How an exciting international project of rebuilding a great ancient Indian university, which was destroyed 800 years ago, could not inspire the Indian news media to any great extent is a matter of surprise and concern.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen's keynote address at the 98th Indian Science Congress in Chennai on January 4 was devoted to the theme of ‘Nalanda and the pursuit of science.' The full text of this interesting speech was published in The Hindu
Professor Sen chairs the governing body of new Nalanda, which is scheduled to start functioning near the old site in 2013. Professor Gopa Sabharwal has been appointed the first Vice-Chancellor of the post-graduate university, which will start with seven schools, primarily in the humanities. The courses on offer will include Buddha studies besides international relations, peace studies, and the information sciences and technology.
“We are talking about the oldest university in the world by a long margin,” Professor Sen, who has taught at Oxford — where, according to the university's website, ‘teaching existed…in some form in 1096 and developed rapidly from 1167' — reminded his audience, “that is, if we do not insist on continuous existence…Nalanda was an old centre of learning that attracted students from many countries in the world, particularly China and Tibet, Korea and Japan, and the rest of Asia, but a few also from as far in the west as Turkey…a residential university, [it] had at its peak 10,000 students, studying various subjects… while Nalanda was very special, it was still a part of a larger tradition of organised higher education that developed in that period in India — in Bihar in particular…[it belonged to] a larger social culture.”
Raising the question of what a religious institution had to do with science, Professor Sen argued that while the central focus of Nalanda as a Buddhist foundation was the study of Buddhist philosophy and practice, “it nevertheless pursued general intellectual and scientific studies, the products of which were of great interest also to people who were not religious, or did not share the religion of the foundations involved.” He highlighted the fact that “the faculty and the students in Nalanda loved to argue, and very often held argumentative encounters.” One reason, he suggested, for its keenness to accept students from abroad was its “passion for propagating knowledge and understanding.” The author of The Argumentative Indian added: “If the seeking of evidence and vindication by critical arguments is part of the tradition of science, so is the commitment to move knowledge and understanding beyond locality. Science has to fight parochialism, and Nalanda was firmly committed to just that.”
Professor Sen laid before the Science Congress his hope that “the pursuit of science in old Nalanda…[would] inspire and guide our long-run efforts in new Nalanda” — in the science faculties as well as the humanities and the social sciences.
A lot of hard work, especially in the matter of attracting a world-class faculty at a site that will be considered remote and not easy to access today, will need to be done before this project takes off. But when it does, it will be the fulfilment of a cherished ambition of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. It was President Kalam who, addressing a joint session of the Bihar Legislature in March 2006, pleaded for the revival of the ancient seat of learning in Nalanda. Excited by the idea, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar moved quickly to get legislative approval for the scheme and also offered land for it.
Around the same time, the Singapore Government came out with a “Nalanda Proposal,” which would facilitate the founding of a 21st century educational institution that could link South and East Asia. This gave a new dimension to the proposal. At the 16-nation East Asia Summit held in Thailand in 2007, the leaders endorsed the Nalanda University project, with opportunities opening up for closer ties among the member-countries and the overall development of the region. Following up, the Government of India in August 2010 got the National University Bill, 2010 adopted by both Houses of Parliament.
It is unfortunate that a progressive international effort to revive a great tradition is sought to be trivialised by a section of the politically active media. The debate that preceded the passage of the Bill provided a clue to the lukewarm interest in, if not negative attitude, to the project demonstrated by a section of the polity. Is China's participation, along with 15 other nations, a sore point? Or is the importance that will be given to Buddhist studies in keeping with the tradition of old Nalanda unwelcome to the communal Right and to sections of the news media sympathetic to it?
This criticism is not meant of course to pre-empt the historical debate over what exactly was the character of old Nalanda and its long-term role in the pursuit of science. There can be legitimate historical criticism that there has been a trend of romanticising the tradition — considering that Nalanda was predominantly and pre-eminently a centre of Buddhist philosophy and studies, and that other fields of knowledge followed from this central feature.
But these questions cannot take away from the enduring significance and great value of the Nalanda tradition at its best.
The response from readers of the last column (“What media can do for education”), which focused on the dismal conditions in schools and student hostels catering to the needs of extremely disadvantaged students in Tamil Nadu, was substantial, interesting, and borne out by their own experience.
Particularly valuable was this set of suggestions coming from A. Padmanabhan, former Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu and former Governor of Mizoram, to rectify defects and mismanagement in educational institutions: the Minister, Secretary, and Commissioner for Adi Dravidar Welfare should take effective action to set right the pathetic conditions in Adi Dravidar hostels and schools in a time-bound manner; teachers, particularly in primary schools, should be given proper orientation training in dealing with students; district and State educational officers and district collectors should make surprise visits to schools and hostels, pull up errant teachers and ensure proper maintenance; parent-teacher meetings should be regular and fruitful; and, finally, it is time the Chief Minister himself called a meeting to discuss and sort out the problems before they get out of hand.
Mr. Padmanabhan recalled that in the 1950s and 1960s education administrators such as Director of Public Instruction N.D. Sundaravadivelu and District Education Officer K. Venkatasubramanian (later Vice Chancellor of the Central University in Puducherry) made surprise personal visits to schools and hostels and helped rectify the defects.
Incidentally, it was Mr. Sundaravadivelu who successfully implemented a mid-day meal scheme — launched by Chief Minister K. Kamaraj on a small scale before Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran made it a breakthrough social entitlement programme for the whole State and eventually a model for the whole of India — with a view to bringing in children to schools and minimising the drop-out rates.
Arumugam Ponnusamy (Salem) e-mailed his concern over handing out corporal punishment to schoolchildren. He also suggested the introduction of “examination with textbooks” on a trial basis. Criticising corporal punishment, P.S. Sundaram (Chennai) said in his e-mail that teachers should seriously be sensitised about it. He suggested psychology-tests on teachers, many of whom, he said, were under-qualified.
B.R. Kumar (Chennai) recognised that All India Radio and Doordarshan continued to broadcast educational and informative programmes. Several other television channels and FM radio stations were also doing so. But he noted sadly that most viewers and listeners were only interested in soap operas and film-oriented programmes.
Some readers called to remind us of the fine work done by the news media in the 1980s when the literacy movement and adult education programmes were making rapid strides. Some Tamil dailies distributed free study material printed in bold letters and opened a couple of pages in their newspapers for the benefit of learners.