Amartya Sen in Patna. Picture by Ranjeet Kumar Dey
Question: There was a controversy over a report that you are resigning from the Nalanda board as its chancellor — something you have subsequently denied.
Amartya Sen: Not subsequently. I never threatened to resign. There’s a distinction between something which is called a “leak”, information which you are not meant to share. And, there’s something called a “plant”, that’s a misinformation that is sent around. In this case, it was a “plant”, not a “leak”. Somebody in the ministry of external affairs (MEA), a senior civil servant, who talked to some people completely made up the story.
Q: Is there any delay in launching the university?
Sen: Yes, of course. There’s lot of delay in starting the university.
Sen: Because the MEA is unable to get the consent of other ministries to get an amendment to the Nalanda Act. The ministries were consulted at every stage but each time some came up with different answers. When in 2010, the Nalanda Act was placed in the Lok Sabha, all the ministries agreed that an international university would not be guided by procedures that apply to a central university, not like Visva-Bharati or Jawaharlal Nehru University. The finance ministry agreed then (when the original Nalanda Act was passed by Parliament), but some amendments were necessary as there were some faults in the Nalanda Act like the appropriate representation of other countries (it was, of course, already agreed that it would be an international university). So, these were altered. When the amended Nalanda Act went to Parliament in August 2013, then again all the ministries agreed to the draft bill which distinguished Nalanda’s status as an international university.
If the Rajya Sabha had passed the act at that time, then it would have been the end of the story. But the Rajya Sabha referred the amendment bill to the standing committee. After the standing committee’s comments, the finally amended bill was to be reintroduced in Parliament. In the process, the MEA asked the ministries again for comments, and at that stage a particular department of the ministry of finance came up with new concerns that they had not raised earlier.
New rules were then suggested, altering the international character of Nalanda University, and proposing to remove the international status of the university, even though the ministry of finance had no objection earlier to that status. The same questions were sent to the finance ministry three times, and they gave different answers. The MEA had to take the consent of other ministries also. The others, including the law ministry, had no problem, and only the finance ministry put a spanner in the works.
Q: But the delay has its effect on infrastructure development also…
Sen: Nalanda University has difficulty in committing money for infrastructure building until the Government of India speaks in one voice. The delay can possibly frustrate the attempt by the university, for which we have worked very hard. We plan to start teaching in late August or September. But if we can’t get the money, to spend the money for the campus, to set up the facilities in the temporary campus space (given by the state government), we are not in a position to start. The delay has been upsetting the plans of the university.
Q: When the whole campus gets ready in another five-six years at Nalanda, how do you visualise it? A renewal of Bihar’s tradition, culture and education?
Sen: When it does happen, it would of course be in Bihar, but not for Bihar only. Bihar was the centre of education, governance, maths and science too in India in those days. Nalanda was the best part of the tradition. We are inspired by the tradition to set up an international university. I won’t say it’s a renewal. Nothing in the 21st century could be a renewal of what was started in the 5th century. What we want is to be inspired by a similar devotion to academic work, a commitment to quality education, and try to aspire to be one of the best campuses anywhere in the world, where best teachers would come to take classes, to have a multi-dimensional educational effort.
Although founded through Buddhism, old Nalanda did not confine education to Buddhism only. They had commitment to provide knowledge in different fields. They provided education in astronomy, medicine, public health care, linguistics and many other subjects. There was this broad-based education that Nalanda offered. It is inspirational for us. It also inspired the East Asian countries to undertake co-operation with us in setting up this international university.
Q: The Prime Minister also got word of support from these countries…
Sen: The Prime Minister has always been very supportive (as has been the President). To say that the Prime Minister should have followed the finance ministry and pursued instead the route of building a central university for India would be accusing him of misleading the East Asian countries to whom he said that it was going to be an international university. In fact, many other countries have co-signed an agreement — nine countries in all — to join us in this international effort. They signed an agreement to set up this international university, not a central university like Visva-Bharati. It is definitely planned to be an international university. The Indian government can hardly tell them now: “Sorry, we have made a mistake in telling you it will be an international university.” That would be ridiculous. But if we do follow what has come from an important section of the finance ministry, Nalanda would be just another central university.
Q: Given the costs involved, would Nalanda University be financially viable?
Sen: No government university in India can meet its costs without subsidy. It’s a question whether the university would one day have enough money to become independent of the government. If we are to follow the central university route, then five of the nine countries which have already committed financial support should sensibly withdraw. But if we make an international university, we expect financial contributions from abroad — from not only governments but also business establishments and individual donors.
I work for a university like Harvard where the bulk of the money comes from donations of people. An endowment committee, led by N.K. Singh, has been set up to help raise funds. Nalanda would also be a part of our academic face to the world. We happened to have the former foreign minister of Singapore, former Chinese foreign minister, former foreign minister of Indonesia among other countries as part of another Nalanda committee dealing with international relations.
Q: Do you feel there might be a problem of funds flow if the UPA government loses power at the Centre and another government comes? Will there be a change in terms of funds flow?
Sen: I don’t see any reason for that anxiety. Nalanda has never been a single party’s call. The Nalanda Act was passed unanimously with the support of all political parties. I don’t see any reason to expect a change of attitude in that. It would be unfortunate if the party, whichever is in power, is against education in the modern world, or against the richness of the old Indian academic tradition. I don’t anticipate any new government would be against an international university.
Q: Do you feel Bihar’s educational tradition has been lost over the centuries?
Sen: It is not lost, but surely it was weakened over the centuries. Ancient Bihar had five universities for advanced learning. Nalanda was the most famous of them. Then there was Vikramshila near Bhagalpur. I have also gone to Telhara recently where archaeological excavations are going on at present for the university. It’s an irony of history that in the 21st century, Bihar is considered to be one of the backward states. It’s a very peculiar irony of history. Nalanda University can change the face of Bihar. Many foreign countries wanted to cooperate in Nalanda partly because of the university’s academic potential but also because the economic development of the Nalanda-Rajgir area is very important to one of the poorest parts of India. Nalanda University area can be inspired by the history of the Silicon Valley around Stanford.
Nalanda, in the early days, focused particularly on astronomy. The mathematicians in Patna’s Kusumpur area must have been connected to scholars in Nalanda. We haven’t been able to get everything as documents have been destroyed, sometimes burnt.
Q: What about the selection of faculty, student or research scholars for Nalanda University?
Sen: We have placed advertisements recently and got great response also. The problem is we cannot, just as yet, spend any money without the permission of the MEA. When we get a nod from the complex Indian bureaucracy, we could rapidly go ahead. We got good applications, we are processing them, we have been interviewing the candidates, but we cannot offer them jobs until we get permission. But we have to do all this very soon, as we plan to start our classes in August or September.
Q: But the delay is more bureaucratic in nature, nothing to do with academics…
Sen: It’s a totally bureaucratic delay. As I told you earlier also, if Shilabhadra of ancient Nalanda had to deal with the austere bureaucrats of the ministry of finance, there would have been no ancient Nalanda!
Q: So, you are now in a battle with the bureaucracy?
Sen: I won’t say it is a battle. A challenge you can say. The main engagement has to be with getting a great and responsible international university started, near the ancient Nalanda university, which inspired the world.