Thursday, March 23rd, 2023 17:43:36

Hangover Of Controversies Overshadows Joy At Nalanda

Updated: September 27, 2014 1:06 pm

The praiseworthy move to revive the ancient Nalanda University was ruined by handing it over to the Ministry of External Affairs. What had it got to do with the setting up of a centre of learning in Bihar where itself there are scholars who have spent lifetime researching about it.

The MEA mandarins with knowledge of everything foreign could only choose Prof Amartya Sen. A great scholar and a Nobel Laureate, we all, are proud of his attainments and specialisation in poverty and economics. But he should not have been expected to devote his time and attention to conceptualise and work from drafting stage for a centre of religious learning ancient culture.

His expertise and knowledge of Harvard and Cambridge should have been used, when after the setting up the new Nalanda International University, it was to be diversified to compete with the best institutions in the world presently.

The news that with 15 students and 11 faculty members, classes have begun in Bihar’s Nalanda University, rebuilt after eight centuries, should have been a matter of national pride and rejoicing. It should have at least been published as second lead. Yet this report was buried with inane news.

Even a small, tentative beginning, one must realise, links the country to our culture and remarkable achievement in scholarship centuries ago when Nālandā was an unique higher-learning institution and a religious centre of scholars learning (from the fifth century CE to 1197 CE). It attracted scholars and students from as far away as Tibet, China, Greece, and Greater Iran.

The starting of classes reminded the world, and even our young generations, that Nalanda was one of the world’s first residential universities, which had dormitories for students. It was also one of the most famous universities. In its heyday, it accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Chinese pilgrims estimated the students between 3,000 and 5,000. The university was considered an architectural masterpiece.

And it was visited by both Mahavira and Buddha in sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Such a seat of learning was ransacked and destroyed by an army of the Muslim Mamluk Dynasty under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193 CE. And one talks of our secularism—a town between Patna and Nalanda has been named after it.

The start, therefore, one of the most famous institution in the world was by itself a momentous and historic occasion.

Why then this lukewarm reception of such an important, historic milestone?

But surprisingly, even those who read the news about the start of classes did not feel euphoric. For the whole project has been generating more bad than good news. Various allegations have created suspicion about the management of the whole project.

The ambitious plan got besmirched with controversies even before it started any academic courses. The doubts about the manner of expenditure, allegations of spending money on unnecessary travels and holding monitor group meetings akin to picnic in exotic locations like New York—where mentor’s meeting cost reportedly Rs65 lakh—flagrant disregard of terms and selection criteria for Vice Chancellor and other senior posts, suspicion about the motive in agreeing to give extravagant salaries, triggered queries to the monitor group headed by no less a person than Prof. Dr Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate.

The mentors’ group adopted ostrich-like silence. Even the Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen, being the head of the mentor group and the governing body, did not try to stave off the serious allegations, indeed his own reputation was a bit stained. An open letter was addressed to him in which 10 questions were asked to which he did not respond directly.

The first controversy was triggered by the appointment of Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, as Vice Chancellor. Reportedly twin sister of Gauri who was married to the son of L.K.Advani, Gopa, it was alleged that she was too junior for the post and also did not have the qualifications laid down.

Her appointment, according to the Bihar Times, a very widely read online news service, and which has done excellent reporting on all aspects of the process of re-creating Nalanda University of eight centuries ago, evoked first controversy. Reports suggested that Dr Gopa did not meet the mandatory qualification set by the University Grants Commission (UGC) for the Vice Chancellors of the central and state universities. Only a distinguished academicians with a minimum ten years of experience as a professor in a university can be appointed as the VC.

When selected she was a professor in Lady Shri Ram College DU, and has had nothing to do with the Buddhist Studies, which the Nalanda University is expected to specialise.

There was greater consternation over the reported salary agreed for Dr Gopa—Rs 5,06,513 per month, which if true is double than the VC of Delhi University.

Worse, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) seemed to hesitate to acknowledge about her selection. According to a report in Bihar Times, the MEA first told in Rajya Sabha that no Vice-Chancellor had been appointed for the University. However, in an RTI reply three months later it under the signatures of Joint Secretary Nagendra Kumar Saxena revealed that on the recommendations of the Nalanda Mentor Group, Dr Gopa Sabharwal was formally appointed Vice Chancellor.

The terms of reference was also attached. Dr Sen’ recommendation for Dr Gopa on Harvard letter-head is a bit surprising, although there is nothing wrong.

Other selections that caused controversies included that of the selections made at the very first meeting of Governing Board (Mentor Group) in February 2011, The board nominated adviser committee to help out and two persons selected for representing India. In it were Ms Upinder Singh, daughter of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and her colleague Ms Nayanjot Lahiri, who are not experts on any aspect of the Nalanda tradition or history.

Why a Prime Minister’s daughter and her alleged friend? You scratch my back, I scratch yours, sort of quid pro quo. Another appointment further strengthens the point.

Then, one, Dr Anjana Sharma was appointed as the Officer on Special Duty. She was an Associate Professor at Delhi University. Gopa Sabharwal and Anjana Sharma were reportedly close associates since their days at Delhi University. They even co-authored a book together. No doubt Gopa recommended the name and Dr Sen obliged.

In a Times of India report datelined Beijing, October 15, 2013, informed that the proposed Nalanda International University “which aims to recreate the legendary 11th century institution, will adopt a forward looking approach by establishing a department of information technology, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who heads the university’s governing board, said.

“India has special skills in the field of IT. It would help in the skill development in Bihar…

“The Nalanda board, which met in Beijing over the past two days, decided to initially establish two faculties on historical and environmental studies and follow up the effort with more faculties on subjects like Buddhism and Comparative Religion, International Relations and IT. It also decided to go for an international competition to choose the architect for the university buildings.”

Sen blamed the MEA for delaying the process of establishing the university. He added that the MEA failed to take timely decisions to release funds and resolves issues concerning the appointment of its Vice Chancellor.

“Nalanda has suffered because of complications at the MEA although there was an enabling act of Parliament,” he said. The university is also facing a media campaign at the local level in Bihar because some people are taking a parochial att-itude towards it.

In an oblique counter to allegations in various articles in Bihar Times he said, “A lot of lies have been spread about the Nalanda University.” Sen called on critics of the university in Bihar to eschew parochialism, and let it emerge as a world institution that would enhance the State’s image as a traditional centre of learning. The university was seeking funds and educational excellence from all countries, he said.

The board approved Gopa Sabharwal as Vice Chancellor designate but a formal appointment was pending for quite some time “because of confusion about the role of former President Abdul Kalam, who was supposed to clear it as the First Visitor of the University.

“It was for the MEA to approach Kalam and clarify if he wanted to continue as First Visitor and it did not do that,” Sen said.

But his counter and clarification could not cover the backlash of the sudden resignation of President Kalam. In fact, it added to the surfeit of allegations re. appointments and expenditure. APJ Abdul Kalam never shared with media why exactly he left the Nalanda University project. His resignation must have been the outcome of some severe shock on discovering something for the project was his brainchild whose origin could be traced back to his address to the Bihar Legislative Assembly on March 28, 2006. The Nalanda University proudly displays his speech on its official website.

The University would, however, loath to admit why Kalam left the project despite being nominated

as its first Visitor under Clause 5 (e) of the Nalanda University Act, 2010. Bihar Times alleges, “It was obvious that he was upset the way project had been handled.” But then Bihar Times claimed that it had accessed the complete truth in Kalam’s own words—his letter to the External Affairs Minister on July 4, 2011. Kalam’s letter to Mr. S.M. Krishna reveals why he was not in a position to become the first Visitor of the Nalanda University.

Para 3 of the letter reads-

“Having involved in various academic and administrative proceedings of Nalanda University since August 2007, I believe that the candidates to be selected/appointed to the post of Chancellor and Vice Chancellor should be of extraordinary intellect with academic and management expertise. Both the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor

have to personally involve themselves full-time in Bihar, so that a robust and strong international institution is built”.

Kalam, Bihar Times alleged, felt frustrated with the people at helm of affairs. His resignation was evidently a rebuff to Prof. Amartya Sen and his protégé Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, smuggled in as the Vice Chancellor-Designate without his knowledge.

Then the Bihar Times made a scathingly worded allegation. It said the choice of Dr Sen as head of the Governing body was testimony of India’s obsequiousness. This obsequiousness is what Dr. Kalam has repeatedly warned Indians against.

The controversies and allegations listed in detail, should hopefully be put on the shelf and we wait how the 2014 Nalanda International University evolves. Started on September 11, with eight students and 15 teachers, it has the best ratio between teachers and students in the world. Dr Gopa and others and more importantly Dr Sen have an excellent opportunity to disprove all their critics by developing the new Nalanda University to match the original one 800 years ago but also to diversify it to scare even the likes of Harvard and Cambridge.

How about being Master of Nalanda, Prof Sen? From Trinity to Nalanda. Its not impossible.

Only the resignation of Pres-ident Kalam nags one about something not right. One can only hope and wait.


The news about the university, conceptualised as an international university involving the 16 ASEAN countries like China, Japan, Australia, Korea and Thailand was reported widely.

The government spent Rs 2.11 crore on meetings held by a ‘mentor group’ constituted under the chairmanship of Professor Amartya Sen in Singapore, Tokyo, New York, Delhi and Gaya to conceptualise establishment of the university. The group formed in 2007 was supposed to file a final report within a period of nine months but has not filed it yet.

The Parliament, however, enacted the law for it in 2010 which was notified on September 22, 2010. Under the Act, Parliament allotted 455 acres of land in Rajgir foothills for the construction of the University. The initiation was taken further by Singh, who signed agreements with seven of the 18 East Asia Summit countries in October 2013—Australia, Cambodia, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Laos and Myanmar. They agreed to help India to proceed with its project to re-establish its ancient educational building.

Each country contributed for the construction, including China that has promised to give $1 million, Singapore that is giving around $5 million, Thailand Ambassador to India has donated a sum of 1,00,000 dollars and Australia has pledged 1 million Australian dollars, apart from foreign investment into the mega project. Apart from this the Central government has sanctioned $445 million to the university for a period of 10 years.

Economist Amartya Sen was chosen to lead the governing body of the University along with former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo and Secretary to Ministry of External Affairs Anil Wadhwa.

The University started the orientation programme for students on September 11 that lasted for three days. As the University building is yet to be constructed, the classes began in Rajgir International Convention Centre. The government-owned Tathagat Hotel will be used as hostel for the students and faculty members.

The University selected 15 candidates out of the 1000 applicants for courses in Ecology and Environment and Historical Studies, whereas more are expected to join soon as admission procedure is underway.

“Of the 11 teachers, seven have arrived. All teachers have outstanding careers. We hope to add schools of linguistics and literature, economics and management and also public health in a year,” Sabhrawal told The Indian Express.

And thus the restoration of Nalanda University began. All the news about the progress in re-establishing the university kept people’s interest alive people looked forward to the start of classes and attracting, as it did in its original avatar students and scholars from the world over.         (VD)



“Though Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen recently said at Asia Society in New York that he had submitted three names to the Government of India including that of Dr Gopa Sabharwal for the post of Vice Chancellor of the Nalanda International University, the Curriculum Vitae (CV) submitted by Dr Sabharwal herself at India-Japan Global Partnership Summit in Tokyo on September 6 and 7, 2011 said something else,” according to Bihar Times.

It said that “She was hand picked by the Nalanda Mentor Group and its Chairperson Professor Amartya Sen, to spearhead the task of establishing the prestigious Nalanda University.”

It further said that “She is arguably one of India’s youngest Vice Chancellors and has zest, an energy and enormous creative ability to transform the vision of Nalanda into the reality of Nalanda University as a centre of world-wide excellence. ”Bihar Times report said, “The CV, among other things, highlights the achievements of Dr. Sabharwal in the field of Sociology and her role in establishing the department at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women.

Gopa Sabharwal is a sociologist by training and her research engages with ethnicity, identity and social history. Her work reflects a continuing concern with and exploration of diverse aspects of social life and its multiple contexts. She obtained a Ph.D in Sociology from the University of Delhi for her research on ethnic groups and ethnicity in Belgaum in Karnataka State. Dr. Sabharwal has had a long and illustrious career at Delhi University.

She founded the Department of Sociology at India’s best Arts college, the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, very early in her career in 1993. In 18 years she successfully transformed this Department into one of the best in the country with a field-work component unrivalled by any institution and regular student exchange with students from as far as Australia, the United States, Singapore and even Japan.

Dr. Sabharwal is a pioneer in knowledge creation and dissemination and has successfully merged her several interests—in sociology, in social anthropology, in social history, in film, in media and television—to take forward the educational process. She was hand picked by the Nalanda Mentor Group and its Chairperson Professor Amartya Sen, to spearhead the task of establishing the prestigious Nalanda University. She is arguably one of India’s younger Vice Chancellors and has zest, an energy and enormocreative ability to transform the vision of Nalanda into the reality of Nalanda University as a centre of world-wide excellence. Gopa Sabharwal has a wide range of publications, including:

*India since 1947: The Independent Years (New Delhi: Penguin India, 2007); *Ethnicity and Class: Social Differentiation in an Indian City (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006). *The Indian Millennium, A.D. 1000 to A.D. 2000. (Delhi: Penguin India: 2000) (Now in its 3rd edition).

She is currently engaged in collaborative research on two key works, entitled “From Noakhali to New Delhi: Gandhi, 1947-48” and “India 1947: Lives Lived”, both commissioned by Penguin Books, New Delhi, India.                                                                                                                                                           (VD)

By Vijay Dutt

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