India’s Nalanda University, an ancient seat of learning that the government has been trying to revive, saw more controversy on Friday after its prominent Singaporean chancellor suddenly quit citing political interference in a recent management overhaul.
The resignation of George Yeo, a former Singapore foreign minister, came days after Indian president Pranab Mukherjee endorsed a clearing out of the high-profile university’s governing body.
Among the big-name casualties of the board revamp announced Tuesday were Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, a well-known critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the university’s former chancellor, Britain-based academic Meghnad Desai, another government critic, and opposition lawmaker Sugata Bose.
“The sudden dissolution of the old Nalanda board is bound up with Indian domestic politics which I do not wish to be embroiled in,” Yeo said in a Facebook post on Friday.
“Nalanda is an idea whose time has come. It is bigger than and will outlast any of us,” Yeo wrote.
In an earlier statement, the 62-year-old Yeo said the overhaul of the university’s governing body “came as a complete surprise to me and to most members of the old governing board”.
Harvard economist Sen, Yeo and other Asian statesmen and scholars have for the past decade worked on reviving Nalanda, located in the Indian state of Bihar.
Founded in the fifth century – the ancient institution is said to have attracted tens of thousands of scholars from across Asia who came to study Buddhism, law and literature. It was razed to the ground by invaders in 1193.
In 2006, India, Singapore, China, Japan and Thailand announced plans to revive the university with the contribution of state funds.
The project – first proposed by former Indian President Abdul Kalam – was endorsed by the regional East Asian Summit grouping.
The revived institution – situated near the site of its ancient incarnation – admitted its first students in 2014. That cohort graduated in August.
The university currently only admits postgraduate students and is in the process of fully developing three separate schools which specialise in history, the environment and religious studies.
But signs that all were not well in the ambitious transnational project emerged February last year when Sen – acclaimed for his work on development economics – resigned as its first chancellor.
Sen, 83, is a strident critic of Prime Minister Modi because of the leader’s links with Hindu nationalists. He has also constantly voiced his dim view of Modi’s economic policy.
In a letter to the Nalanda board prior to his resignation, Sen said he was stepping down because he believed “the government wants me to cease being chancellor of Nalanda University” despite unanimous support of the board for him to serve a second term.
He also criticised the Modi government’s control over the university through the installation of the country’s ceremonial president as the institution’s “Visitor”.
“I am also sad, at a more general level, that academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government,” he wrote.
In his statement Friday, Singapore’s Yeo said he was “repeatedly assured that the university would have autonomy” when he took over from Sen as chancellor last year. “This appears not to be the case now,” he said.
“The circumstances under which the leadership change in Nalanda University has been suddenly and summarily effected is disturbing and possibly harmful to the University’s development,” he added.