Amartya Sen’s Vision and the Unseen Contributors to Nalanda University’s Renaissance

Despite their crucial roles in Nalanda University's revival, key figures such as Amartya Sen and Sushma Swaraj were overlooked in recent commemorations. This piece by Pankaj Mohan uncovers their significant efforts and the political neglect that followed

There is a Chinese proverb: 飲水思源 (yǐn shuǐ sī yuán), meaning “When drinking water, think gratefully of the well-digger.” The campus of Nalanda University was formally inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 19. Prime Minister Modi, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar paid eloquent tributes to Nalanda as the most sacred land for seekers of knowledge in the ancient and early medieval world, and rightly so;  however, the documentary on Nalanda University that was shown during the inauguration ceremony, omitted the names of a few major “well-diggers” and failed to provide a balanced understanding of the birth and growth of Nalanda project.

The tender for the construction of an academic complex on the main campus, inaugurated by PM Modi, was awarded to Nagarjuna Construction in January 2017 with my signature. On the occasion of the campus construction, I and Chancellor Dr Vijay Bhatkar, popularly known as the father of Indian Super Computer, presided over the Bhoomi Pujan (Foundation Laying Ceremony), organized by Nagarjuna Company. We did not invite any politicians to the Bhoomi Pujan of the Nalanda University campus.

The above-noted documentary on the history of the construction of Nalanda University featured the role of only President APJ Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Modi. No one remembered the late Mrs Sushma Swaraj who inaugurated the academic session in September 2014 and played a significant role in shaping the modern ‘avatar’ of the ancient institution that was etched indelibly in the memory of Indian people.

Professor Amartya Sen, Chairman of Nalanda Mentor Group (subsequently nominated as Foundational Chancellor), distinguished members of the Governing Body and the first Vice-Chancellor, Dr Gopa Sabharwal, were also ignored. No reference was made to the second Chancellor, Mr George Yeo or the third Chancellor, Dr Vijay Bhatkar.

Professor Amartya Sen and his colleagues on the Governing Committee not only created a roadmap to make the institution functional by 2014 but also presided over the destiny of the University in its initial two years.
Professor Sen also donated approximately twenty lakh rupees to create a scholarship fund for needy students–it was the amount he received as an honorarium for a lecture in Indonesia. Due to Amartya Sen’s international reputation, the Australian government, the Chinese government, and Dr Rajendra Kumar Joshi and his wife Mrs Ursula Joshi from Switzerland donated an endowment of one million US dollars each to Nalanda University. Thailand also gave a grant of nearly sixty lakh rupees. A group of prominent businessmen from Singapore came to Nalanda at the request of Professor Amartya Sen and Governing Board member, Mr George Yeo, former Foreign Minister of Singapore, in 2015 and offered to build a state-of-the-art library at Nalanda at the cost of US$10 million.

However, n 2016 when the government first replaced Prof Amartya Sen with Mr George Yeo as Chancellor, and later constituted a new Governing Board in which the names of Professor Amartya Sen and such other members as Professor Wang Gungwu, Professor Sugat Bose, Professor Meghnad Desai, Professor Tansen Sen were conspicuous by their absence, Mr George Yeo severed his decade-long ties with Nalanda and businessman from Singapore also reneged on their pledge of donation. The Ministry of External Affairs told the Parliament Committee in late 2019 that no country made any contribution to Nalanda since August 2016. Indeed Nalanda received international visibility in its initial years of growth because several scholars and statesmen of global influence and appeal were associated with it.

In an interview with the Hindu, published on September 19, 2011, Professor Sen said that Nalanda captured his imagination since his first visit to the Nalanda ruins as a child, and during his subsequent visits in his early youth, the dream of the birth of Nalanda as a Phoenix gripped him with greater intensity. He accepted the invitation of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to help build a new institution near the old site, because of his long-standing fascination for Nalanda, his love for Bihar and also because he was ‘impressed to see how close his vision was to what he had hoped would happen one day’.

The ultra-right forces in India tried their best to malign Prof. Sen. In early 2015 BJP’s fire-brand leader Dr  Subramanian Swamy made an outrageous claim that Professor Sen received an annual salary of Rs fifty lakh in-absentia from Nalanda and he also alleged that Nalanda bore all the costs of his overseas travel. He demanded Prof Sen’s prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Blinded by jealousy and hatred for Professor Sen as Mr Swamy was, he conveniently forgot that Professor Sen, like Chancellors of other public universities in India, worked in an honorary capacity.

As an astute and experienced politician, Dr Swamy must have known that the government of India, led by Prime Minister Vajpayee in 1999, decided to accord Prof. Sen the privilege of unlimited free travel by Air India to celebrate his status as a Nobel Laureate and Bharat Ratna. It also needs to be noted that if Professor Sen had not visited India to attend Nalanda-related meetings and travelled to the developed countries of the world to give lectures, he would have earned an honorarium of at least ten lakh rupees a day. What he did for Nalanda was purely the labour of love.

Four years later in May 2019 Bharti Jain of the Times of India, published a series of tweets in which she brazenly alleged that Professor Sen’s tenure as Chancellor of Nalanda was shrouded in corruption allegations, and the right-wing media and the vast troll army of the ruling party went into overdrive to publicize this completely false and malicious propaganda. Bharati Jain recycled the old canard “a salary of Rs 5 Lakh per month, tax-free benefits, unaccounted foreign travels, the hospitality of luxury hotels, power to direct appointments, etc”, that were originally invented by Dr Swamy.

Refuting the allegation that the total expenditure of Nalanda University during the tenure of Professor Sen was Rs 2729 crores, Professor Sen clarified that Jain confused the total budget set aside by the Government of India for building the campus and running the University for the next twenty years with the actual expenditure made during Professor Sen’s tenure, as is attested by the reply of Minister of State for External Affairs General VK Singh in the parliament in April 2015. He said, “An amount of Rs 2727.10 crore has been approved by the Government for the establishment of Nalanda University, of which Rs 47.28 crore has been released to date.” When confronted with the reality Ms Jain was compelled to withdraw her allegations and  acknowledge that her “tweets on Prof Amartya Sen about his tenure at Nalanda University were completely incorrect.”

In January 2015, when I joined Nalanda University the fresh breeze of hope blew at Nalanda, as most of my colleagues had navigated academic rigour during their doctoral work at Heidelberg, Chicago, Leiden, Yale, Washington, JNU, Delhi School of Economics or National University of Singapore and were united in our vision and resolve to catapult Nalanda to the rank of a major centre of postgraduate training and cutting-edge research.

In May 2017 when the new Vice Chancellor whose educational and teaching career was confined to the Department of English, at Osmania University, assumed office, she ushered Nalanda into an era of uncertainty and anxiety. Because of her sense of insecurity, she started punishing employees on flimsy grounds and created a highly suffocating atmosphere. In August 2017 under her leadership, three of my colleagues resigned. In mid-2018 another colleague of mine who had provided a dynamic leadership to the School of Historical Studies found a greener pasture in India to move on.

I was particularly aggrieved when Dr Murari Jha, a highly promising scholar who completed his Masters and PhD in history from JNU, earned his second PhD degree in history from Leiden University in the Netherlands, carried out research for a couple of years at the National University of Singapore and one year at Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow, was denied an extension. In 2015 he commenced working as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in history at Nalanda University. His contract of employment contained a clause that if at the end of the third year of service, his performance in research, teaching, and service to the University/ profession was judged as satisfactory by the evaluation committee, his position would become permanent.

As I acted at the time as Dean of the School of Historical Studies, she needed to seek my opinion before making a decision, but she didn’t do that. Highly positive student feedback on his teaching, internationally-embedded research career or publications in high-profile journals didn’t matter to her. I tried my best to convince her that the School of Historical Studies needed a diligent and talented young scholar like Murari Jha to flourish, but she ignored my advice and entreaties. She just said that she didn’t believe Murari was “loyal”, implying that those who worked at Nalanda University must be ready to crawl if she asked them to bend.


The Author has written on the issue in Hindi as well.

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