Four days after Nobel laureate Amartya Sen was dropped from the governing board of Nalanda University, Chancellor George Yeo, a former Singapore foreign minister, submitted his resignation to President Pranab Mukherjee as a mark of protest.
Elaborating on the reasons behind his resignation, in a statement sent to The Indian Express and in a Facebook post, Yeo said he was not consulted about dissolution of the board, and that the sudden move was “bound up with Indian domestic politics”.
Yeo’s decision was conveyed in an email sent to members of the governing board on Friday morning, days after Sen’s nine-year association with the university was terminated by the government on November 21.
The Indian Express had first reported on the government’s decision to dissolve the board and constitute a new one, which led to Yeo’s resignation. Sen, who had criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi previously, had quit as Chancellor in February 2015 and hit out at the BJP-led government later.
In his Facebook post, Yeo said, “The sudden dissolution of the old Nalanda Board is bound up with Indian domestic politics, which I do not wish to be embroiled in. I am not an Indian citizen and prefer not to make further comments beyond what is contained in my statement.”
In the statement, he said, “The order which the Visitor (President Mukherjee) approved on November 21, 2016, dissolving the Governing Board and creating a new one came as a complete surprise to me and to most members of the old Governing Board. I was neither involved in the preparation nor consulted beforehand.”
He stated: “The circumstances under which the leadership change in Nalanda University has been suddenly and summarily effected is disturbing and possibly harmful to the University’s development. It is puzzling why I, as Chancellor, was not even given notice of it. When I was invited to take over the responsibility from Amartya Sen last year, I was repeatedly assured that the University would have autonomy. This appears not to be the case now. Accordingly, and with deep sadness, I have submitted my letter of resignation as Chancellor to the Visitor.”
There was no response from the Ministry of External Affairs to requests from The Indian Express seeking comment on Yeo’s resignation.
When contacted, bureaucrat-turned-BJP member N K Singh, who was on the previous board and is part of the new one as India’s representative, supported the government move. “What has been done is not a reconstitution of the board, but the first constitution as per the Nalanda Act as it stands today,” said Singh.
Sugata Bose, Harvard University professor and Trinamool Congress MP, who was dropped along with Sen, backed Yeo’s move. “George Yeo acted with great dignity under the most aggravating circumstances. He has done exactly what a distinguished self-respecting person was expected to do. I entirely agree with his assessment. He was given certain assurances about the university’s autonomy, which has not been kept. As Indians, we should keep our promises,” said Bose.
“In the days of the freedom struggle, we used to accuse the British government of perfidy. The government of Independent India should think of India’s prestige in the comity of nations,” said Bose, a noted historian and the grand-nephew of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
In his Facebook post, Yeo said that on the Nalanda project, he has worked closely with leaders of different political parties, including the BJP and Congress. He said that he remained completely committed to the original mission of Nalanda as supported by the leaders of the East Asian Summit in 2009 and as debated and unanimously agreed to by all political parties in India’s Upper and Lower Houses when the Act was passed in 2010.
“Nalanda is an idea whose time has come. It is bigger than and will outlast anyone of us,” he said, in the statement and on Facebook.
“When I was appointed Chancellor in July 2015, I was told that a new Governing Board would be formed under an amended Act, core aspects of which the Ministry of External Affairs sought my views on. The amended Act would have removed a major flaw in the current Act, which, in essence, offers Governing Board seats to East Asian Summit countries making the highest financial contributions in the last three years. This provision, which was never recommended by the Nalanda Mentor Group, would not have been a good way to constitute the Governing Board and was the reason the Government of India requested the Nalanda Mentor Group to continue functioning as the Governing Board for a number of years until the Act could be amended,” he said.
“For reasons not entirely clear to me, the Government of India has decided to form the new Governing Board with immediate effect before the Act is amended. This is of course entirely the prerogative of the Government of India,” he said.
Yeo said that pending the appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor, the incumbent Vice-Chancellor, Gopa Sabharwal, whose extended term ended on November 24, was to stay on as interim Vice-Chancellor. This is provided for in the University Statutes and fully supported by the old Governing Board, he said.
“However, on November 22, the Visitor overruled the Governing Board and directed that the senior-most Dean be appointed instead,” he said.
While Yeo was brought in as Chancellor in 2015, Sen continued as Governing Board member — he was part of the Nalanda Mentors Group (NMG) since 2007, which was tasked by the Manmohan Singh government in 2007 to revive the historic university and make it a unique centre of learning.
On November 21, President Mukherjee, in his capacity as Visitor, approved the constitution of the Governing Board in accordance with section 7 of the Nalanda University Act, 2010.
Sources said that the governing board has been constituted with the following members: Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, and five members from among the member states, India, China, Australia, Laos PDR and Thailand, which provide maximum financial assistance during a period of three years.
Apart from N K Singh, sources said, Secretary (East) in MEA Preeti Saran, two members representing the Bihar government, one member not below the rank of additional secretary in the HRD Ministry and three ‘renowned academicians/ educationists’ would be nominated by the Centre.
“These are Prof Arvind Sharma, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Canada; Prof Lokesh Chandra, President, Indian Council for Cultural Relations; and, Dr Arvind Panagariya, Vice Chairman, Niti Ayog,” they said.