Intrusion into academic space

Print edition : January 20, 2017

At a press conference after Nalanda University's governing board meeting in February 2013, (from left) Gopa Sabharwal, Amartya Sen and George Yeo. Prof. Sen and Yeo have resigned. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

THE increasing interference by the NDA government, especially that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the affairs of Nalanda University in Bihar resulted in the resignation of the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, first as Chancellor of the university in 2015 and as member of its governing board in November 2016. Chancellor George Yeo, too, quit his post in November citing interference from the government. He said the present regime at the Centre was eroding the university’s autonomy. Yeo resigned after the university’s governing body was reconstituted on November 21 without even informing him.

The move to reconstitute the governing body was obviously aimed at interfering with the selection of a new Vice Chancellor, which the governing board was in the process of doing. With Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal’s term coming to an end on November 24, 2016, the search committee was already in the process of selecting a new name, which would have then been sent to the board for approval and then to the government.

Yeo was merely sent a letter signed by an Under Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs after the governing board was reconstituted. The order read: “President Pranab Mukherjee, in his capacity as Visitor of N.U., is pleased to approve the constitution of the governing board with immediate effect in accordance with Clause 7 of the N.U Act.”

Prof. Sugata Bose, Trinamool Congress MP, who also was ousted from the governing board, said: “It is sad the way Yeo had been kept in the dark about the changes in the university’s governing board. It does not bode well for our prestige in South East Asia. It is not only our foreign relations, but the future of the university itself that is at stake.” Besides Amartya Sen, the United Kingdom-based economist and Labour politician Lord Meghnad, who was a member of the Nalanda Mentors’ Group, was also not included in the reconstituted governing board.

Professor Arvind Sharma, faculty of religious studies, McGill University (Canada); Prof. Lokesh Chandra, president, Indian Council for Cultural Relations; and Dr Arvind Panagariya, Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, are the new faces in the reconstituted board.

Nalanda University was established on November 25, 2010, to revive the lost glory of India not only in the field of spiritual and philosophical studies but also in medicine and mathematics. The university’s governing board has on it the Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor, representatives of five member countries (India, China, Australia, Laos and Thailand), Secretary (East), Ministry of External Affairs, one representative of the Ministry of Human Resource Development and two representatives of the government of Bihar. The only member of the Nalanda Mentors Group to have retained his position in the new governing board is former Rajya Sabha member N.K. Singh as the Government of India representative. Other countries will name their representatives later.

The university’s problems started soon after the NDA government took over, which delayed the decision to give another term to Prof. Sen despite the board having approved it. Prof. Sen, who was with the university since its inception, resigned reportedly upset over the “delay in extension of his tenure and political interference”.

One of the ousted governing body members admitted to Frontline that denying a second term to Prof. Sen was a personal decision of Prime Minister Modi. The fact that the government wants to hoist a person of its choice as the Vice Chancellor becomes clear as the move to reconstitute the board coincided with the end of Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal’s tenure on November 24, 2016. The process to find her successor is on.

The university’s search committee invited applications for the Vice Chancellor’s post in October and the last date for receiving applications was November 30. The Visitor makes the appointment from a panel of names recommended by the governing board. “It is quite obvious the government did not want the present governing board to recommend names,” said Prof. Sugata Bose. “The present board was in the process of selecting a Vice Chancellor so the government clearly did not want the board to do that. It bodes ill for the future of such a prestigious institution as its autonomy has been compromised,” he said. According to him, this was a sensitive issue which needed to be handled carefully but unfortunately it did not happen. “The government should have thought of the long-term implications of this move,” he said.

An External Affairs Ministry official, however, justified the government’s action by saying the governing board was long overdue for reconstitution. “The same members had continued for nine long years. The university was lagging behind in performance despite a huge amount of money having gone into it. It was not doing as well as it should have. There was no dearth of funding, but the results were missing. So the changes had become necessary,” he said. According to him, it was wrong to attribute political motives to the changes because the basic idea was to improve performance by bringing in eminent academics.

But the question arises as to who exactly is an eminent academic. Looking at the credentials of the newly appointed governing body members, it is clear that Nalanda University is in for a tactical shift. The focus is more likely to be on studying religion and Sanskrit, according to the newly appointed governing body member Prof. Arvind Sharma. That is something the RSS has always been advocating.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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