Modi, Nitish forget to mention Amartya Sen, Nalanda University founders

Both PM Modi and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar skipped mention of the university's former chancellors while inaugurating the university campus

PM Narendra Modi at Nalanda (photo: PTI)
PM Narendra Modi at Nalanda (photo: PTI)

Pranav Chaudhary

Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week visited the ruins of Nalanda University in Bihar for the first time in 10 years. While he has been visiting the state regularly to campaign, this was his first visit to the historic, UNESCO heritage site. He spent considerable time walking around the ruins, close to which the new campus of the university he inaugurated, and getting himself photographed.

Both the prime minister and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar dwelt on the role of the late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam — who had enthusiastically supported the idea of reviving the ancient university — but not surprisingly, skipped mentioning the role of Prof. Amartya Sen or the initial group of people who tried to give shape to the idea.

Recalling an ancient Chinese proverb that whenever you drink water, think of the people who dug the well and the pond, the university's former ‘acting’ vice-chancellor Prof. Pankaj Mohan put out a Facebook post lamenting the omissions.

Forced to leave Nalanda University and currently a distinguished scholar in Australia, Prof. Mohan had left his chair in Korea to return to his home state to revive the ancient university. Following the resignation of Prof Sen, vilified by the RSS echo system, complaining of interference in academic matters, Prof. Mohan and several others left, disillusioned.

Prof. Mohan wistfully recalled that it was he who awarded the contract for the construction of the campus in 2017, which PM Modi inaugurated on Wednesday. He and then chancellor Dr Vijay Bhatker had participated in the bhoomi pujan. However, the documentary shown at the inauguration of the campus skipped mentioning even the late Sushma Swaraj who, as external affairs minister in the NDA government, had been instrumental in ensuring the commencement of teaching.

PM Modi plants a sapling at the inauguration of Nalanda University (photo: PTI)
PM Modi plants a sapling at the inauguration of Nalanda University (photo: PTI)

Mohan recalled that in 2014, Prof. Sen had donated Rs 20 lakh which he had received from his lectures in Indonesia. The amount was used to set up a scholarship fund for needy students. It was largely due to his influence that governments of Australia and China and an NRI from Switzerland donated USD 1 million each to Nalanda.

The total came to Rs 18 crore. Thailand also came forward to donate Rs 60 lakh. A business delegation from Singapore visited Nalanda at Prof. Sen's request and pledged Rs 60 crore (USD 10 million) for the library.

Prof. Sen, Mohan recalls, did not accept any honorarium from Nalanda University or the Indian government. It was PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee who announced a life-long free pass for him to travel first class in Air India while conferring the Bharat Ratna on the Nobel Laureate.

All Bharat Ratna awardees are treated as state guests by the governments in India and he received nothing beyond this hospitality. However, he and acting vice-chancellor Dr Gopa Sabharwal were vilified by the RSS-BJP echo system and accused of various irregularities and corruption.

Bharati Jain, a journalist with Times of India, accused Prof. Sen of receiving Rs 5 lakh per month, unlimited foreign travel facilities, five-star accommodation and the authority to make appointments directly. When she was challenged and informed that her allegations were far from the truth, she wrote on Twitter (now X), “This is to acknowledge that my tweets on Prof Amartya Sen with regard to his tenure at Nalanda University were completely incorrect,” Mohan recalled. Jain also tendered an apology to Prof. Sen.

The current government headed by Narendra Modi could have set the record straight and cleared the air but did not, possibly because Prof. Sen has remained critical of Modi's governance.

With scholars such as Prof. Sugata Bose, who was teaching at Harvard, and Prof. Meghnad Desai from the London School of Economics, former Hong Kong University chancellor Prof. Wang Kung Wu, Dr Vijay Bhatkar, a computer scientist acknowledged as one of the architects of India’s initiatives in supercomputing, and George Yeo on the governing board, it was hoped that Nalanda University would truly develop into an international university of repute.

All of them, however, resigned once Prof. Sen was ousted. The next vice-chancellor Prof. Sunaina Singh ensured that distinguished professors from Asia, Europe and the US gradually resigned and left. Even teachers with links to Jawaharlal Nehru University were forced to leave, barring a few exceptions who had links to the RSS.

Not surprisingly, writes Mohan, Nalanda University today ranks 18th among 24 universities in Bihar.

Nitish Kumar on Wednesday claimed that 400 students from 17 countries were currently enrolled in the university. Last year in May, at the completion of her extended six-year term as VC, Prof. Singh had claimed there were “1000 students from 30 nationalities” studying in the university.

Many scoff at the numbers and say that international students actually number a handful, and the fees for studying history, geography or languages like Pali being as exorbitant as they are, they cannot imagine who are enrolling in the university and why. 

However, RSS ideologue Ram Madhav, it is believed, is among the first few to receive a PhD from the university. "His thesis and the number of times he visited the university for consultations call for more research,” is the sardonic comment from a former faculty member.

The new campus has facilities such as solar plants, a water treatment plant, a water recycling plant, and 100 acres of water bodies contributing to its promise of being a ‘net zero’ green campus. The university has two academic blocks with a seating capacity of 1,900 divided into 40 classrooms, holding roughly 50 students in each.

Its impressive infrastructure includes two 300-seat auditoriums, a hostel with a capacity for 550 students, and an amphitheatre that can hold up to 2,000 individuals. Developed at an estimated cost of Rs 1,700 crore, some believe the money could have been better spent. While the funds largely come from the external affairs ministry, which uses it as a retreat and orientation centre, is the investment justified for the 400-odd ‘students’, ask sceptics.

More than 500 years before Oxford University was founded, Nalanda University was said to have nine million books and 10,000 students from around the world. Deemed to be the world's first residential university, the university taught medicine, logic, mathematics and, above all, Buddhist philosophy.

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Published: 20 Jun 2024, 6:24 PM