Nalanda University : An Avatar In Distress !!

Some nine centuries after the great seat of Buddhist learning was felled by the march of history, Parliament passed the Nalanda University Act in August 2010. Controversies continue to swirl around this ancient university being brought to life by an act of faith and law, mentored by a high-powered group of worthies led by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. Questions continue to be asked about this modern-day liberal university in the making. Will Nalanda University take shape in New Delhi or in Nalanda, near Patna? Will its vice-chancellor be permanent? But most importantly, can Bihar, not exactly known for the quality of higher education it imparts, play host to an international university which, in its heyday (possibly in the Gupta dynasty era from the 6th century BC to the 12th century AD) was the repository of world knowledge?

The search for answers confuses matters even further. A call to the Union human resources and development ministry is almost invariably deflected to the Union ministry of external affairs, which is the nodal ministry for this international university. Just when you think Nalanda is the MEA’s baby, wait, there are more claimants, making it difficult to establish who’s doing what. From the Nalanda Mentor Group—which has on its rolls 16 ASEAN countries, including China, Japan, Australia, Korea and Thailand—to the MEA, Planning Commission, the state of Bihar—all driven by the single vision of seeing the university resurrected.

It has not been smooth thus far. To sort out some of the issues confronting the university, a couple of years after it was enacted, the Planning Commission will be meeting on June 25 to chalk out a roadmap. But resurrection comes with its attendant problems.

Is the VC’s CV good enough? Gopa Sabharwal has become VC on the counsel of the Prof Sen headed mentor group

Strictly speaking, it should be the HRD ministry that should be overseeing the implementation of this ambitious university. The MEA should step in only if there is an inter-governmental agreement. Yet, it is the latter which calls the shots. Nalanda was conceptualised as an international university involving the 16 ASEAN countries. China, it is learnt, has also initiated a similar university in Nepal. Will there be two international Buddhist universities fighting for honours—and funding? As of now, no one can tell.

“As Prof Sen said, it’s been more than 800 years since Nalanda university was ground to dust. We need time.”N.K. Singh, Committee member

But first, how generous has the Indian government been in spending money on this academic pursuit? From all indications, a little over Rs 2 crore has been spent on meetings held by the mentor group, constituted under the chairmanship of Prof Amartya Sen. The MEA had projected an outlay of Rs 598.95 crore for 2012-13 to be spent on the university. The Bihar government has already acquired and transferred 446 acres of land. Remember, the bill had put the estimated cost of establishing the university at Rs 1,005 crore.

The state government, it is learnt, is open to funds from private donors, as well as the governments of the East Asia region, which have initiated the project in the first place. Says N.K. Singh, member of the committee set up by the Planning Commission, “People are in a tearing hurry to see this university function. But I would like to quote Prof Amartya Sen that it has been more than 800 years since the Nalanda university was ground to dust, we need to give ourselves some time.”

As for the controversy surrounding the appointment of the vice-chancellor, which many say was an arbitrary decision, Singh says the matter is “settled”. Gopa Sabharwal, professor of sociology from Delhi University whose name was approved by the high-profile mentor group headed by Prof Sen, will draw a monthly salary of Rs 5 lakh, perhaps making her the highest-paid academician in the country. While her suitability for the post is a matter of heated debate, Singh says it is a non-issue now.

Yet, academicians flag concerns. Says Dr Apoorvaanand of Delhi University, “When you intend to resurrect something, in this case, a university, it becomes a caricature of its former self.” The project has been flawed from the very beginning, he maintains. Apoorvaanand wonders whether Nalanda has the infrastructure to host an international university. Answers to that will have to wait, for they are hard to come by. For its part, the Bihar government is pushing for a dedicated airport, highways, as well as development of agriculture.

While a confident Singh unveils his vision for the university, it might be noted that, only a month ago, vice-chancellor Gopa Sabharwal, citing lack of infrastructure, shifted to New Delhi—lock, stock and office. Her rationale: New Delhi would give a prominent place to the university. Singh, however, denies this and says that the vice-chancellor has given an assurance that she will work from Nalanda. “There is absolutely no doubt in our mind that the university will be based in Nalanda.”

The issue, though, appears far from resolved. While the MEA, it is learnt, was in favour of having an administrative office in the national capital, making liaising easy, the Bihar state government wants the university back where it belongs—in the state. While there appears to be a communication gap between the Centre and the state, the subject of Sabharwal’s credentials continues to be fodder for gossip.

“How can an international university have a vice-chancellor who does not have the requisite qualifications to chair the university?” ask some academicians. While Sabharwal’s colleagues vouch for her academic achievements, the fact that she has nothing to do with Buddhist studies is not lost on many. How she was chosen over others, too, remains mired in mystery. Is she VC-elect or VC-designate? Of course, the mouth-watering pay package of Rs 5 lakh per month (tax exempt) she will get has also become the subject of envy.

What about courses and infrastructure, the backbone of any university in the making? The campus in Nalanda just has a wall to show for all the effort so far. The first two faculties to kick off the academic exercise in this university will be environmental studies and historical studies, to be followed by others such as information technology and international relations. It is perhaps a sign of the changes since the original Nalanda that the courses being introduced reflect contemporary needs fuelled by a global market.

“A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth,” said Jawaharlal Nehru. “It stands for the onward march of the human race towards even higher objectives. If the university discharges its duties adequately, then it is well with the people and the nation.” This speech was recently reiterated by CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury in a debate on the university in Parliament. Will the university fulfil the visions of the first prime minister, the scholars who studied in the ancient university of Nalanda and the parliamentarians who passed the act? Well, frankly, we don’t know. At this moment, in the best of traditions, a debate rages on.
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