Speaking Of Asia

Renew the promise of Nalanda

The ambitious project to revive Nalanda, the ancient seat of Buddhist learning in India, into a modern beacon of interfaith understanding deserves another concerted push.

Last month, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat under the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment 2,600 years ago, deep in meditation. The event was the climax of a two-day conference billed as the Global Hindu-Buddhist Initiative on Conflict Avoidance and Environment Consciousness, ostensibly meant to promote India's Hindu-Buddhist heritage of peace and civilisational linkages with the rest of Asia.

As Mr Modi put it, the conference was being held against the backdrop of a world in which the "severe limitations in our conflict-resolution mechanisms are becoming more and more obvious".

Among the political and intellectual luminaries present - Japan's Mr Shinzo Abe appeared via video link - a notable absence was representation from China. Perhaps the Chinese were busy with their approaching parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and victory over Japan. Or more likely, they just didn't want to show up.

Still, you couldn't help feeling that the conference, held in the Gaya district of India's Bihar state, was well-timed. At no time have so many faiths seemed to be in conflict with each other in Asia.

A shrine in Bangkok has been bombed recently, said to be the work of Turkish-speaking Uighur Muslims from China's Xinjiang province. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar aren't allowed to vote in the country's national election in November, thanks to a xenophobic state that refuses them nationality.


Sri Lanka's minority Tamils, who tend to be mostly Hindu or Christian, are having a hard time finding a just peace with the mainly Buddhist Sinhalas who dominate the island. In Mr Modi's own India, minority groups such as Muslims and Christians live under a sense of unease about his government's secular credentials and its failure to stop fringe elements like the one that organised a "homecoming" last Christmas Day for those who wanted to convert to the Hindu faith.

Elsewhere, in South-east Asia, non-Muslims are told to stop using the word Allah for God, even if their holy books have done so for generations. And scores of young Muslims from the region have sought to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State as fighters, even as the ISIS, or ISIL as it also is called, has become identified with crime, bestiality and every sort of repugnant behaviour.

It is also a sign of the times that Beijing, at its World War II commemoration, chose to show off its latest guns and shiny new missiles, when surely its most creditable achievement in the post- war era has been the upliftment of more than half a billion people from poverty. India, which fought alongside China in that war but whose strategic ties with Japan and the US are now swiftly developing, sent only a junior foreign minister. Japan, which says its repentance for the war it forced on Asia is "un- shakeable", did not show up at all.

Asia's landscape is beginning to look a bit like a crowded bazaar before a gang fight, with toughs staking out spots as they whistle up friends and finger the knuckle-dusters in their pockets.

In mid-September the Indian Air Force chief was in Vietnam and received by the defence minister as he travelled to Hanoi to build on a developing strategic relationship that has already yielded significant navy-to-navy ties and could see the first overseas sale of India's BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, co-developed with Russia. Indeed, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha arrived in Hanoi just as China and Pakistan wrapped up their fourth joint air exercises.

Nations with close ties of ethnicity and culture, seeing enemies in each other, are oddly finding comfort in the company of alien cultures.


For all these reasons, if Mr Modi is indeed serious about projecting India's Buddhist heritage as a powerful symbol of peace, interfaith understanding and cross cultural ties, he could make a good start by taking a personal interest in the project to revive Nalanda University. Indeed, the site for its campus is only a half-hour drive from where he conducted his meditation.

The Buddhist institution, set up in the early fifth century, was India's first residential university, attracting scholars from as far away as China, Persia and Turkey. Older than Oxford, in its heyday, the university housed 10,000 students and faculty members. It was burnt down by marauding invaders in 1193 after standing for 600 years.

Plans to revive the ancient seat of learning were announced in 2006 after Singapore's Mr George Yeo, then foreign minister, picked up on a suggestion made by visiting Indian President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Thanks to Mr Yeo's steadfast backing, Nalanda was endorsed by the East Asia Summit the next year. A Mentor Group was formed, led by the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, and including Mr Yeo, and others, mostly scholars from the United States, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

The Indian government adopted the university as a federal project, placing it, unlike other top institutions of higher learning, under the supervision of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) rather than the Human Resources Ministry. The state government would provide the land.

The best of intentions can go wrong, especially in India.

And so it did. Within no time, the project was stuck in red tape and delay, despite Professor Sen's excellent personal equation with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The MEA, which was initially thrilled about the concept, developed reservations about the way Prof Sen was leading the project. Oddly enough, one of the faster movers was the state govern- ment of Bihar, a province generally regarded as probably the worst- administered in the Indian Union.

India's media, ever alert to a good story, repeatedly attacked the Britain-based Prof Sen's choice of the debut vice-chancellor. Ms Gopa Sabharwal, the media pointed out, was not a full professor and did not seem to have the training to lead a project that needed to be built from the ground up. Besides, her field was sociology, while Nalanda was meant to focus on Buddhist studies, international relations, environment and public health. There were complaints too that she was paid excessively. While true when measured by Indian yardsticks, it was moderate by the global standards the new Nalanda aspired to.

Ms Sabharwal also did herself no favours by choosing to base herself in an office in a leafy lane in New Delhi, far from the dusty outback of Bihar state, where the university was to come up. In contrast, a known doer, such as Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, spends half his week in the area where his new state capital is coming up rather than in the metropolitan comfort of Hyderabad.

To add to Nalanda's problems, Dr Kalam, who died this year, himself did not get a second term as President and consequently, declined to be the university's first visitor, a position that appoints the chancellor.

Recent leaks of a letter written by him to the Indian external affairs minister suggest his disquiet at Prof Sen's stewardship of the project.

"I believe that the chancellor and vice-chancellor should be of extraordinary intellect with academic and management expertise," he wrote, while declining the visitor's post. "Both have to personally involve themselves, full-time, in Bihar."

The same year, 2011, Mr Yeo, the Mentor Group's other global star, lost his Aljunied constituency in Singapore, and stepped down from the post of foreign minister. Although he continued on the board, the loss of a serving foreign minister clearly affected the project's standing.

The upshot of all this was that Nalanda, which so thrilled minds with its connections to the Asian Renaissance, lost much of its lustre. Overseas interest in the project dwindled. It is worth pondering too whether the Mentor Group, which met twice a year, was too overawed by Prof Sen's personality and global reputation as a Nobel Prize- winning economist and thinker to act as a sufficient check on some of his decisions.

Thus, earlier this year, when Prof Sen stepped down as chancellor alleging the Modi government's interference in Nalanda's academic decisions, some in India received the news with relief. News that the Mentor Group, now called the Nalanda Board of Governors, had unanimously turned to Mr Yeo to be chancellor, was seen as boosting its prospects. Well-known and respected in India, indeed across Asia, Mr Yeo, as minister, is known to have famously counselled patience in dealing with the country , saying "ultimately, the Ganges will find its way to the sea".

Perhaps, in the peculiarly Indian way, circumstances had led to Nalanda getting the right man for the job.

Now vice-chairman of the Kerry Group, Mr Yeo has sought and received assurances from Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj that there would be no government interference in the project. He has also convinced Prof Sen to stay on the board. Meanwhile, the university started its first academic session in September last year with 15 students from India, Bhutan and Japan - and 11 faculty members. They are operating from a temporary campus in Rajgir.

Prof Sen is probably correct in asserting that Mr Modi should not interfere in Nalanda's academia. But the Indian leader certainly ought to involve himself more in executing the project, even if it was an initiative of the previous government. He should bring his doer's instincts to play and not only robustly back the project, but also monitor its implementation.

His foreign secretary, Dr S. Jaishankar, has had a diplomatic career that spanned stints in Sri Lanka, Japan, Singapore and China and is only too well aware of the soft-power benefits that would accrue from a successful Nalanda.

After all, in May, on his first trip to China as prime minister, Mr Modi began the trip in Xi'an. The gesture was remarkable not only because the city is the hometown of his host, President Xi Jinping, but also a symbol of India's Buddhist roots in China. Likewise, the impressive memorial hall for the seventh-century Chinese monk Xuan Zang was lovingly created in Nalanda by Chinese artisans who camped for months in the town.

It is but a small example of the fruits of sincerity that accrue when civilisations cooperate to celebrate connections that existed before they learned the dubious values of strategic competition and phony jealousies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2015, with the headline 'Renew the promise of Nalanda'. Print Edition | Subscribe