“The government can turn an academic issue into a matter of political dispensation if it feels unrestrained about interfering,” says the winner of the Nobel prize for economics in a letter to the members of the governing board of Nalanda University.
by Amartya Sen
I am writing to you on a subject relating to the governance of Nalanda University in which all of us have been very deeply involved. As you know, at its last meeting on January 13-14, the board decided unanimously (in my absence – I had recused myself – leaving George Yeo to chair the meeting) that I should be asked to serve as chancellor of Nalanda University for a second term, when my present term expires in late July. The unanimity was, I was pleased to be told, firm and enthusiastic, coming from all members of the board, which – as you know – consists of representatives from different Asian countries (including China, Japan, Singapore and others), in addition of course to Indian academics and professionals.
However, the decision of the governing board becomes operational, according to the Nalanda University Act of Parliament, only after the visitor of the university (the president of India, ex-officio) gives his assent to the decision. I understand that the board’s decision was conveyed to the visitor in mid-January, immediately after the meeting of the governing board, drawing his attention to the urgency of the matter, since the planning and implementation of new teaching and research arrangements are proceeding rapidly in the newly functioning university.
More than a month has passed since then and it now seems clear that the visitor has been unable to provide his assent to the governing board’s unanimous choice in the absence of the government’s approval. The governing board has not been favoured with a reply to its request, either from the president’s office or from the ministry of external affairs. As board members are aware, our visitor – President Pranab Mukherjee – has always taken a deep personal interest in the speedy progress of the work of Nalanda University, and given that, we have to assume that something makes it difficult – or impossible – for him to act with speed in this matter.
Non-action is a time-wasting way of reversing a board decision, when the government has, in principle, the power to act or not act. This, as you might recollect, also happened to the revised statutes that the governing board passed unanimously last year. Many of these statutes (including the one pertaining to the chancellor’s term of office) also never received formal acceptance or rejection from the ministry of external affairs, which had the role of coordinating with the visitor’s office.
It is hard for me not to conclude that the government wants me to cease being the chancellor of Nalanda University after this July, and technically, it has the power to do so. This delay, as well as the uncertainty involved, is leading, in effect, to a decisional gap, which is not helpful to Nalanda University’s governance and its academic progress. I have, therefore, decided that in the best interest of Nalanda University, I should exclude myself from being considered for continuing as chancellor beyond this July, despite the unanimous recommendation and urging of the governing board for me to continue. I take this opportunity also to thank the governing board very warmly for its confidence in me.
As you would also remember, there was considerable disquiet among board members about the government’s evident unwillingness to appreciate the international character of Nalanda University and to pay appropriate attention to the multi-country governing board of the university. In particular, the governing board was kept completely in the dark about an attempted unilateral move by the government to rapidly reconstitute the entire board, and to do this in violation of some parts of the Nalanda University Act (reflected especially in the letters that have already been sent out to foreign governments, departing from the provisions of the act as it now stands).
I write this letter with a heavy heart since re-establishing Nalanda has been a lifelong commitment for me (as it is important also to you). While classes have very successfully started, on a small scale, in two schools (the school of history and that of environment and ecology), we are, as you know, in the process of planning other schools, including a school of economics, a school of public health, and a school of Buddhist studies, philosophy and comparative religion, and also of augmenting the intake of students. I have been personally much occupied with this planning but I will, of course, pass on the work-in-progress to the vice chancellor.
I am also sad, at a more general level, that academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government, when it chooses to make political use of the special provisions. Even though the Nalanda University Act, passed by Parliament, did not, I believe, envisage political interference in academic matters, it is formally the case — given the legal provisions (some of them surviving from colonial days) – that the government can turn an academic issue into a matter of political dispensation if it feels unrestrained about interfering.
As a proud and concerned citizen of India, I take this particular occasion to communicate my general disquiet in public, which is why I am openly sharing this letter.
Also, since I receive a great many constructive suggestions every week about teaching and research at Nalanda University for possible implementation (a number of these suggestions coming from the public have indeed been extremely useful for the academic planning of Nalanda), I am using this occasion to publicly communicate that I shall do whatever I can over the remaining time I have, though the leadership of the long-run planning of Nalanda has, obviously, to come from someone else.
I end by thanking you for the help, advice and support I have been receiving from all of you, which I will continue to treasure even when I move away from Nalanda University this July.