Political meddling causes Nalanda University turmoil

The resignation of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen from the governing board of Nalanda University followed by the resignation of its chancellor, George Yeo of Singapore, leaves the project to revive the ancient institution without its international leadership.

Yeo, a former Singapore foreign minister who has been involved in the project since 2007, said in a statement that he had resigned on 25 November, two days after Sen quit the board, because of Indian government interference in Nalanda University’s autonomy.

Yeo said that when he was invited to succeed Sen, a Harvard University professor and an outspoken critic of the Modi government who resigned as Nalanda’s chancellor a year ago, he was “repeatedly assured” that the university would have autonomous functioning.

“This appears not to be the case now,” Yeo said.

Yeo’s resignation followed the dismissal of the governing board of the university without consulting him. “The sudden dissolution of the old Nalanda board is bound up with Indian domestic politics which I do not wish to be embroiled in,” Yeo commented in a Facebook post on Friday.

The board is also responsible for selecting the next vice-chancellor – the extended five-year term of the current Vice-Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal, who was initially appointed by Sen, ended on 24 November, according to reports, but the board approved an extension, which it described as merely an interim measure to avoid a leadership vacuum.

This move, however, put it in direct conflict with the government, which then dissolved the board.

Legal stipulation

The government says provisions of the Nalanda Act were followed in denying the extension and dissolving the board.

Vikas Swarup, spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said in statement on 30 November, “there was great respect for Mr George Yeo for his great contributions to Nalanda University, but the decisions were taken so that the university would be in tune with the legal regime under which it was established.”

Swarup said India’s Nalanda University Act of 2010 stipulated a three-year tenure for governing board members but the old body had been in existence for nine years.

The old board, which began in 2007 as the Nalanda Mentors Group with both Sen and Yeo as members, was only an ad hoc one, according to Swarup. The university itself became functional in November 2010. “If the government brings legality to a set-up in accordance with the law passed by parliament, then how can anybody have any issues with it?”

Sabharwal was quoted in local media as saying the decision to reconstitute the governing board was surprising. “It has come midway through the process of appointment of a new vice-chancellor, bypassing the chancellor,” she said.

Academics have said the government’s legalistic arguments are an obfuscation of the real problem – a tussle between the government and the board over the vice-chancellor's appointment. There had been controversy when Sabharwal was given the highly-paid job in 2010 and she was later forced to take a pay cut.

International funding

Nalanda, located in Rajgir, near Nalanda, in Bihar in the north-east, is the first international university established by the Indian government with funding from foreign countries and foreign nationals nominated to the university’s governing board – a reflection of the ancient Buddhist institution’s linkages with East and Southeast Asia.

The international board members, including Wang Gungwu, a professor at the National University of Singapore, Meghnad Desai, a former professor at the London School of Economics, Prapod Assavavirulhakarn of Thailand, Susumu Nakanishi of Japan and Wang Bangwei of China, and Harvard Professor Sugata Bose who is also an opposition MP, will also be replaced.

The government has asked contributing countries – currently China, Australia, Laos and Thailand – to nominate representatives to the board. However, there is no word so far on who will chair the new governing board or who the new vice-chancellor will be.

China pledged US$1 million to the project, Japan has approved two development aid loans of JPY21.426 million (US$185,000) each, Australia has pledged around A$1 million (US$745,000), Singapore has pledged over SG$5 million (US$3.5 million), while Thailand has promised some US$100,000 and Laos US$50,000, according to government figures.

Yeo was prominent among a group within the dissolved 14-member board who were pushing for the participation of more East Asian countries even if they had not contributed financially to the Nalanda project.

The Nalanda University project was backed by the East Asian Summit in the Philippines in 2007, although India is the biggest contributor – INR2 billion (US$30 million) was announced for Nalanda in February under the 2016 budget allocated to the Ministry of External Affairs which oversees the university.

Strained relations

The sudden changes to the governing board may also reflect strained relations between the Asian giants, India and China, over their unsettled common border, some academics say. Beijing has protested against plans to allow the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh — a territory claimed by China — early next year.

The Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India ever since he fled Tibet in 1959, has no role in the Nalanda University project, allegedly due to pressure from China exerted through members of the governing board.

Will the international project to revive Nalanda University survive the debacle? Lim Kooi Fong, editor of the Kuala Lumpur-based ‘Buddhist Channel’, says the changes present “an opportunity to right previous wrongs” and also give the project a truly international character.

“I really hope and pray that the [Narendra] Modi government will reach out to the Buddhist world outside of India to revive this historic institution. It will only benefit India in the long run,” Lim told University World News.

Nalanda currently has 130 students from 13 countries and 30 faculty members. It held its first convocation in August. The campus, close to the original Nalanda University in Bihar state, is expected to be complete by 2020.