The passage of the Nalanda University Bill by Parliament is a firm indication that India is moving in the direction of unleashing its soft power on Asia and the world. This is reinforced by the efficient completion of the South Asian University project under SAARC and India's decision to open up its higher education sector to global inputs and competition. Initially, Nalanda University was to be launched in 2009, but the question of funding and the defining of its basic structure took more time than expected. The idea of reviving it as a centre of excellence in the creation and dissemination of knowledge in Asia was first mooted by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in February 2006 during his official visit to Singapore. He then elaborated on it while addressing the Bihar Assembly.

Both Bihar and Singapore got motivated to translate the idea into a concrete project. The Assembly passed a bill in 2007 to establish Nalanda University, acquired land for it but handed over the project to the government of India in view of its emerging international character. Singapore pursued the idea more vigorously than even India did in some respects and to propagate it in East Asia organised a “Nalanda Symposium” in November 2006. As a result, it succeeded in enlisting the support of East Asian countries, especially China, Japan and Korea, for the project. Singapore has also joined hands with Japan in mobilising funds for giving shape to the project and executing it.

As a result of all these efforts, the East Asia Summit (a grouping of ASEAN plus six countries — China, Japan, India, Korea, Australia and New Zealand) not only spontaneously endorsed the project in 2007 but in 2009, at its fourth summit, called upon all its members to make “appropriate funding arrangements on a voluntary basis from government and other sources including public-private partnership” for this “non-state, non-profit, secular and self-governing international institution.”

Nalanda University is destined to emerge as a strong instrument of soft power at two levels; for the rising Asia in relation to the West and for India in relation to Asia. As the project recaptures its past glory and élan, it will boost Asia's confidence in its intellectual and academic capacities and dent the heavy reliance that exists today on the western universities like Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard for Asian scholars' professional credibility and recognition. This is underlined by Amartya Sen, chairman of the Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG), in his pointer that “Oxford was rising when Nalanda was declining” and now the new Nalanda should reflect Asia's re-emergence. Defining the link between the Nalanda project and Asia's rise, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, who is also an NMG member, described the project as the “icon of Asian Renaissance” adding, “as Asia re-emerges on the world stage this century, its civilisational origins will become a subject of intense study and debate. Asians will look back to their own past and derive inspiration from it for the future.”

A senior Indian official after the New York meeting of the NMG in May 2008 said the objective of Nalanda was “to emphasise the importance of eastern intellectual endeavour and ensure that human aspiration is not being dominated by the western imprint.” Nalanda will build itself in the course of time as a vehicle for propagating the constructive and creative dimensions of oriental thought and knowledge systems based on Asian philosophies, experiences and practices that seldom find adequate place in contemporary western curricula.

India has, till recently, been rather casual about and indifferent to its strength in the use of soft power in its foreign policy and diplomacy. The goodwill and admiration clustered around India's cultural footprints in Asia ranging from Angkor Wat to Garuda and Ganesha; from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the roots of South East Asian languages in Sanskrit and Pali, from the dance forms of Bharatanatyam and Kathak to the traditional systems of Yoga and Ayurveda, have not been harnessed systematically. Many of the innovative proposals and initiatives have died under the burden of bureaucratic ineptitude and lethargy. It is only now that India is waking up to the use of this asset.

The CEO of the South Asian University, Professor G.K. Chaddha, has repeatedly underlined the efficacy of educational linkages in reinforcing regional cooperation and development. Of course, India's Bollywood and television channels have carried India's profile to the diverse corners of Asia and the world, but that has happened as a commercial enterprise seldom backed by a conscious and systematic policy initiative.

The revival of Nalanda University is a multinational project, in partnership with Asian countries. The NMG member, Professor Wang Bangwei of Peking University, emphasised that “Nalanda belonged to not only India but all Asian Buddhists.” It will spurt activities and processes towards building an Asian community and cannot be used as an instrument of competitive diplomacy in the region. While participating in the 2006 symposium in Singapore, Professor Wang Dehua of the Shanghai Centre for International Studies referred to India-China relations in the context of Nalanda saying: “Let us forget about the 1962 incident. This project will symbolise the rebuilding of our old friendship and understanding. In the future, we will be able to reach the dream of an Asian community with a project like this.”

Other scholars at the symposium like Professor Tan Chung from India also elaborated on this theme, recalling that when the Han dynasty was on the verge of collapse in the sixth century, the spread of Buddhism from Nalanda helped China revive. The message is loud and clear — Nalanda should bring India and China, as also other Asian countries, closer.

Without invoking any competitive drive with its Asian neighbours, Nalanda would help India consolidate its position in the region. Since the university is based in India, scholars and students going out of Nalanda would become India's goodwill ambassadors in their countries, generally at the critical levels of decision-making. Through the Nalanda alumni, India will also be able to showcase its cultural richness, democratic commitments, secular ethos and innovative strength in the frontier areas of knowledge. The boost in tourism and marketing of knowledge and cultural products in Asia would be a bonus for India, as also for other countries.

The completion and further expansion of the Nalanda project will not be without challenges. It will have to be insulated from the strong undercurrents of competitive strategic moves among its Asian stakeholders. India will also have to ensure that its bureaucratic processes do not intervene and erode the efficiency of this all-Asian project.

Funding the project would indeed be a formidable challenge, even as a public-private enterprise. The present target is to create an endowment of $1 billion. Harvard University's endowment is $35 billion. The funding constraint restrained the NMG from opening faculties in hard sciences and frontier areas of knowledge. This will handicap Nalanda in becoming a real centre of excellence in knowledge creation and thus in competing with the well endowed western Universities. The stakeholders of the project seem to be acutely aware of these challenges. It is hoped that they will be overcome as the project unfolds.

(S.D. Muni is Visiting Research Professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.)

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