Why the Pratap Bhanu Mehta episode is not about academic freedom

A dear friend, whose sharp intellect and matching outspokenness I admire in equal measure, recently sent me a comment he called “Rejoinder to Pratap Bhanu Mehta”. My friend contended that in his earlier newspaper columns and television interviews, Mehta did not substantiate his arguments using academic rigour. The friend defined basic rigour as “requiring collection of verifiable data-evidence, and its rational or scientific analysis to come to academically justified conclusions”. With all due deference to my friend, I must strongly disagree.

My friend is hardly alone in using the term academic freedom while commenting on Mehta’s dramatic exit from Ashoka University. Virtually every comment on l’affaire Ashoka is centred on academic freedom. That is where the discussion gets muddied.

Mehta clearly wore two hats while he was at Ashoka or earlier at the Centre for Policy Research. He was an academic at his institution, conducting research and disseminating its findings, as well as teaching students as part of an academic syllabus. But he was and continues to be a widely-read columnist in a general broadsheet newspaper, writing on a wide diversity of topics of interest to him. In this latter role, he may draw upon his own research, but he clearly uses a variety of sources that shape his judgements and opinions.

It is incorrect to use academic freedom interchangeably with freedom of expression. The two concepts are not the same. Academic freedom implies an absence of restrictions on what one may research on one’s own or as part of an agency or teacher in an institution. This freedom is, however, bound by the rigour implied by my friend. Researchers are obligated to state clearly their objectives, sources of data, and methods of analysis. Moreover, the process of analysis must be replicable. This means that anyone else using the same dataset and method must be able to come to the same conclusions as the researcher. That is what the peer-review process emphasises. In the case of non-data-based conceptual or theoretical research, internal consistency embedded in inductive logic is the criterion to be used. But the theme of research or intellectual discourse through lectures, seminars or publication is entirely, and at all times, a matter of choice for the scholar.

Freedom of expression is a much more tolerant concept. A person expresses one’s own opinions or judgements based on one’s own thinking. The only limitation is that this should not provoke others to physical violence and acts of destruction. We in India and in some other countries often stipulate that freedom of expression should not cause offence to accepted social mores or religious beliefs of others. But liberal democracies such as the United States and countries of Western Europe do not impose such restrictions. In fact, the judiciary in the US has repeatedly ruled that pornography is protected by the right to free speech, however repugnant it may be to public morality. Similar logic makes it extremely difficult to obtain convictions on charges of libel and defamation. Only the right of privacy prevails over freedom of expression in liberal societies.

Seen thus, Mehta’s newspaper columns or media interviews are a matter of his exercising his freedom of expression. One may disagree with him in part or in totality, but that is no ground whatsoever for denying him his right to express his views.

A public commentator is often a bit of a tub-thumper, a sceptic, an agnostic, a polemicist even, who could be a thorn in the side of the elites. History is replete with dissenters enriching a society’s intellectual life. Consider our own çarvakas, who defied Sanskritic puritans to advocate consumerism; Socrates, whose defiance cost him his life; Martin Luther, who founded Protestantism; Emil Zola, whose J’accuse became a war cry for generations rebelling against arbitrary injustice, among others. Closer to our times, Linus Pauling, who won a Nobel for chemistry, was also awarded another for his peace activism which challenged the nuclear weapons orthodoxy. Noam Chomsky is as much known for his championship of dissent as he is for his linguistic theories. Paul Krugman regularly fulminated against the Republicans and former President Donald Trump in the pages of The New York Times and it did no harm to his solid reputation as a Nobel-winning economist.

Societies everywhere and at all times have been notoriously thin-skinned about such critics. Yet, for the most part, history has recognised their signal contribution, recognising them as the ultimate sentinels of liberty. We need to recall that great French pamphleteer-polemicist of the 18th century, François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. He held the French aristocracy, church and the bourgeoisie all in contempt and suffered his critics as fools. Yet he said, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Talking of the Mehta episode as a challenge to academic freedom has been a grievous error. Academic freedom is important, but no one has called Mehta’s academic output into question (I doubt if many are even aware of what it is). Freedom of expression is, however, a far greater asset of democratic people and needs to be zealously protected. It is not that Mehta’s views are always acceptable. Although his column is invariably the first thing I read in the mornings when it appears, quite often I find it difficult to agree with him. Yet his contribution invariably enriches our intellectual life.

That is the real issue, and not what happens to Ashoka University, its promoters, donors, faculty and students.

The writer taught at IIM, Ahmedabad and was the founder-director of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand

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