On August 14, 2023, it was reported that Sabyasachi Das, an assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, had resigned from his position because of an investigation that the university had launched into his academic work, apparently as a result of political pressure.
On July 25, Das presented a paper that he had written analyzing the 2019 Lok Sabha elections at a conference on development economics hosted by National Bureau of Research, a private nonprofit research organization based in the United States. The paper alleged that political manipulation during voter registration and vote counting may have influenced the elections. On July 31, a University of Maryland scholar, M. R. Sharan, shared the paper on the social media platform X, calling it an “astonishing new working paper.”
The paper, which had not yet been peer reviewed but was available as a work-in-progress on the website of the Social Science Research Network, sparked significant controversy. Academics across the globe expressed either support for Das’s work, critical feedback, or both. On August 1, Ashoka University posted to X (formerly Twitter) distancing itself from the paper, stating, “Ashoka University is dismayed by the speculation and debate around a recent paper by one of its faculty members (Sabyasachi Das, Assistant Professor of Economics) and the university’s position on its contents….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.”
Leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also attacked Das’ research. The newspaper Wire reported that the Prime Minister’s office had called investors and board members of Ashoka university, questioning Das’s motivations.
The university formed an ad-hoc committee, reportedly composed of econometrics experts and members of Ashoka University’s Governing Board, to investigate the context in which Das wrote the paper and whether he had violated the faculty policy on academic freedom. Ashoka University’s independent student newspaper The Edict called such an investigation unprecedented. While Das initially cooperated with the investigation, he reportedly refused to attend the committee meetings and then resigned.
In the wake of his resignation, Das received significant support from his colleagues at Ashoka University. On August 16, the Department of Economics issued a statement that “Prof. Das did not violate any accepted norm of academic practice.” The Department further called the Governing Body’s investigation “institutional harassment,” that “curtails academic freedom, and forces scholars to operate in an environment of fear.” On August 17, the Department of Political Science issued a similar statement condemning the Governing Body and demanding greater transparency about the Governing Body’s investigation and Das’ resignation. Senior economics professor Pulapre Balakrishnan resigned in solidarity with Das, stating that his resignation was “based on my belief that there was a grave error of judgment in the response to the attention received by Das’s paper on social media. Academic freedom was violated in the response, and it would be unconscionable for me to remain.”
In late August, media outlets reported that two members of India’s Intelligence Bureau had visited Ashoka University and asked to meet with Das, who was not present at the university. Reportedly, they also asked whether Da’s paper was an independent effort and whether the university had been aware of Das’ work on it. It is possible that the Intelligence Bureau visit was connected to a Foreign Contributions Regulations Act (FCRA) evaluation. Ashoka University’s FCRA license was up for renewal in September of 2023; India’s Ministry of Home Affairs uses the renewal of FCRA licenses to discipline institutions that do not are not in full alignment with the BJP.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about a higher education institution opening an apparently politically-motivated investigation into a scholar’s academic work. State officials and higher education authorities have an obligation not to interfere with academic activity. Such investigations have a chilling effect on academic freedom, and undermine institutional autonomy and democratic society more generally.