In January 2007, at the East Asia Summit, the government of India shared its plan to establish an international, multi-disciplinary university at Nalanda in Bihar. With the resignation of George Yeo, its second chancellor in as many years, last week, the university looked like a testament to the failed promises of the governments of India and Bihar, as well as its administrators.
Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore and Amartya Sen’s successor at Nalanda, says that he was not even informed when the entire governing board of the university, which included Sen, Sugata Bose and Meghnad Desai, was replaced. Allegations of political interference and attacks on the university’s autonomy — made against the Central government since before Sen’s resignation last year — were repeated by Yeo. While MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup has claimed that the government acted according to the rules established by the Nalanda University Act (2010), the impression that the government is actively undermining the autonomy of the university is likely to remain. Legitimate questions have also been raised on the slow progress in establishing Nalanda as a large-scale institution of higher learning. At its peak, the university has a student strength of just 60. It has been six years since it was granted nearly 500 acres of land in Rajgir, Bihar, but no significant construction has been undertaken on the new campus. Meanwhile, at least two large private universities — Ashoka University and Shiv Nadar University — have been established and are up and running on the outskirts of Delhi.
At its inception, the new Nalanda University held all the promise of the original — diversity, international recognition, adequate funds and state support and some of the best minds in the world. It could have been, as was promised by India at the East Asia Summit, an intellectual resource for the entire continent. It could have provided a template for other ailing institutions in the country, many of which need examples beyond the IITs and IIMs — both of Nehruvian vintage. As things stand, Nalanda threatens to become an international embarrassment and a cautionary tale. It may become yet another mediocre institution churning out students who cannot make their way to a larger city for a better education. Nalanda’s administrators must raise their standards of efficiency. And the government must realise that academic and intellectual autonomy are not impediments to its goal, but rather the essential attributes to building institutions that can produce originality and innovation.