How the Modern Invaders Stalled Nalanda University’s Revival

Amartya Sen’s appointment was contentious from the outset. His perspectives on the Islamic invasion of India were seen as intellectually defending the invaders.

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The revival of Nalanda University (NU), an ancient centre of learning, faced numerous setbacks primarily due to economist Amartya Sen’s controversial tenure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the new NU campus in Rajgir, Nalanda, on June 19, 2024, marked a significant milestone in overcoming these challenges.

Vision and Initial Momentum

Former President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam proposed the idea to revive NU in 2006. Bihar’s Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, quickly embraced it, facilitating land acquisition for the university. In 2007, the Manmohan Singh government established the Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) to provide a governance structure and international cooperation framework, appointing Amartya Sen as its head—a decision that was contentious from the start.

Controversial Leadership

Sen’s appointment was controversial due to his views on the Islamic invasion of India, which some perceived as protecting historical oppressors. Despite these controversies, Sen was a respected intellectual. However, his tenure as head of NMG from 2007 to 2016 was marred by criticism and accusations of mismanagement. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) and Dr. Abdul Kalam highlighted issues with Sen’s actions, spending, and appointments.

In a 2011 letter to the Minister of External Affairs, S M Krishna, Dr. Kalam stressed that positions like Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor should be filled by individuals with extraordinary intellect and management expertise, suggesting Sen’s tendency to hold NMG meetings in various global cities while seldom visiting Nalanda was problematic.

Failures and Irregularities

Under Sen’s leadership, a CAG audit revealed that the NMG failed to submit its final recommendations within the stipulated nine months, delaying the report for over three years. The government extended the NMG’s terms of reference multiple times, effectively legitimizing the delays under the Nalanda University Act of 2010.

The CAG report documented several instances of misconduct. Sen recommended appointments for posts that the NMG’s terms of reference did not permit, including Gopa Sabharwal, appointed Vice-Chancellor with a substantial salary package, bypassing the established terms. 2011, the NMG increased Sabharwal’s salary, resulting in excess payments. Additionally, Sen appointed Anjana Sharma to a non-statutory post with a high salary, and both Sabharwal and Sharma received income tax reimbursement benefits, costing the university significantly.

The Aftermath and Current Status

Under Sen’s leadership, NU failed to establish its schools on time and commence campus construction, with an ineffective endowment committee further complicating matters. The CAG report extensively documented these shortcomings, painting a bleak picture of the university’s state during Sen’s tenure.

Despite these setbacks, the vision of reviving NU persisted. The recent inauguration of the new campus signifies a renewed commitment to the university’s mission. The current administration prioritizes increasing student enrollment, hiring more faculty, and enhancing facilities to provide a world-class educational experience.

Prime Minister Modi’s inauguration marks a new chapter for NU, aiming to overcome past challenges and fulfil the dream of restoring the university to its historical stature as a global centre of learning. This revival effort reflects a collective determination to preserve and enhance India’s rich educational heritage, ensuring future generations benefit from Nalanda University’s wisdom and knowledge.

With its modern infrastructure and ambitious plans, the new campus represents this vision. While past controversies and mismanagement cannot be ignored, the current administration’s focus on progress and excellence offers a hopeful outlook for Nalanda University’s future.