Amartya Sen row with government over ‘dream’ university

Nalanda University, set up on the initiative of India with international support, is at the centre of a political storm over the resignation of its Chancellor, Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen, who blames Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party-led government for delaying confirmation of his continuance in the post.

Nalanda University was set up as a visionary project by the previous United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, government, with the aim of catapulting Indian education onto the world stage. Its establishment has been supported financially by China, Singapore and Australia and backed by the East Asia Summit, which includes Southeast Asian countries and Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.

In a letter addressed to its board last week Professor Sen said he would step down after his current term as chancellor ends this July and lamented that “academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government”.

Sen was appointed chairman of the Nalanda Mentor Group by the UPA government in 2007. The group went on to govern Nalanda International University and in July 2012 Sen was appointed as the first chancellor of the university for a three-year term.

The BJP-led government has meanwhile rejected Sen’s claim, saying there was no attempt to “curtail” his tenure. According to a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin, the ministry could not act on the issue of Sen’s continuation as chancellor since it was yet to receive the approved minutes of the board meeting that took place this January. Sen insists, however, that the minutes were sent and everybody but the ministry confirmed this.

In his letter, he said the board had unanimously voted in favour of him staying on.

Sen wrote: “This delay, as well as the uncertainty involved, is leading in effect to a decisional gap, which is not helpful to Nalanda University’s governance and its academic progress. I have therefore decided that in the best interest of Nalanda University, I should exclude myself from being considered as chancellor beyond this July.”

Nalanda University initiative

The university is an initiative of India and 18 East Asia Summit countries. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had signed agreements with Australia, Singapore, Cambodia, Brunei, New Zealand, Laos and Myanmar.

China has committed US$1 million for the project, Singapore US$ 5-6 million and Australia A$1 million (US$0.78 million). The largest share of funding for the university over 12 years was committed by India which sanctioned Rs2,700 crore (US$445 million).

The fully residential university is expected to be completed by 2020 and will have seven schools, all for postgraduate and doctoral studies offering courses in science, philosophy and spirituality and social sciences. Nalanda, in Bihar, an eastern state, was at one time a great centre of learning in ancient India. The revival of this university comes after about 800 years and has created much interest globally.

However, the project has faced a fair share of scrutiny and criticism from day one and, according to sources, the main reason why the current government was not keen to reconfirm Sen’s candidature was his reluctance to make clear the university’s expenditure.


In fact, Sen demanded complete autonomy while setting up the university and said that the university must have financial autonomy as well. In a recent interview on television, Sen, when questioned about the financial tussle, said: “Universities are autonomous. Just because the government is paying doesn’t give them the right to override the autonomy of universities and run them according to their whims. This is the case in Britain.”

The former UPA government had waived any checks on the university’s expenditure by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, and the Prime Minister’s Office had decided that Nalanda University should be given maximum autonomy and be allowed to hire its own auditors.

According to sources in the Ministry of External Affairs, which is the nodal ministry for the Nalanda University project, one of the other reasons that Sen faced flak was the huge expenditure being incurred on maintaining the governing body of the university known as the Nalanda Mentor Group, as well as tax free salaries to the tune of about US$80,000 per year to some of the top functionaries of the university.

All this came to a head when the finance ministry asked the ministry of external affairs to explain why government rules should not apply to the university.

At the same time there has been widespread criticism over some of the key appointments at the university, mainly that of the current vice-chancellor, Gopa Sabharwal. It has been alleged that Sabharwal did not meet the requirements set out by the government for the appointment of vice-chancellors. She was previously a reader in one of Delhi’s leading women’s colleges.

Meanwhile, many academics have written in support of Sen and many feel that there is an attempt at witch hunting by the present government. Sen was openly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi prior to the general elections when he said that Modi had not done enough to make minorities feel safe.

Asked in an interview on television whether he felt academic freedom was in danger in this country, Sen said: “Yes, I think so. It depends on how universities are run. Judging from what came out in the news about the Indian Council of Historical Research, there is considerable government intervention. Governments are expected to listen to the voice of the professoriate and the voice of the people in the university.”

Sen was referring to the recent appointment of Sudarshan Rao as chief of the Indian Council of Historical Research, which has once again highlighted the debate on ‘saffronisation’ or ‘Hinduisation’ of education. Rao has open links with the RSS, or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the hardline Hindutva organisation.

Meanwhile the first batch of 15 students and ten faculty members is already hard at work at the university.