Nalanda University temple ruins in India. Photo: Carol Mitchell via Flickr., CC license.
Nalanda University temple ruins in India. Photo: Carol Mitchell via Flickr., CC license.

Nalanda University, an ancient center of learning that the Indian government is trying to revive with international support, is roiled in controversy again. Its chancellor, George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore, resigned last week, citing political interference in the managing of the university.

Four days earlier, the university’s multi-country governing board, which was comprised of eminent personalities like Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, historian and opposition parliamentarian Sugata Bose and economist Meghnad Desai, was dissolved. In a statement announcing his resignation, Yeo said he was neither consulted nor informed ahead by the Indian government of its decision to dissolve the governing board. The decision is “bound up with Indian domestic politics,” Yeo said, an allegation that will not go down well with the 16 countries that are collaborating in the Nalanda University project.

Located in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, Nalanda was a renowned seat of learning in ancient times; it flourished between the 5th and 12th centuries CE. A residential university, it is believed to have had some 2,000 teachers and 10,000 students. Scholars and students from across Asia flocked here to study Buddhist philosophy and rituals as well as secular subjects such as astronomy, logic and medicine. In 1193 CE, the university was destroyed by Turkic invaders.

Revival plan

It was in March 2006 that the idea of reviving Nalanda University was mooted. The Indian government as well as other Asian countries quickly embraced it and at the 2007 East Asian Summit the setting up of Nalanda University emerged as a pan-Asian initiative. To oversee the project through its birth and infancy, a Nalanda Mentor Group with Sen as its chairperson was set up. It subsequently became the university’s governing board.

Nalanda University’s first academic session began in 2014 with a small group of students taking courses in history, ecology and environmental studies. In August this year, the foundation stone for the university’s campus, which is near the ruins of the old university, was laid. A school of Buddhist studies, philosophy and religion was added.

But even as the project is moving forward it is mired in controversy. It has been the target of allegations of nepotism, corruption and wastage of financial resources and appointments to top posts have been criticized.

Importantly, political interference in the functioning of the university is growing. While both, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government have meddled with appointments and other key decisions, chipping away at the university’s autonomy, the problem has become particularly serious since the BJP came to power in May 2014.

A Hindu nationalist party, the BJP and its ideological mentors in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have been replacing the heads of several academic and cultural institutions in the country with individuals known more for their belief in its Hindutva ideology than for their professional achievements.

Political meddling

It was only a matter of time before the Nalanda University too came in their cross hairs. Sen, who has been its chancellor since 2012 and is a strong opponent of the BJP and a critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was its first target.

Although the governing board decided unanimously to give Sen another term as chancellor, in January 2015 the government did not endorse that decision, forcing him to resign. In his resignation letter, Sen pointed to the lack of autonomy in Nalanda University’s functioning, even in decisions relating to academic matters. In an article published in the New York Review of Books, Sen warned of “the partisan political pressure” Nalanda University was being subjected to since the BJP came to power.

Following the recent dissolution of the governing board, the government has reconstituted a new one. With the exception of N.K Singh, a bureaucrat turned BJP politician, none of the outgoing board members have been appointed to the reconstituted board. Another appointee, while a Buddhist scholar, describes Modi as an “avatar of God.”

It is not just Nalanda University’s autonomy that is in peril. Also in jeopardy are its international stature and global character. People like Sen and Yeo were Nalanda Universities “biggest brand ambassadors – credible faces that have drawn interest and funds from public and private donors.” The reconstituted board – other countries are yet to make their appointments lacks for such heavyweights. Among the new appointees is Lokesh Chandra, a Buddhist scholar and president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, who describes Modi as an “avatar of God,” who has made a “much more meaningful impact” on the lives of the poor than Karl Marx.

The Indian government’s rather cavalier treatment of Yeo will not have gone unnoticed by Nalanda University’s collaborating countries. “The comity of East Asian nations will look at how you’ve treated a former foreign minister of Singapore, denying him even the basic courtesy of informing him of major impending changes, and will wonder whether this is a project they can trust any longer,” Bose was quoted by The Telegraph as saying.

Will the international collaborators have second thoughts over providing funding and other support to the revival of Nalanda University?

The invaders who destroyed Nalanda in 1193 CE failed to appreciate the value of this place of learning. They left it in ruins. Eight hundred years later, the university’s future as a collaborative venture and a center of intellectual debate and discourse hangs in the balance.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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