Sunday, August 14th, 2022 21:56:54

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s Ignoble Charges Against Government

Updated: March 14, 2015 12:26 pm

The MEA mandarins with knowledge of everything foreign could only choose someone from foreign land. Admittedly they got a Nobel Laureate admired the world over for his work on poverty and economics. But how much time can he give to the University? He is like a visitor who remote controls the governance but can he help in the direction of study in different disciplines?

It was comparatively quiet on the political front. A sort of lull had settled in Delhi, after the excitement over the devastating defeat of the BJP by AAP in the Delhi Assembly election. But then suddenly it seemed lightning had struck and sparks were flying all over.

The Lutyen Club’s members, the media, the Congress leadership and the Left all joined in damning the Modi government.

The reason for such an explosion was that one of their own, but highly distinguished and honoured, the Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen complained of insult and misconduct of the government towards him. That stirred the intellectuals’ and left’s conscience. They were aghast to learn that the Modi government did not want him to continue as the Chancellor of the new Nalanda International University (at Rs 1005 crore). And then he ominously pronounced his scholarly judgement that academic freedom was in danger in India under Narendra Modi. Worse, he warned education was being politicised.

His revelation that the Modi government did not want him to continue as Chancellor of the University, apart from his warnings about politicisation of education outraged not only the usual Modi-haters but people generally. The intellectuals and leftists were livid, how dare Modi oust one of their own. The Ministry of External Affairs denied everything but no one gave it much attention, in fact dismissing MEA as his master’s voice.

The MEA reacting to Dr Amartya Sen’s resignation as Chancellor of Nalanda University, spokesperson Dr Syed Akbaruddin said the External Affairs Ministry is yet to receive the approved minutes of the meeting of the governing board of the Nalanda University, so it cannot act as yet. Dr Sen avers that his decision to not continue in the post after July was taken by him when neither the President Pranab Mukherjee, nor the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) replied to the Board’s decision. Because the Board consists of representatives of several Asian countries, the rules required the decision to be routed through the MEA to Rashtrapati Bhawan.

After a month of silence from both the MEA and the President’s House, Dr Sen writes that he concluded that “…the government wants me to cease being the Chancellor.” Professor Sen’s sense of betrayal or of intentional insult is rather misplaced. He knows the post of Chancellor is not for life. There is no reason for him to feel that he has been snubbed by the government. In its wisdom, the government of the day can choose anyone it considers suitable for a world famous institution.

Centre Of Controversies

  • Dr Sen’ recommendation for Dr Gopa on Harvard letter-head was a bit odd, although one cannot fault it. .
  • The selections made at the very first meeting of Governing Board (Mentor Group) in February 2011 of adviser committee to help out and two persons selected for representing India in it were Ms Upinder Singh, daughter of 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? And yet Dr Sen alleges politicisation of education by the BJP-led government.
  • Dr Anjana Sharma, an Associate Professor at Delhi University and reportedly a close associate of Gopa Sabharwal, was appointed Officer on Special Duty. The two allegedly co-authored a book.

Was a club of friends set up?

  • A Times of India report datelined Beijing, said 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 delays. “Nalanda has suffered because of complications at the MEA although there was an enabling act of parliament.” The university is also facing a media campaign at the local level in Bihar because some people are taking a parochial attitude towards it.
  • All allegations and counters by Dr Sen could not overcome the backlash of the sudden resignation of President Kalam. In fact it added to the surfeit of allegations—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 is, however, loath to explain 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.” It 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”.

But in his evenly modulated tone and expressionless face he has lost no opportunity to attack the government again and again. One should have listened to his interview on a channel the anchor of which is a big hater of Modi. Both enjoyed finding faults in the Prime Minster and predicted that if his popularity goes further down, BJP is bound to lose in Bihar. No surprise then he is the most sought after person for interviews by TV channels. And most anchors must have been overjoyed by statements he made. It all ominously concluded that the BJP dominated NDA government would rewrite history and class books based on the RSS ideology. This made for huge TRPs.

The outrage that followed was justified. But for some reason, when Leftist historians and scholars ruled, supported by various Congress or its led governments, they interpreted history according to their ideology. But instead of any criticism, they were treated like VIPs—foreign jaunts, part of delegations, ice houses in Lutyen’s part of Delhi—were some of the perks. No criticism was possible. The so-called intellectuals and writers, inclined towards Marxism, controlled the media for decades.

Coming back to Prof Sen’s conclusion when the President and the Ministry did not respond for a month, that they did not want him for the second term could be correct.


The other charge Prof Sen made was that the education was being politicised. How people forget, or feign, about themselves. Prof Sen’s appointment was by the UPA government, which was neither run by academicians nor saints. They all were politicians. He seemingly didn’t see anything wrong in UPA giving him the Nalanda appointment. He could have declined and advised the government to set up a selection committee. But even with the noble Nobel Laureate, it seems principles go for a toss when ‘self’ is involved. His selection of Manmohan Singh’s daughter too smacked of politics and a sort of thank you. Is this not politics?

His statement that India’s universities need to be free from political interference did not ring any conviction. Eminent and opportunistic academics, one would dare not include a Nobel Laureate, are part of the problem. Too many of them have no problem with political interference as long as they are on the right side of it.

If Prof Sen was all for upholding principles, he could have turned down, or quit, the chancellorship of Nalanda University. He didn’t see anything wrong in the role of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government in his appointment, or in the appointment of the board, or indeed in the appointment of a vice-chancellor with weak academic credentials. He didn’t see anything wrong with having politicians on the board—N.K. Singh was an MP when appointed, Sugata Bose became an MP while on the board.

In fact the most laudable 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 someone from foreign land. Admittedly they got a Nobel Laureate admired the world over for his work on poverty and economics. But how much time can he give to the University? He is like a visitor who remote controls the governance but can he help in the direction of study in different disciplines? Moreover, the core objective of this new Nalanda International University is the revival of Buddhist spirit and inculcate its teachings. It will have schools for Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions; Historical Studies; International Relations and Peace Studies; Business Management in relation to Public Policy and Development Studies; Languages and Literature; Ecology and Environmental Studies. There are also plans to add one on Information Technology.

Chancellor Prof Amartya Sen, a great scholar and a Nobel Laureate, about whom India is proud of, should not have been expected to devote his time and attention to conceptualize 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 Vice-Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal, described as an eminent social scientist, too cannot have any inkling of Buddhism. This is unfortunate that both senior most administrators have no knowledge of Buddhism.

It is also unfortunate that over the years controversies, charges of corruption, and nepotism have blighted the most ambitious and praiseworthy projects. This is why instead of celebrating the news that with 15 students and 11 faculty members, classes have begun after eight centuries, and feeling proud about it, people discussed mismanagement. The media dismissed it in a brief spot like space. It otherwise deserved at least a second look and a major Sunday Feature.

Our Press should have conveyed to the world that the starting of classes at Nalanda, one of the world’s first residential universities, was a remarkable achievement. It was 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.

It was so famous that both Mahavira and Buddha visited it 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.

But, because the ambitious plan got besmirched with controversies, 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. Sen.

Surprisingly, neither mentors’ group nor Prof Sen being the head of the mentor group nor the governing body tries to refute 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. Prof Sen should be happy that leaving the Chancelloir’s post would bury all the uncomfortable controversies which have affected his reputation. He should also be happy that he would not have to come to India while Modi is Prime Minister. This is what he had vowed.

Lastly, he must remember that those who live in glass house must not throw stones. A bit of restrain would be advisable. With all his intellectual friends he can hardly hope to discredit a popularly elected prime minister of India. Why fight a losing battle?

By Vijay Dutt

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