for Hindus, regulated civil liberties and asserted intrusive political sovereignty over economic activities.
Perpetual politics of nationalism and social fragmentation has an unfortunate casualty: civil liberties of citizenry in the demos. Yes, "national interest" has been de-contextualised and re-contextualised simultaneously. But the current cultural moment seems to be significant, for, nature and the logic of the State has been subverted and colonised by the forces of cultural majoritarianism.
The political existence of citizenry in India for one has been defined by tone and substance of condescension where the State seems to be exercising its whims by suspension of civil liberties while claiming that our democracy is and has always been too fragile to withstand acts of individual or collective dissidence.
As democracy is deepening and the crisis of liberalism looms large, the threats to every aspect of liberal existence is stark. The State or the polity must shed its gesture of condescension towards collective political existence by ushering in a new charter of freedom which promises unabashedly, the primacy of majesty of the law in conjunction with unrestrained civil liberties. Let us not dwell upon false distinctions between equality and freedom, for in the absence of equal access to liberties, equality seems to be on a fragile footing. Precisely because the State is a reflection and a result of the collective will, it entails itself with its plural and political nature. But in our quest for realising collective will, individual will should not be disregarded, for, the essence of liberal democracy lies in, one, voluntary compliance and two, freedom of expression.
By Nikhil Jois K.S. (Columnist)
Nikhil Jois K.S. is a politics and philosophy enthusiast. He finds solace in Indian Classical Music. He is an aspiring civil servant. He studies History, Economics and Political Science at Christ University, Bangalore.
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Chopra, R. Full text of resignation letter: Two days after PB Mehta’s exit, economist Arvind Subramanian quits Ashoka University. (2021, March 18). The Indian Express.