Vision for Nalanda: A secular, international varsity

According to Dr Amartya Sen, Nalanda's character is pan-Asian and Mr George Yeo (above) is the right leader for it.
According to Dr Amartya Sen, Nalanda's character is pan-Asian and Mr George Yeo (above) is the right leader for it.

Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo said he would like to build a "secular, international university'' as he took over the reins of the Nalanda University, opening a fresh chapter in the ongoing revival of the ancient seat of learning in India's eastern Bihar state.

Mr Yeo, who started his three-year term as chancellor yesterday, succeeding Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, said it was an honour to take over as chancellor.

He noted that construction would start soon on the campus, which will be in the town of Rajgir some 12km from the ruins of the ancient university. The first phase of construction includes academic and administration buildings and will cost 6.14 billion rupees (S$132.3 million) over three years.

"Our challenge is to build a secular, international university that is worthy of the name 'Nalanda', dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge,'' said Mr Yeo in a statement.

"The university is making good progress...The governing board decided at the last meeting to establish the third school for Buddhist Studies and Comparative Religion. In the coming years, we will open more schools and steadily ramp up recruitment of staff and students."

The project to revive the ancient university, which in its heyday housed 10,000 students and faculty, was first announced in 2006.

The Buddhist institution, set up in the early 5th century and burnt down by marauding invaders in 1193, was India's first residential university, attracting scholars from as far away as China, Persia and Turkey. Singapore funds are going into building its once famed library.

However, the project has seen delays and been mired in controversy.

The university started its first academic session in September last year with 15 students from India, Bhutan and Japan and 11 faculty members in the School of Historical Studies and the School of Ecology and Environment Studies in a temporary campus in Rajgir.

Over the past year or so, Dr Sen has accused the government of failing to safeguard the international character of the university and of bureaucratic delays.

The government, which is funding the project to the tune of 27 billion rupees, had wanted greater oversight of finances and the hiring of staff and their salaries.

Dr Sen, who told The Sunday Times he has agreed to continue as a member of the university governing body at the request of Mr Yeo, said he hoped his exit from the top post would lead to a smoother rollout of the project.

Noting that the board wanted " independence with accountability'', he said: "In Nalanda, it is very important to bear in mind its pan-Asian character that would be reflected in the curriculum, faculty and nature of teaching. George Yeo is the right kind of person for it."

Mr Yeo, who is a member of the governing body, has been associated with the project since its inception. As foreign minister, he led Singapore's diplomatic effort in getting backing for it from the East Asia Summit, a regional grouping of 18 nations that includes Asean, in 2007.

Mr Yeo said he had met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and was assured of the university's autonomy. Nalanda comes under the Ministry of External Affairs because it is an international university supported by the East Asia Summit leaders.

Still, academicians said Mr Yeo had an uphill task. He faces the challenges of putting the recent controversies behind the university, moving ahead with the construction, attracting top-notch faculty and getting students from across Asia.

"We have to wait to see what he (Mr Yeo) does on the ground. He comes with a lot of expectations. The bar is going to be very high," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'Vision for Nalanda: A secular, international varsity'. Print Edition | Subscribe