Nobel laureate Dr. Amartya Sen, who in 2014 said that “as an Indian, he does not want Narendra Modi to be the PM”, has tried to create furore by withdrawing his candidature as chancellor of Nalanda University saying that the Modi government wanted to oust and cease him from the University.
The six month old and outdated story of resignation of Amartya Sen is now being served in a new avatar of “Modi’s control of academic bodies”. Unfortunate thing is that the Nobel laureate Economist who is called “Poverty Philosopher” is consistently speaking a cheap political language which neither suits him nor presents a fair picture of a philosopher, as he is acknowledged by some.
In May 2007, Dr. Amartya Sen was appointed as chairman of Nalanda Mentor Group to examine the framework of international cooperation, and proposed structure of partnership, which would govern the establishment of Nalanda International University Project as an international centre of education seeking to revive the ancient centre of higher learning which was present in India from the 5th century to 1197. On 19 July 2012, Sen was named the first chancellor of the proposed Nalanda University (NU). Amartya Sen withdrew his candidature for a second term citing the government trying to ‘control’ academic bodies. On 8th July, Amartya Sen emitted a second barb. Sen says, “Threat to secularism stronger than in the past.” What anyone can expect from a known Communist (Marxists), who happens to be a self-proclaimed Atheist with a scornful attitude towards Indian culture, Hindutva and philosophy and who sees each Indian thing from the western perspective. The “Bharat Ratna” in 2006 in an interview to Daily Telegraph says “Christian schools “are perfectly acceptable” but other faith schools “are big mistakes and should be scrapped if the Government wants to encourage a unifying British identity.”
The clear line of Sen’s jibes is politically motivated and with an agenda of Congress and leftists who are just finding it difficult to swallow the fact that the person from the RSS-BJP background they hounded for years has became the Prime Minister with a huge public mandate. And now, the new government is performing far better and smarter than they expected and the global trends suggest that Modi is going to stay and channelize the system that works under the government. With his all political and anti-Modi slant, the current line of Dr. Sen is an offended move to cover up failures of his regime as first a mentor of Nalanda advisory group and then being a Chancellor of NU. The roots of controversial tenure of Amartya Sen’s in Nalanda University can be easily seen in its formative period.
Nalanda University, a brainchild of visionary Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
The concept of reviving ancient glory of Nalanda University is a brainchild of former President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and not of Dr. Sen who is lashing out on government which has not actually ousted him. In March 2006, eight hundred years after the destruction of Nalanda, while addressing the Bihar State Legislative Assembly great visionary Dr. Kalam mooted the idea of reviving the university. In his speech he envisaged it as a university that would revive the glory of the ancient seat of learning.
The State Government of Bihar quickly adopted the visionary idea and consulted the Government of India on the way ahead. It also began its search for a suitable location for the new Nalanda University. It identified and acquired 450 acres of land for the University in Rajgir¸ Bihar. The then government of India constituted a “Nalanda Mentor Group” which later baptized as the “Governing Board of Nalanda University”. Dr. Amartya Sen was the first choice of the UPA government as a mentor of the revived version of the ancient glorious university. But soon after the initial charming days of appointing of Dr. Sen, the very first voice raised against his style of functioning was of the conceiver himself.
Why APJ Abdul Kalam was upset?
Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was upset the way Nalanda project was being handled. Dr. Kalam’s letter sent to the External Affairs Minister on July 4, 2011. Kalam’s letter (exclusively published by Bihar Times) to the then MEA S.M. Krishna reveals the reasons that upset Dr. Kalam who was made a silent spectator of ruining of his idea into the spiritless individuals like Chancellor Sen and Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal.
In its third Para, Dr. Kalam says- “Having involved in various academic and administrative proceedings of Nalanda University since August 2007, I believe that the candidates to be selected/appointed to the post of Chancellor and Vice Chancellor should be of extraordinary intellect with academic and management expertise. Both the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor have to personally involve themselves full-time in Bihar, so that a robust and strong international institution is built”.
Kalam expresses his concerns and worries saying that the apex dignitaries should personally involve themselves in Bihar and which is pointed towards the apathy of Sen and Sabharwal duo. But no one took cognizance of that letter.
Amartya Sen was never motivated
Sen was never motivated by the idea to revive the ancient glory of the globally admired Indian university. He saw the reviving process from the spectacles of his well groomed western thought process. He was never eager to spend time in Patna or in the Nalanda university premises. After its regular functioning started in September 2014, the last visitor of the NU was its NRI Chancellor Dr. Amartya Sen, who paid a flying visit to the varsity after 44 days of its inauguration. He was neither present during the official inauguration of the University by the new External Affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, on September 19 nor on the first day. Interestingly He and Sabharwal had a meeting with former Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, but the duo skipped meeting MEA Sushma Swaraj.
Amartya Sen and his picked and chosen deputy’s political appointments cursed the formative years of Nalanda University. It was never essential for him that the Rector should have a background of ‘intellectual, philosophical, historical and spiritual studies’ as envisaged in the Act. The Mentor group was connected with modern or contemporary history or sociology and more than that the Nalanda University, its ancient Vedic and Buddhist roots was a “fallacy” for many of them.
The apathy of Dr. Sen and his deputy with the spiritless members of the Governing body has caused a severe damage to the expected and envisaged growth of Nalanda University. The wonderful dream of many; a magnificent concept imagined through the vision of Dr. Kalam who with thousands of proud Indians celebrated that the Nalanda University finally started functioning eight centuries after it was looted and plundered by Mughal attacker Bakhtiyar Khalji around 1193 CE.
Why Amartya Sen leaving Nalanda University making a big noise?
The Nobel laureate, who was most comfortable in Sonia led UPA govt and was much active in anti-Modi campaigns during the Loksabha polls last year, is suddenly feeling uncomfortable in the NDA rule. In February 2015, in a letter published in the Indian Express newspaper, Sen wrote that he believes the Modi government wanted him to “cease” being the chancellor of the prestigious Nalanda University.
In the letter to the board written with a “heavy heart,” Sen said that it was “hard for him not to conclude that the government” wanted him to “cease” being Chancellor. In the letter, Sen says that academics in the country remains “deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling Government.”
In his latest interview to Sagarika Ghose, Sen said that the board of the university unanimously recommended that he be given a second term after July. But the government did not, he said, which is a clear sign they do not want him to continue. This all brouhaha is not only political but it is to hide the buried side of NU functioning so far. Another unpleasant side of the administration of an economist is serious violation of norms, which got exposed in the UPA tenure itself.
But there are another angle to Sen’s hastening exit.
Questionable severe irregularities: Twist to Sen’s hastening exit
CAG highlighted severe irregularities in the decision making processes
Despite two critical inspection reports of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) indicted university and government for irregularities in the decision making processes, the UPA government bypassed its own rules on financial and administrative autonomy. I addition to this, in March 2014, National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon expressed serious reservation over the financial dealings in Sen’s tenure. The Sunday Standard accessed minutes of Prime Minister office (PMO) meeting on Nalanda and two audit inspection reports exposing the serious violation of laid down norms.
NSA Menon raised several concerns regarding undue privileges to the university
The minutes of the PMO meeting on February 14, 2013 reveals that National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon had raised several concerns regarding undue privileges to the university arguing that if the government is paying the money, it has to enforce the rules. NSA began the discussion by asking how diplomatic status could be given to the university. He noted that South Asian University is an international organisation but Nalanda University was the result of an act of Parliament. “The issue of tax free benefits is difficult. Nalanda University is an Indian body under the Act. How can Indian nationals be exempt from Indian laws?” Menon asked. “NSA said the government cannot fund the university and break its own rules. We have tied our own hands as reported by New Indian Express.
Menon reportedly said that the government had only two choices—Give a `1,500 crore corpus and let the university spend it as it deems fit or enforce rules. “While we could work around diplomatic status and modify the Act, we don’t have a way out on salaries,” Menon added.
The serious violations of norms were made in (i) Salaries, (ii) Application of UGC norms, (iii) Audit by CAG and (iv) Reservations in admission.
Amartya Sen wanted full financial autonomy
Amartya Sen wanted full financial autonomy and to make the university, a centre of excellence, he sought full freedom to set salaries. In February 2014, the department of expenditure questioned full monetary autonomy, arguing that government rules and oversight should be maintained since huge sums are being paid by the nation’s treasury.
Bending before Amartya Sen, the UPA government amended the Nalanda University Act cleared by the Union Cabinet on February 28, 2014 to extend special privileges and academic freedom. Joint Secretary, Department of Expenditure had told the PMO meeting that under the United Nations (Privilege & Immunities) Act, 1947, the Ministry of Finance has never given any Indian institutions the privileges and immunities envisaged in Headquarters Agreement.
No norms followed in appointments
A senior journalist in Bihar termed the Nalanda University as “Saheli [Girl-Friends]” University. He says, “The four sahelis from same campus viz. Gopa Sabharwal, Anjana Sharma, Upinder Singh and Nayanjot Lahiri are the only scholars and administrators of repute that a billion- strong population of India has produced to steer the signifier of Asian renaissance, Nalanda University.”
In fact, Gopa Sabharwal’s inclusion in the Mentor group of NI was also seen as ‘Smuggled” and voices raised and suppressed against Amartya Sen’s for his “unauthorized fashion” to recommend the name of Dr. Gopa Sabharwal for Rector’s post. Gopa Sabharwal was a reader in the department of sociology in the Lady Sri Ram College, New Delhi. With limited knowledge about Nalanda, she doesn’t qualify the mandatory qualification set by the University Grants Commission (UGC) for the vice-chancellors of the central and state universities—that is, to be distinguished academicians with a minimum ten years of experience as a professor in a university system. Topping this peculiarity was Gopa Sabharwal’s monthly salary of Rs 5 lakhs which was more than double the salary of the Delhi University vice-chancellor.
In June 2012, two documents were revealed by the local media which are evident to show how Amartya Sen as Chairman of the Nalanda Mentor Group, adamantly advanced his favourite candidate Dr. Gopa Sabharwal for the post of Rector (Vice Chancellor) in NU. Sen was so obdurate that without being authorized to appoint, the documents reveal that while recruiting the Vice Chancellor, no selection was followed.
Amartya Sen, in his letter – written on his Harvard University letterhead as a single page communication – to the then External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee on February 6, 2009 writes- ‘it has been a difficult choice’ (selecting a Rector). The NMG had to balance academic qualification of the candidates with their ‘willingness to spend time in Patna and the surroundings of the university as it takes shape’. He recommends three names in that order – 1. Dr. Gopa Sabharwal (Sociologist, Delhi University and Lady Shri Ram College- sic.) 2. Dr. Ramchandra Guha (Historian, biographer and writer) and 3. Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta (Political scientist, President, Centre for Policy Studies).
It is visible that, the single page letter or more than that an instruction to the then MEA carries nothing but insistence. The letter shows that while appointing the VC of NU, no selection process was followed. Candidates have not submitted any document. There is no information about the total number of candidates considered for the said post. Selectively no ‘wide publicity’ was given for this top job nor any rational and transparent procedure followed. There is nothing on record to prove that the mentor group had considered any academician from Bihar for the post. It could have taken care of at least half the difficulty- spending time in Patna and surroundings of the proposed University.
Like her mentor…
Like her mentor, ignoring the government’s recruitment rules that require public notice, Dr Sabharwal created plump post like Officer-on-Special Duty (OSD) to pick up Dr Anjana Sharma, (supposed to be her comrade) an associate professor in Delhi University. Anjana Sharma was OSD on deputation with a gross monthly salary of Rs 3.30 lakhs, which is more than the salary of a Vice-Chancellor of any national university.
The then UPA government provided unprecedented rights to Dr. Sen and neither Government nor the media, except state level newspapers gave publicity to such irregularities and favouritism continued by the secular economist. No one questioned the unreasonable hurry in choosing the rector.
Sources say that, in its very first meeting, the mentor group nominated Upinder Singh, daughter of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and her colleague Nayanjot Lahiri as advisers representing India in international platforms. Both nominees were not experts on any aspect of the Nalanda tradition or history.
Non Transparent administration
Inspection reports of 2012 and 2013 conducted by the office of Director General of Audit said that appointment of VC and officers of the university was non-transparent. “Leave the international standard, even standards of selection of VC suggested by UGC were not followed in the selection of VC (designate)….selection of officers was made on the basis of pick and choose and not by giving wide publicity,” the report stated.
CAG questioned international standards claiming there is nothing on record to suggest global publicity was given to meet the international standards in appointments. The audit said pay and allowances were fixed on the basis of the demand of the individuals instead of following rules or terms and conditions of the deputation. It also pointed out that Nalanda University cannot be compared with the South Asia University as the whole expenditure is being met from consolidated fund of India.
No logic for excess salary being paid to senior varsity officials
A media report also highlighted that the CAG has held that the excess salary being paid to senior varsity officials “needs to be recovered under intimation to audit”. The report highlighted that later on VC Sabharwal took a “voluntary” cut of Rs 1 lakh from her “international” pay packet in October 2012; she took home a monthly tax-free pay package of around `3.5 lakh. Dr Anjana Sharma, officer on special duty (academic affairs) and Dr Padmakar Mishra, OSD (finance) were getting between `2 to `3 lakh each per month.
The inspection report of CAG also pointed out “irregularities” in the appointments, the audit says, “Leave international standards, even the standards of selection of a VC suggested by the UGC were not followed in the selection of VC (designate).”
A media report say that, On 25 August 2011, officials of the Ministry of External Affairs claimed that no vice-chancellor had been appointed to the Nalanda University, according to an RTI reply, vice chancellor Gopa Sabharwal and seven of her associates were drawing salaries since October 2010. Gopa as Vice-chancellor draws a salary of Rs 5, 06,513 per month.
Foreign travels and meeting at five star hotels
The audit report observed that the expenditure on foreign travels by the VC Sabharwal and Officer on Special Duty (OSD) Anjana, was allowed without sanction from Ministry of External Affairs. As per reports, the Audit Report of 2012 which examined the books of account of 2011 said VC and OSD made six trips to Singapore, Honolulu, Japan, China and US but neither administrative nor financial sanction from the Ministry of External Affairs was obtained.
“Meetings with the members of the governing board were held in five star hotels ignoring the provisions of the instructions of the Ministry of Finance,” the report stated.
“All major financial decisions taken during 2010-13 including creation of posts in the university, their emoluments and other benefits to the tune of `3.07 crore were without the approval of Finance Committee,” the audit noted.
Standing Committee on External Affairs (2011-2012) questions MEA
The Standing Committee on External Affairs 2011 2012 has expressed its displeasure about the overall function and desicion making processes regarding Nalanda University. It says – “Committee are dismayed to observe the lack of progress regarding Nalanda University Project. The Committee note that during the Eleventh Five Year Plan, the allocation sought by Ministry for the project was grossly inappropriate as compared to the actual ground reality. The proposed outlay for the year 2012-13 was ` 598.95 crores while the actual allocation of ` 15 crores has been made under the Plan Head. The Committee are not at all convinced by the Ministry’s justification in making such huge projections for the year 2012-13 when in all practicality; the University is yet to embark on the Global Designs Competition.”
The Committee asks about the reason for such timeframe for the project and the reason for having project office at Delhi, rather than at the actual location of the University; but gets a reply which shows a reluctant and bureaucratic mindset of the “Nalanda Mentor Group” which feels – “While the location of the University would be in the state of Bihar, a School of International Relations could be set up in New Delhi. It was also pointed out in the Patna meeting of the Governing Board in July, 2011 that the University would continue to have a presence in Delhi even after the campus is built in Rajgir”.
The Parliamentary Committee report is full of languid answers which try to defend Governments favouritism and showering of money on Amartya Sen and his bunch of comrades who were supposed to be “Mentors” of the varsity.
Committee expresses concerns about the contents of the curriculum and the standards and quality of the academic courses to be introduced in the Nalanda University. It suggested that the University should emerge as a valuable resource for promotion of studies and research in oriental cultures, literary tradition and languages and civilization based on the native knowledge systems and it should act as a living repository of cultural and literary traditions of the region. But in 2012, there was no one to listen and act honouring the Parliamentary committee’s suggestions.
Amartya Sen and MEA should justify expenditure and work quality
Neither the MEA nor the Amartya Sen are ready to give explanation on an expenditure projected at Rs. 3,553 crores over ten years, and approximately Rs. 600 crores during 2012-13 which got established without any appraisal or sanction from the Finance Ministry. Since, the NU is not regulated by the University Grants Commission; there was no regulatory authority to monitor progress and quality of the NU and appraisal of its apex office bearers.
On 20 January 2014, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved a proposal to provide financial support of Rs. 2727.10 crore to Nalanda University over a period of 12 years from 2010-11 to 2021-22. From this support, the amount of Rs. 1749.65 crore was expected to be spent as capital cost of the project and Rs. 977.45 crore has been provided to meet the University’s recurring expenditure for eight years from 2014-15 to 2021-22. Moreover, the University has already received US$ 11.55 lakh as voluntary contribution from China, Thailand and Laos. Singapore has offered to build a library at a cost of US$ 5 million. Australia has committed Australian $ 1 million for a Chair in the School of Ecology and Environment Studies. Japan has pledged assistance for the renovation of highways leading to the University. Other participating countries will contribute as the University progresses.
An Endowments Committee has been constituted to raise funds through public-private partnerships and it was decided that the University will also start generating its own revenues to meet a part of its recurring expenditure when teaching commences in phases.
The finance ministry’s Department of Expenditure has asked the Ministry of External Affairs, the nodal ministry for the project, the reasons why government rules should not apply to the project.
The main building of the international university is being compared with primary schools and Sulabh complex in India.
Sen exiting without answering many questions
While leaving the Nalanda University in February 2015, the internationally acclaimed economist has put the obligation of his departure on the newly formed government of India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee. In only six months of its rule, the Bharat Ratna recipient has realised that the Modi Government is having “substantive role in academic institutions”. Interestingly his appointment in 2012 was not seen as an “intervention”.
Notably for a coincidence, a staunch Modi critic has been interviewed by another famous anti-Modi brigade journo Sagarika Ghose. But the thorough understanding of the events, decisions and consequences exhibits a different picture of the story of Amartya Sen retiring hurt and his tenure at Nalanda University which can be easily called “controversial”.
Amartya Sen’s February 2015 letter and his recent interviews give no specific explanations to justify his lack of administration, apathy towards progress of varsity, reluctance, desire for financial autonomy (well catered by the UPA) and his political jibes. Irresponsible tenure of Amartya Sen and UPA government’s cuddling him at the cost of an outstanding concept to revitalize a global university looted and plundered 822 years ago by Islamic intruder Bakhtiyar Khalji around 1193 CE.
Amartya Sen’s clamorous exit with his political barbs is evident that he is just running away to his homeland to avoid uncomfortable questions about his tenure, whimsical decisions with favouritism, use of money and unprecedented power when it comes to the current pathetic status of the Nalanda University.