The current plight of the much-coveted Nalanda University in Bihar is an apt instance to highlight how the Narendra Modi-led dispensation has systematically annihilated the already battered higher education in the state. Many believe that the centuries-old university, which was revived in 2010 as part of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s vision to turn the state into a knowledge capital again, has been suffering because of the Sangh parivar’s larger design to saffronise education at all levels across India.
The first victim of the RSS-BJP’s saffronisation of education was Nalanda University – conceived as a truly international university with 18 countries, including China, Japan and Singapore, as its stakeholders under the broader patronage of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).
The idea behind opening Nalanda University was to revive the glory of the ancient seat of learning at Nalanda that existed for 750 years from the fifth century to the 13th century, drawing scholars and students from across the world. Its ruins are still a treasured heritage for Indians in particular and the world at large.
At the initiative of Nitish Kumar, the then president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam addressing the joint session of the Bihar legislature on March 28, 2006 proposed the idea of reviving Nalanda University. Subsequently, the Bihar legislature passed the Bill for the creation of the Nalanda University, and eventually, on November 25, 2010, the University came into existence through an Act of parliament. The then Manmohan Singh government fully supported Nitish Kumar in his efforts though he was part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Although Nalanda University was under the MEA, Nitish was allowed to have his say and way. He roped in Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and many other academic leaders of Asia, including reputed educationist and external affairs minister of Singapore George Yeo. Amartya Sen – who had developed an appreciation for Nitish Kumar’s efforts – became the first chairman of the University’s governing board and its first chancellor.
The Nobel laureate economist took a personal interest in Nalanda University. Addressing a meeting in Patna at Nitish Kumar’s invitation Amartya recalled his emotional link with the ancient seat of learning.
“My grandfather and philosopher Kshiti Mohan Sen had brought me to the ruins of Nalanda when I was barely a 10-year-old boy. What my grandfather told me about Nalanda was still etched in the tendrils of my mind,” Sen had said, drawing applause from the audience of scholars at Patna’s planetarium in 2010.
However, with Modi taking over as the prime minister in 2014, some small-time news portals and also a section of local editions of some national newspapers – allegedly at the behest of the RSS – carried out a smear campaign against Sen.
Some stories based on unverified and grossly questionable pieces of evidence alleged Sen to have indulged in “financial irregularities” and “undermining” the tenets of the University. They also cast aspersions on the then vice chancellor Gopal Sabharwal, who was handpicked by the then governing board headed by Sen.
Amidst the allegations, Sen quit as the chancellor citing “political interference”. This was despite the governing board – comprising representatives from 18 countries – unanimously recommending his name for a second term in 2015. Then the president – who is a visitor of the University – appointed Singapore minister George Yeo as its chancellor; he too quit citing concerns about the autonomy of the institution and political interference in academic matters.
On January 25, 2017, the Union government appointed Vijay Pandurang Bhatkar, who is a Pune-based “computer scientist” and president of the Vigyan Bharti, an arm of the RSS as chancellor.
“I will continue to be the president of the Vigyan Bharti…that is the body of scientists,” said Bhatkar after taking over. He has no qualms about his RSS connections.
Ruined beyond redemption
In over eight years of Modi’s rule, the University stands ruined. “Nalanda University can be a case in point. But the RSS-BJP has systematically captured educational institutions across the country. They began appointing hardcore RSS operatives at University Grants Commission, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University and the Nalanda University at the top levels,” Manoj Jha, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s national spokesman and professor of social work at Delhi University, told The Wire.
“Now, they are filling their cadres at the assistant professors’ level through a diabolical process. It will be hard for any political parties/alliance to repair the damage the RSS-BJP has done to the educational institutions in India,” Jha added.
The Manmohan Singh government sanctioned a central university to Bihar and suggested that it should be opened around Patna. But Nitish Kumar, with the development of north Bihar in mind, insisted that the central university should be opened at Motihari – headquarters of East Champaran, which is associated with Mahatma Gandhi’s first satyagraha.
Nitish persuaded and even fought with the then Union human resources minister Kapil Sibal and managed to get two central universities for Bihar – one at Motihari and another at Bodhgaya sanctioned.
With Narendra Modi coming to power, the two central universities are under the complete ‘capture’ of the RSS from the level of vice-chancellors to that of assistant professors. The schools of media studies at both institutions are headed by hardcore RSS operatives and any voice of dissent against the existing order is muzzled with all ruthlessness.
In fact, the pro-vice chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi Central University (MGCU), Motihari, Anil Kumar Rai ‘Ankit’, who took office on October 31, 2018, was a prominent leader of the RSS’s students’ wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Ankit is treated as a “doyen” of media education by the Sangh but few experts in Indian media are aware of his writing and contributions.
And Ankit has no qualms about mingling politics with education. He attends public meetings with Radhamohan Singh, BJP MP from Motihari.
Blessing in disguise
Nitish Kumar fervently appealed to Modi at an event at Patna University on October 16, 2017, to grant Patna University – the premier state university of Bihar – a central university status which the prime minister rejected.
He also appealed to the then vice president Venkaiah Naidu, who visited Patna University in 2019, to get central university status.
Now, experts take the PM’s rejection of Nitish’s demand as a “blessing in disguise” for Bihar.
“Had the PM granted the central university status to the PU – which has produced a number of civil servants, diplomats and academics over the years – it would have become another fiefdom of the RSS-BJP,” said an associate professor of Patna University on the condition of anonymity.
It is time for Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav to “purge” the universities in the state and also other institutions and bodies of higher learning of RSS-BJP influence. Over the years – more so when they were in power with Nitish Kumar at the helm – they took over many positions in higher education institutions in the name of “quota”.
Insiders in the education sector said that two senior RSS functionaries, Krishna Gopal and Dattatreya Hosabale, were the “key” figures having the “final say” in the matter of appointments of the VCs, pro-VCs, professors and assistant professors.
“They wield more power than the Union education minister and even the chief ministers in the BJP-ruled states,” said Jaiprakash Yadav, former education minister of Bihar.
Noted novelist Salman Rushdie began his novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories with these lines: “There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of the cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name.”
Rushdie’s words are apt for the situation Nalanda University finds itself in: it has forgotten the very idea on which it came into existence. It now adds to the long list of Nitish Kumar’s shattered dreams.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author and professor of journalism and mass communication at Invertis University, Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.
This article was first published on The Wire.