It is time to take our Look East Policy to a new level. The continuous meeting and intermingling of people from diverse social backgrounds will help in crafting a liberal and cosmopolitan attitude to life.

The year 2010 marks the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi as a capital by Emperor Ly Thai To, whose statue adorns the centre of the city. The year and the attendant celebrations would be a proud recollection for the people of Vietnam, and Hanoi in particular. At the end of this month, Hanoi will host a summit of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations and the East Asia Summit. India will participate in both meetings.

We have come a long way since the first India-ASEAN summit held in 2002 in Phnom Penh. We are now on course to host the 10th such summit in 2012, presumably in New Delhi. In this backdrop, we can assess what can be done in the overall context of our Look East policy in general, keeping the Nalanda University project as a focus.

In January 2007, at the Cebu meeting of the EAS, the member-states reached an understanding on strengthening regional educational cooperation. As part of this, they welcomed the initiative for the revival of Nalanda University. This was the culmination of an idea conceived by the Bihar government and given shape later by Singapore. In March 2006, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam addressed the joint session of the Bihar Assembly and exhorted it to revive the ancient seat of learning in Nalanda where science, philosophy, spirituality and social sciences could be blended. The Bihar government introduced a Bill in the Assembly in 2007 and cleared it to establish this great university. The Nalanda project became the face of an emerging Bihar.

In the middle of 2006, a proposal was received from the Singapore government called “The Nalanda Proposal.” According to this, Nalanda would be the ideal site for establishing a 21st century learning institution linking South and East Asia. The idea envisaged simultaneous upgrading of the infrastructure to promote tourism, and establishing a university at Nalanda to offer higher education facilities, thereby enabling all-inclusive economic development of the entire region.

In order to carry forward the proposals, a Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG), under the chairmanship of Professor Amartya Sen, was established by the Government of India in 2007. The group examined the framework of international cooperation and the structure of partnership, which would govern the establishment of the university. It also made proposals for the revival of Nalanda and the governance structure of the university, and other aspects covering finance, areas of study, etc. The NMG's recommendations were to be endorsed by the EAS leaders through a declaration to take the process forward. However, owing to unforeseen developments in Thailand in 2008 and early 2009, the fourth EAS was delayed. At the last EAS, held in Hua Hin in Thailand in October 2009, the leaders endorsed and extended their support for the establishment of Nalanda University.

The NMG completed its work in the first half of this year. In the recent monsoon session, Parliament passed the Nalanda University Bill, thereby making available a legal basis for going ahead with the implementation of the project. Thus the forthcoming fifth EAS is uniquely important for India. It would give us an opportunity to share the approach to be adopted for the construction of the university. It would also give us an occasion to maintain and intensify interest in the project among the participating countries. Given that civil construction projects in India have an inertial impetus of their own, it is necessary for us to keep the idea alive. It is important that facilities and opportunities be provided to the academic community, including students in EAS countries, to keep itself aware of what is happening on the Nalanda front.

The Hanoi EAS offers us a chance to consider ideas for enabling a modern-day land link between the Indo-China region and India, with the proposed university as a backdrop, for intensified people-to-people contact. Initially, we could focus on each of the five countries in the Indo-China region that abuts India — , Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar — which also have a strong Buddhist tradition. This land link could be projected as a means of access and exposure for students, academics, pilgrims and tourists as a special feature of our relations with Southeast Asia in general and the countries mentioned above in particular.

To buttress or land links with the ASEAN region and beyond, we could consider introducing a monthly bus service for about 100 pilgrims who, for reasons of economy, health, etc., may prefer, or be induced, to undertake surface travel. We can utilise the recently opened Asian Highway (AH16) from Da Nang in central Vietnam to Mae Sot on the Thailand-Myanmar border.

After traversing Yangon and Mandalay, and collecting pilgrims in Myanmar, the bus could enter India and come to Gaya. They could visit Nalanda, Rajgir and Sarnath and other places of Buddhist studies in Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. If Bangladesh is convinced to allow passage for these visitors, they can reach Kolkata much faster before going on a pilgrimage and to academic centres across India. It may not be too difficult for India to convince Myanmar authorities to join the initiative. After all, General Than Shwe himself visited Gaya and its environs recently. The ordinary pilgrim's travel would be a very symbolic representation of people-to-people cooperation.

India could even consider donating some modern, long haul buses and have the flagging off of a bus convoy in Hue, cultural capital of Vietnam, so that it can reach Gaya or Nalanda after collecting academics and pilgrims en route. It could be scheduled to arrive in the week of the India-ASEAN Summit in 2012.

With Nalanda University acting as a beacon, regular visits by academics, pilgrims, students and tourists would compel us to focus not only on sticking to a schedule but also maintaining interest in all sides in the revival of the university project. The suggested land link will give it a historic and spiritual character.

One thousand years ago when Hanoi was being established, the Chola dynasty in peninsular India reached its pinnacle. One of its most powerful symbols, the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur, also observed its 1000th anniversary this year. The Chola dynasty is the principal among those that consolidated and benefited by the original and proactive Look East Policy. The Cholas established strong maritime and commercial connections with countries and kingdoms to the southeast and east of India. Nagapattinam was the port from where all trade and other links were serviced with the kingdoms all the way up to, and including, China. As Professor K.A. Nilakanta Sastri states in his work, The Cholas: “At no time had Indian merchants ever ceased to frequent the shores of the Malay Peninsula and the islands of the archipelago, even Indo-china and China ... Towards the ninth century A.D. the countries of Southern Asia had developed an extensive maritime and commercial activity, and attained a prosperity unequalled in history.”

It is perhaps time to take our Look East Policy to a new dimension. The continuous meeting and intermingling of people from diverse social backgrounds helps in crafting a liberal and cosmopolitan attitude to life. An overland connection to Nalanda, just as Nagapattinam thrived on an aqueous connection, could be the first step in our journey of the next thousand years. India is ideally placed to spur a movement catalysed by spirituality, to reach an ancient destination in the new millennium — a place that set ancient India apart as a pioneer in higher education.

(The writer is a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. He was India's Ambassador to Vietnam between 2004 and 2006.)

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