Nalanda University seeks to rise above regional tensions

After years of political turmoil at India’s Nalanda University that saw the departure of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo as successive chancellors, a new vice-chancellor is hoping to put the revived centuries-old institution on a surer footing as a regional institution that promotes cooperation within Asia.

Sunaina Singh, a professor of comparative literature and culture, took over as vice-chancellor in May 2017, saying the institution would become a symbol of India’s soft power and she would strive to build Nalanda as “an icon of Asian Renaissance”.

Nalanda was a pioneer of what is today called internationalisation of education. In its fifth and sixth century heyday, students travelled all the way from Tibet, China, Korea and Central Asia in their quest for knowledge. And it was a centre of excellence, not only for ancient Indian wisdom, Buddhist studies and philosophy, but also for medicine and mathematics, astronomy and logic.

The Indian government now sees the Nalanda University project as part of its ‘Look East’ foreign policy to revive close economic and cultural ties with Asian countries to the East, with the potential to transcend politics and regional tensions.

“The mandate of Nalanda University is to promote regional peace and harmony,” said Singh in an interview with University World News at Nalanda’s temporary buildings in Rajgir, Bihar state.

For example, despite the government’s ongoing regional disputes with China, Singh stressed, “we do have an MoU [memorandum of understanding] with Peking University and we have a lot of Chinese scholars”.

“We recently held a roundtable with China here at Nalanda and a lot of scholars and government officials from China were there. So Nalanda carries the responsibilities of its mandate very gracefully forward.”

External Affairs Ministry’s role

Singh comes with an impressive background in education and establishing international collaborations, as a former vice-president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, a government body for India’s external cultural relations through people-to-people and cultural exchanges.

She was also the first Indian woman to head a binational research institution, as president of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, with headquarters in New Delhi and Calgary and funded by the Indian and Canadian governments.

Almost all public universities in India are funded by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which is responsible for higher education. But Nalanda University is unusual because its funding comes from the Ministry of External Affairs and it is categorised as an international university.

The Indian government has signed 17 MoUs with member states of the East Asia Summit (EAS). The EAS adopted the idea of reviving the ancient Buddhist institution of Nalanda in October 2009 at their summit in Hua Hin, Thailand, as a symbol of an Asian renaissance.

The task of reviving the institution was spearheaded by Sen, the Indian-born economics professor and Nobel laureate, giving it a further fillip at the time.

“Then and even now we get a lot of funding and support from [East Asia Summit] member countries. We just signed our 18th MoU with Mauritius,” she said. “Therefore it is relevant that the Ministry of External Affairs nurtures this university,” Singh said.

Illustrious history

Singh noted Nalanda had “an illustrious history of over 700 years” before it was burned down by the Turkic Muslim invaders led by Bakhtiyar Khilji in the 12th century. At its peak in the fifth and sixth centuries Nalanda is believed to have had more than 1,500 teachers and 10,000 students.

“[The Buddhist universities of] Nalanda and Taxila were both known as primarily starting higher education in the world as an international platform,” said Singh. “[Nalanda] had attracted a lot of scholars from across Asia, the West and all over the world. So naturally [the idea of reviving] it attracted a lot of attention.”

But she acknowledges that it is still a work in progress. “When you are trying to set up a university with that kind of resonance and reputation, naturally matching the ancient glory of Nalanda will take time,” she said, adding “We are not facing barriers but challenges, I would say.”

Recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced 30 scholarships for students from the seven member states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) that links India with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan.

A special programme for ‘Bay of Bengal Studies’ will be established. “So there is a collaborating endeavour and it is already in the platform. We are moving forward,” said Singh.

But Nalanda arguably lost its previous high profile as a regional institution, with Sen no longer involved with the project after several run-ins with Modi, of whom he is a strong and vocal critic; and Singapore’s Yeo resigning in November 2016 citing leadership and autonomy issues.

It seemed that Nalanda University as a grand Asian project had fallen off the rails, unable to stand up to its initial hype.

Contemporary relevance

Now, as Singh and others see it, the biggest challenge facing the Nalanda project is to merge ancient knowledge with the new, to establish modern ways of doing things using the ancient wisdom of the East.

“Our mandate was to look at the past and learn from it and be very contemporary in its relevance,” she said.

“We have curricula that have to do with the ancient knowledge systems and also new knowledge systems. We have Buddhism, we have Asian philosophy, Indian philosophy, Chinese Confucianism, plus we have comparative religion, which is not there in any other university in India,” the vice-chancellor said.

Nalanda University, which has functioned for the past two years in rented accommodation around Rajgir, will move to a brand new purpose-built campus in July.

It is being described as the world’s first net-zero energy campus, planned by a team that includes experts from the petroleum and energy ministries. Singh explained that the planning of the campus included ancient knowledge of architecture from the Nalanda era.

Reaching out to the community

During its heyday Nalanda was completely supported by the adjoining communities, which were prosperous then and provided food and other products to the education community. But today Bihar state is one of the poorest in India.

“Nalanda University has adopted five villages. We are working towards building awareness, looking at waste management, probably helping them with ecology and environment, or even farming,” the vice-chancellor explained.

“These are agrarian villages. On campus, as an energy resource we are looking at biofuel, where villages will be completely self-sustainable and will be our support system.”

They are also sourcing the textile needs of the university through a local weaving community, she said.

The vice-chancellor hinted at a new approach to higher education where the role of the university is not merely to churn out degree students. “We have opened up for the local communities wherever possible. We don’t just teach at postgrad level; we are also training the local communities here.”

Nalanda runs only postgraduate courses because research “is where you create new knowledge for coming generations. That is where Nalanda will play a very important, significant role,” Singh said.