Updated: February 21, 2015 12:56:41 am
Amartya Sen’s decision to remove himself from the running for a second term as chancellor of Nalanda University should embarrass the government. Though the university’s governing board had unanimously voted Sen for the post over a month ago, it was met with a resounding silence from the ministry of external affairs and the president’s office, both of which are meant to vet such appointments under the Nalanda University Act. In a letter to the members of the governing board, Sen has taken this silence to mean the government wants him “to cease being chancellor of Nalanda University”. The economist has long been identified as a critic of the Narendra Modi government, having voiced concerns over its preferred development models and the BJP’s record on minorities. Under the circumstances, the Centre’s apparent reluctance to let Sen continue in his post may be read as political rather than academic.
Nalanda University was an ambitious project to enable regional cooperation in education, set up under the East Asia Summit, tapping the academic resources of its member states and fitted with a governing board that has representatives from Singapore, China, Japan and Thailand. It was a high profile initiative for the previous government and it should be important to the current dispensation, given Modi’s diplomatic focus on the East. Any perceived irregularity in the administrative processes of the university, therefore, must be quickly cleared up by the government. As things stand, it makes for bad optics. In his letter, Sen recounts that statutes passed by the board last year were also met with stony silence by the government. He also alleges that the government had made an “attempted unilateral move” to reconstitute the board itself, “in violation of some parts of the Nalanda University Act”. Now, the government may have excellent administrative reasons for holding up Sen’s reappointment. But if it is to remove the suspicion that it is muffling an influential adversarial voice, the Centre must state these reasons.
Unfortunately, Sen’s lament that “academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government” finds resonance because of this dispensation’s record so far. Whether it was the UGC’s alacrity in revoking Delhi University’s four-year undergraduate programme, put in place during the last days of the UPA, or the HRD ministry’s probe against the IIT Delhi director, the government has repeatedly seemed to suggest that the autonomy of educational institutions is a matter of political whim. It could start dispelling this notion by giving Nalanda the answers it deserves.
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