What Chandro Tomar’s life teaches us about Ashoka University crisis

How many pundits can, through their writings and debates, hope to achieve a fraction of the impact she has had on the lives of young women?

At the same time that the troubling news of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation from Ashoka University broke last week, our spirits were lifted reading the story of 89-year-old Chandro Tomar, the Indian grandmother and sharpshooter who sparked a quiet liberal revolution from her hometown of Johri, Uttar Pradesh three decades ago. Brought up without formal schooling and married at the age of 15 into a patriarchal culture, she has managed to break the taboos of Indian womanhood. In the face of attempts by her male relatives to prevent her from entering sharpshooting competitions, the multi-awarded Tomar, in her own words, “listened to them quietly but decided to keep going.” Over the years, she managed to draw young women out of their homes, nurturing a generation of accomplished sharpshooters, determined to shape their own lives while staying rooted to their family origins and culture.

The developments at Ashoka University and Chandro Tomar’s story raise three fundamental questions.

Where do a liberal society’s values live? A recent letter addressed to the trustees at Ashoka University and signed by faculty representing the best of US Ivy-leagues would seem to suggest that the fate of a liberal society is tied to that of our universities. If that were indeed the case, the weakening of academic freedom observed across the liberal-arts landscape in the US would be a matter of grave concern. Ironically, the narrowing of the discourse in US universities has been the unintended outcome of an excess of progressive passion that has taken hold within these universities and will likely not be tamed even by moderate leaders. Where does moderation come from if not from within the heart of a liberal society?

The old British scholars that established the Asiatic Society in India realised that liberalism was not a monopoly of, or a gift from, any specific tradition. The hope for a liberal India expressed in the writings of Sri Aurobindo, Vivekananda, Tagore, and Gandhi rested on their faith that our essential values have over centuries taken root and permeated every nalla, every gully, and mohalla of our society. It is this fine spread of values and aspirations that ends up supporting institutions like Ashoka University. It is the mothers and grandmothers of Johri, where our sharpshooters live, who will send their children to Ashoka, not because of its self-appointed (or sanctioned by external experts) liberal credentials, but because liberalism is what fuels Chandro Tomar’s life and the generation she has been brought up in.

What is the role of pundits in society? It is important we distinguish between the pundit as a preacher or influencer versus the pundit as a scholar in pursuit of truth. A dose of humility is needed to keep these two types separate. Thus, how many pundits-as-influencers can, through their writings and debates, hope to achieve a fraction of the impact Chandro Tomar has had on the lives of young women? Yet, her story also ought to lift some of the burden that we, pundits-as-preachers, have imposed on ourselves — by seeing ourselves as the last line of defence against the onslaught of illiberal forces in society, including the power exercised by the state. The same grit displayed by Tomar fuels the ordinary farmers of Punjab — however misguided we may think they are on matters of policy — who won’t bow to the high-handed treatment and abuse by political partisans. These stories from the Indian heartland ought to also reassure my colleagues in the US that liberalism neither lives nor dies at any university.

What is the role of the pundit vis-à-vis the state? As scholars in pursuit of scientific truths, the pundit and his students need a safe space protected from both state and society. The real lesson we ought to learn from our colleagues in the US is how opening the doors of a university to societal passions, in the name of social justice, can quickly shrink the safe space within. State and society both need scholars and preachers. Ashoka University remains a safe space for scholarship while society remains open to preachers who live among us. Some of these preachers may be pundits but many more will appear as sharpshooters who have set their hearts on hitting the right targets for all of us.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 29, 2021 under the title ‘Pundit and the sharpshooter’. The writer is with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, American University, Washington DC

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