RSS is determined to dominate over Nalanda

Ever since Amartya Sen said that “as an Indian citizen, I don’t want Modi as my PM”, his fate was sealed as an academic who could play an institutional role in India when the BJP was in power.

However, the Narendra Modi government might not have anticipated the embarrassment it would face if the Nalanda University’s governing body, which included Sen, were peremptorily dissolved because the decision has led to the resignation of the chancellor, Singapore’s former foreign minister, George Yeo.

By saying that the decision was an attack on the university’s autonomy, Yeo has left the government no escape route. For the government, however, it was a routine decision to dispense with someone like Sen because he does not like the prime minister.

A BJP stalwart had even called for revoking Sen’s Bharat Ratna award, thereby displaying the kind of intolerance in the corridors of power which made some writers, filmmakers, historians and others to return their Sahitya Akademi and other awards some time ago.

Given this outlook, it was out of the question that Sen, who was the chancellor before Yeo and a member of the university’s mentors’ group since 2007, should remain associated with the University in any capacity, irrespective of his standing in the intellectual world.   

Apparently, Narendra Modi’s sabka saath, sabka vikas motto extends only to economic development. In other fields, it is the writ of the RSS which prevails. It is possible that Modi and the RSS have worked out a modus vivendi under which the Nagpur patriarchs will leave politics and economics to Modi while they concentrate on academia and allied fields.

Thus, we see RSS nominees – all second- and third-raters – assume charge as heads of institutions like the Indian Council of Historical Research, the National Book Trust, the Film and Television Institute and so on.

It is noteworthy that one of the new appointees to Nalanda University’s governing body is Professor Lokesh Chandra, president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, who once described Modi as an avatar of “Bhagwan”, who has made a “much more meaningful impact” on the lives of the poor than Karl Marx.

This is the kind of person who can be expected to succeed Yeo considering that for the RSS, Nalanda will be a prize catch if it can plant one of its aficionados at its head even if the person is nowhere near a position to match the reputation of Sen, a Nobel laureate, and Yeo, a master in business administration from Harvard business school.

The RSS is targeting Nalanda presumably because the university fits in with its vision of a Muslim-mukt India, for it was founded at the time of the Gupta dynasty in the fifth century and had 10,000 students from China, Japan, Tibet, Korea, Indonesia, Persia and elsewhere, and 2,000 teachers.

The famous Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang), who was in India between 630 and 644, visited what was undoubtedly one of the first international residential campuses in the world.

Since the BJP’s assumption of power, two other universities have been in its sights. These are, first, the Jawaharlal Nehru University which faced the ire of the BJP M.P., Subramanian Swamy, who wanted it to be shut down and fumigated since it was known to harbour Left-leaning students and teachers.

And, secondly, the Hyderabad central university, which was described by Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya as a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”. The government’s and the saffron camp’s intention is obviously to ensure that all academic bodies fall in line with their views by excluding Left-liberals like Sen.

Since there was an inordinate delay in giving Sen another term as chancellor, he resigned in July 2015, stating that “it is hard for me not to conclude that the government wants me to cease being the chancellor”. He also said that “academic governance in India remains deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government”.

However, to his detractors in the saffron camp, Sen’s selection as the first chancellor was also political in nature because of his proximity to the Congress which was why, according to critics, he was seen as the inspiration behind some of Sonia Gandhi’s social welfare schemes.

If Sen’s tenure could be given a political colour, the same cannot be said of Yeo. The government will find itself on the back foot, therefore, in dealing with his departure, which has been called “unfortunate” by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.

There will be another hurdle for the saffron camp. Nalanda is again an international university as it was before its destruction by Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193. At present, it represents the collaborative efforts of as many as 16 governments.

They will not be pleased, therefore, with Yeo’s charge that the dissolution of the governing body was “bound up with Indian domestic politics”. He also said that he had been “repeatedly assured that the university will have autonomy. This appears not to be the case now”.

According to Yeo, “Nalanda is an idea whose time has come”. But, as in 1193, it may not be an idea everyone likes. 

(The author is a noted political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
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