I’ve received no salary or remuneration from Nalanda University… It’s been a labour of love, says Amartya Sen
Economist-philosopher Amartya Sen, who has written to the government to say he would not like to be Chancellor of Nalanda University after July, spoke to Seema Chishti on some of the questions that have been raised about his relationship with the university. Excerpts.
It is sometimes said that since the government is paying for most of the expenses of Nalanda University, it should be free to take the major decisions about the running of the university. Shouldn’t it?
There is a distinction between being, firstly, an autonomous institution financed by the government and, secondly, an institution under governmental command. The universities in Europe, going back many hundreds of years, have become academically excellent through governmental respect for the autonomy of the universities. The British guard academic independence in their own country with great care, even though the British rulers of colonial India very often violated the autonomy of public academic institutions. We should avoid following the colonial model.
There has been speculation about the kind of remuneration you have received for Nalanda all these years. How much have you received?
I have received no salary or remuneration whatsoever from Nalanda University, and have always worked in an honorary capacity. It has indeed been an honour for me to work for the revival of Nalanda University as a labour of love.
Some critics of Nalanda University have referred to huge expenses like Rs 2,700 crore or even Rs 3,000 crore. Has Nalanda University been spending that kind of money?
No, not at all. The total expenses of Nalanda University over four years, from its founding in 2010 to the end of the last financial year (2013-14), has been under Rs 25 crore. The total will probably rise closer to Rs 40 crore for five years by the end of the current financial year. To talk about numbers like Rs 2,700 crore as money being spent by Nalanda University is just nonsense, and it reflects a huge misinterpretation, or worse. The government accepted the provision of Rs 2,727 crore for total expenses if needed (covering capital as well as recurring costs), over 10 years, running from 2010 to 2021. That only specifies the maximum amount that Nalanda can ask for over a decade, in each case justifying every demand with complete explanation (including the cost of building a new campus).
Other than the government’s rejection of the unanimous decision of the Governing Board of Nalanda University to ask you to continue as Chancellor, were there other instances of violation of independence?
Several, but perhaps the most important has been the treatment of the statutes passed by the Governing Board — passed many months ago — that have not been presented to the Visitor, the President of India, for endorsement. Those with financial implications may call for external scrutiny (which is only right), but many of them are not financial, dealing with such matters as procedures of academic appointment. The Governing Board was also rather surprised when suddenly — without any consultation and any communication with the Board — the Government tried to replace the entire Board, which did not work out only because the move had violated some of the provisions of the Nalanda University Act of Parliament.
You have spoken about the “global relevance” of Nalanda. What does that mean, in the 21st century?
Old Nalanda was the hub of ancient Asian academic exchange. For example, Nalanda was the only institution of learning outside China to which anyone from ancient China ever went for higher education. Today, in the list of the top 200 best universities in the world, no university from India figures at all. Nalanda could change that. Also, Nalanda made a major contribution to facilitating pan-Asian intellectual interactions. Just as the so-called Silk Route worked through exchange of commodities (including, of course, silk), the so-called Nalanda Trail worked through people’s thirst for knowledge and education. Inspired by that, but drawing also on the traditions of the best universities in the world today (such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge), we too are trying to cultivate international closeness, based not just on trade, but on people’s interest in the ideas of each other, which have moved people from country to country throughout history. The vision of Nalanda is not only grand, it is, I believe, thoroughly achievable through intelligent pursuit.