The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A self-defeating obsession with symbols is not education

When one of Delhi’s brightest senior bureaucrats said he was dashing off to Patna for an economics conference, I couldn’t help asking “Does Bihar have an economy'” Sulkily, he retorted, “It has economists!” The fear of Bihar being similarly landed with a cargo of scholars but no scholarship assailed me as I read of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s uplifting promise to Singapore (via live videocast) to recreate the “holistic traditions of knowledge creation, acquisition and dissemination as practised in ancient Nalanda.”

This is not a swipe at a state that has become identified with Laloo Prasad and should, some say, be outsourced, lock, stock and barrel. My first book, Bihar Shows the Way, traced Jayaprakash Narayan’s idealism to the heroic legacy of the land that bore him. Bihar is Vaishali, the world’s oldest democracy. It is Pavapuri where the tirthankar Mahavira preached. It is Pataliputra, pride of the Mauryan empire. Megasthenes paid tribute to its finely graded sales tax system, Hieun Tsang to its learning. Forty-two years after Bakhtiyar Khilji sacked Nalanda, the Tibetan pilgrim, Chag Lotsawa, found that scholarship, like love, survived among the ruins. A solitary teacher, 90-year-old Rahul Shribhadra, still devotedly discharged his duty to 70 students.

The multimillion dollar extravaganza on whose behalf the president addressed Singapore may yield rich dividends in trade, tourism and strategy. It could kick-start decrepit Bihar’s reconstruction and establish a major halt on the Silk Route that now animates planners, road-builders and railwaymen. It could facilitate guanxi — networking — among Asian diplomats. But can we expect Rahul Shribhadra’s single-minded dedication to teaching' That, to my mind, would be an international university’s only justification.

The symposium of Asian, Western and non-resident Indian scholars was the soft packaging for high-powered hard-sell. The aim is to raise Rs 5 billion, not only from Singapore but, through Singapore acting as “a facilitator, a catalyst” from the rest of Asia. The Chinese government, which gave Rs 570,000 as long ago as 1960 — yes, an embryonic plan has been gathering dust for 46 years — is pledged to provide up to Rs 4 crore. If China comes, can Japan be far behind' In fact, the Japanese have already indicated their willingness to develop the historical trails of Buddhism. Other sponsors are expected to sign up at next month’s East Asia Summit in the Philippines when Manmohan Singh will unfold details and make another pitch for funds.

“We want a degree of partnership and ownership of various countries in the region,” demands N.K. Singh, deputy chairman of Bihar’s state planning commission and the driving force behind this ambitious dream. But I notice that George Yeo, Singapore’s soft-spoken deceptively young-looking foreign minister, who graciously hosted a dinner for delegates at a Buddhist temple, promised only an “indirect, helpful role on the side.” Yeo is a friend of Palaniappan Chidambaram — both are American-consecrated Young Leaders — and is acutely aware of the Indian system’s limitations. He has described them in the past with blistering candour.

His reported comments suggest a proper appreciation of reinvented Nalanda — Nalanda Mark II — in its true political context as “an icon of the Asian renaissance” and of Sino-Indian rapprochement. “China is likely to be India’s largest trading partner in two years’ time. The recent reopening of the Nathu-La pass is of great symbolic importance. All of Asia and Australasia will be affected by this new cycle of history. As in earlier periods of globalization, we have to manage diversity and learn from one another on the basis of mutual respect and mutual understanding. Nalanda can express this hope and bring people together again.” Of this non-academic, essentially public relations, exercise, he says, “Singapore should be part of this process.”

To say the aim has little bearing on education is not to belittle it. Nor is it to suggest that existing universities are temples of academic perfection. India’s institutes of technology and management are keenly sought after not because they are centres of excellence but because they offer the best meal tickets and, in the former case, the prospect of an American Green Card. One failing of the five-year plans was that colleges churned out graduates far more rapidly than the economy-generated jobs. And unemployed graduates were often unemployable because the self-seeking political thrust was to set up more and more degree-granting institutions — ill-equipped, badly staffed and inadequately financed — instead of sound primary and secondary schools. The radiance of a Presidency College or Jawaharlal Nehru University could not compensate for this plethora of useless mofussil colleges.

The outcome was a mockery of education: India towers over China in collecting Nobel Prizes but China’s literacy rate is much higher. The grandiose Nalanda project will not even begin to address this fatal flaw in policy. In fact, it is another manifestation of exactly the same self-defeating obsession with symbols that raised a tertiary edifice on shoddy foundations. We need many more schools, better paid competent teachers, laboratories, libraries and recreational facilities. Not fancy monuments to globalization.

Bihar achieved great things; it is also a graveyard of ideas and institutions. Pataliputra cradled Ajatasatru who — remember “Pujarini”' — cruelly suppressed Buddhism. When I sought his capital, no one in Patna, not even my Bihar government guide, knew what I meant. The word Pataliputra conveyed nothing. They knew the site as Kumraon. But Bakhtiarpur immortalizes the man who destroyed Nalanda though not many know he was taliban’s spiritual ancestor. The story goes that before attacking the ancient Buddhist university he asked, “Is there a copy of the Quran there'”

Nalanda lay forgotten for centuries until British archaeologists unearthed its remains in 1860. The flickering lamp of Pali studies at the Nava Nalanda Mahavira is its only link with the glorious past. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be takers for the Mark II version. My recent meanderings on the fringes of academia have revealed to my surprised disappointment a pursuit of commercial careerism that has little to do with teaching. I am not speaking of Indian academics, of whom I have no working experience, but of universities abroad that assess staff by the conferences and seminars to which they succeed in wangling invitations, by the papers they present (one man recycles the same paper at meeting after meeting in different countries) at these international jamborees and by the essays they publish in periodicals.

The conference circuit is great fun, but surely no participant deludes himself that it serves a public cause' Even the rationale that gallivanting about the globe enables teachers to pick up bright new ideas does not apply to the milieu I know. Travel is not reflected in bold changes in curricula or brave innovations in instruction. The classroom is often something to be suffered between foreign jaunts. Many lecturers get away with ready-made Power-Point projections.

If the money pours in, Nalanda Mark II will be the thinking man’s Sentosa, Singapore’s isle of leisure and pleasure. It will hum with conferences and seminars, and buzz with rhetoric about the dialogue of nations and the discourse of civilizations. It will flaunt its international identity and stake a claim to contemporary relevance with a whole faculty devoted to understanding terrorism, especially its internet ramifications, with sophisticated high-tech methods. Professional academics, businessmen, officials, politicians and operators will rub shoulders there, deriving a patina of respectability from a scattering of distinguished scholars like JNU’s Tan Chung who also attended the Singapore symposium. But New Nalanda will send forth no pilgrims to preach the Vajrayana, Mahayana and Theravada schools of Buddhism.

We may have to look in vain there for the simple pursuit of studies or the vocation to teach. The impact on the nation’s intellectual life will be no more meaningful than that of Santiniketan or Auroville. A Rahul Shribhadra would feel very lost in such a glittering cosmopolis.

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