Saturday, August 13, 2011

Prelude to an Asian awakening

The new Nalanda International University will ‘emphasise the importance of eastern intellectual endeavour’ and as the continent re-emerges on the world stage ‘its civilisational origins will become a subject of intense study and debate’, writes ardhendu chatterjee

AT the 98th Indian Science Congress held at SRM University in Kattankulathur near Chennai in the first week of this month, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, head of the Nalanda Mentor Group, assured the nation that although restoring Bihar’s Nalanda University was a stupendous task given the hype generated over its revival and the huge expectation from the international community, the proposed university — a reincarnation of the world famous seat of learning in ancient India — was “being re-started right now”.
Although the new Nalanda International University was scheduled to be launched in 2009, issues like its basic structure and financial aspects have delayed its second coming. As creating an endowment of at least $1 billion for its re-establishment is badly needed, India’s dithering is understandable.
However, the Indian Parliament already passed the Nalanda University Bill with the Planning Commission following it up by earmarking Rs 50 crore “as endowment fund in the form of a special grant for the commencement of activities and till such time the Nalanda University becomes sustainable on its own.”
It deserves mention that former President APJ Abdul Kalam, during his official visit to Singapore in 2006, first floated the idea of the restoration of Nalanda University with all its pristine glory and excellence in a modern makeover. He then expounded his vision while addressing the Bihar Assembly. The Bihar government lost no time in taking up the matter in right earnest. It passed a bill in 2007 to establish Nalanda University and acquired about 500 acres of land in Rajgir, near the hallowed site of the ruined Nalanda University; acquisition of another 500 acres is also underway. It also succeeded in persuading the Centre to get involved in this massive project and take it over from the cash-strapped state.
The Centre agreed to shore up the state government move with financial support considering the international interest in the proposed university. The role of Singapore has been very commendable. Its sustained effort to spread the idea of the revival of the renowned seat of learning in course of “Nalanda Symposium” in November 2006 caught the fancy of East Asian countries, especially China, Japan and Korea. It also worked in tandem with Japan to raise resources to give a concrete shape to the plan. The move received a further fillip with the Japanese diplomat Noro Motoyasu’s announcement on 28 May 2007 that Japan would fund the university substantially.
The East Asia Summit, a conglomeration of Asean plus six countries ie China, Japan, India, Korea, Australia and New Zealand provided further boost to the project in 2007. Again in 2009, at its fourth summit, it made a fervent plea to its members to make “appropriate funding arrangements on a voluntary basis from government and other sources including public-private partnership” for this “non-state, non-profit, secular and self-governing international institution.”
The conglomeration decided to raise $500 million to build the proposed university and another $500 million to develop infrastructural facilities. A joint communiqué issued by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao, who was on a state visit to India from 15-17 December last, also stated that China “welcomed India’s efforts to revive the Nalanda University. Both sides appreciated the work of the Nalanda Mentor Group and the progress made so far. India welcomed China’s contribution of $1 million for the university.”
The new university is likely to embrace the same seal of the ancient Buddhist University as its emblem in deference to its historic legacy.
The announcement of Professor Sen who has “the difficult task of chairing its interim governing body” comes as a fresh breath of air at a time when we do not care to respect the contributions of our centuries-old institutions of higher learning to the advancement of learning and dissemination of knowledge across the globe. The globe-trotting Nobel laureate is quite alive to the problems of re-establishing the university “after a 800-year hiatus”. His task is all the more unenviable in view of the complete faith reposed by his countrymen in his leadership, educational ideals and vision.
One, however, reasonably hopes that the university “aimed at advancing the concept of an Asian community... and rediscovering old relationships” will soon resurrect as an academic melting pot for students and teachers of the whole world as paucity of funds and bureaucratic red tape have not so far been a bottleneck to its restoration.
It is unfortunate that this ancient centre of higher learning, known as “one of the first great universities in recorded history” that served the international academic community for more than 700 years since its establishment in the fifth century ceased to exist after Afghan conqueror Bakhtiyar Khilji destroyed it in 1193. Otherwise, it would have been placed on the same pedestal as Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Nalanda could also be compared with the oldest European university at Bologna which, according to Professor Sen, came up when “Nalanda was more than 600 years old… Had it not been destroyed and had it managed to survive to our time, Nalanda would be, by a long margin, the oldest university in the world.” Nalanda was established some 500 years before the Al-Azhar University in Cairo (970 AD.)
It has been decided that the new university would have facilities “including the teaching of and research in humanities such as history, languages and linguistics and comparative religion, as well as the social sciences and the world of practice such as international relations, management and development and information technology”. It would have a School of Buddhist studies, philosophy and comparative religion; School of Historical Studies; School of International Relations and Peace; School of Business Management and Development; School of Languages and Literature; and School of Ecology and Environmental Studies. The visitor of the university would either be the President of India or any other person appointed by him. The university would function as a public-private partnership with funds to be provided voluntarily by the respective governments of the member states. The Mea is expected to relax visa procedures for foreign faculty and students visiting India in this connection.
Professor Sen must be aware that Bihar is now desperately trying to shed its age-old image as a lawless state. The state is registering exponential growth in economy under the dynamic leadership of Nitish Kumar. It has made tremendous headway in education as well with the math wizard and Super 30 founder Anand Kumar winning international accolades. So any effort to delay or dilute the project or shift any of its locations elsewhere would be counterproductive.
The project is expected be the lifeline of Bihar’s economy. It would revive Buddhist cultures, attract scholars from all over the world, promote tourism and develop the economic conditions of people living in the 200-odd villages near the site. The success of this academic venture will strengthen cooperation among the Asian countries and promote mutual understanding. To quote Singapore foreign minister George Yeo, also an NMG member, Nalanda International University would be the “icon of Asian Renaissance… as Asia re-emerges on the world stage this century, its civilisational origins will become a subject of intense study and debate. Asians will look back to their own past and derive inspiration from it for the future”.
Most importantly, it will emphasise the importance of eastern intellectual endeavour and ensure that human cultural understanding is not dominated by the Western civilisational model.
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