On November 25, George Yeo quit as chancellor of Nalanda University in Bihar, four days after the government reconstituted the institute’s governing board without consulting him. The former foreign minister of Singapore, who has been associated with the university since its inception in 2007, blamed the sudden dissolution of the governing body and the formation of a new one on “domestic Indian politics” and lamented that the autonomy he had been assured “appears not to be the case now”.

With his sudden departure, the Narendra Modi government will have to guard against charges of authoritarianism and infringement of autonomy. Such allegations, especially in connection with Nalanda University, are not new for the Centre. They had surfaced last year too when Yeo’s predecessor, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, had announced his intention to step down after the government allegedly sat on the governing board’s decision to give him a second term as chancellor.

In a letter to the governing board in February 2015, Sen had lashed out at the government for bureaucratic delays and for failing to safeguard the “international character” of the university. “I am also sad… that academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government,” he had written.

International infamy

The charges of interference in academic institutions aside, the government’s treatment of Yeo is also unlikely to go down well with Singapore, which has been an important partner in the revival of Nalanda University.

Yeo’s appointment as chancellor last year had started off on all the right notes for the two countries. In May 2015, two months before Yeo took charge, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had hailed him as a “great choice” and acknowledged his role – as a member of the governing board – in the revival of the ancient university.

This year in April, too, the minister was all praise for Yeo. “We are honoured that a scholar-statesman from the East now leads this institution,” she had said at the launch of Yeo’s book, Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao. The event was hosted by the ministry at its own address at Jawaharlal Nehru Bhavan in Delhi and Singapore’s high commissioner to India, Lim Thuan Kuan, was among those in attendance.

“Under Mr George Yeo’s stewardship, I am certain Nalanda will also rise to redeem the promise of its glorious history,” Swaraj had gushed.

Referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resolve to seek closer ties with Singapore, she had added, “Today, we celebrate not only a great mind, but also a great bond, the bond between India and Singapore.”

The message sent across was that the government fully backed Yeo as chancellor, and that India set great store by its bilateral relationship with Singapore – which the prime minister had described as “one of India’s strongest well-wishers” during a visit to the country in November last year.

Seven months down, Singapore may be wondering about the sincerity of those words.

The development will also not do India’s image on the world stage any good. The Nalanda project is an international project that has the backing of the East Asia Summit, a grouping of 18 countries from the Asia-Pacific region. Many of these countries had a hand in the setting up of the university – though India remains its biggest contributor, having allocated Rs 2,727 crores for it until 2021-’22. These countries have been watching with growing anxiety as the project lurches from one controversy to another.

Undiplomatic decision?

The government’s sticking point with Yeo, it seems, was its desire to see the last of Vice-Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal. Appointed by Amartya Sen, Sabharwal’s extension as vice-chancellor ended on November 24, but the governing board wanted her to continue in an interim role till a fresh appointment was made.

However, on November 21, President Pranab Mukherjee, as visitor of the university, dissolved Nalanda’s governing board and created a new one. Six members – including Sen, Professor Saugata Bose and Lord Meghnad Desai – were booted out. This effectively ended Sen’s nine-year association with the university.

After it’s initial silence on the decision to reconstitute the governing board, the External Affairs Ministry on Thursday said it had “great respect” for Yeo and his contributions to Nalanda. It justified the decision, saying it was taken “so that for the first time, the university would be in full compliance with the legal regime under which it was created”.

The ministry pointed out that the Nalanda Mentors Group, which later became the governing board with the same set of members, had been functioning for nine years whereas the Nalanda University Act of 2010 provides a tenure of only three years for members.

However, this rule has not been applied in the case of at least one member, former bureaucrat and former Rajya Sabha MP NK Singh, who is now with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Already a member of the governing board, he has now been nominated India’s representative on the board.

For a long time now, it’s been no secret in the corridors of South Block that the External Affairs Ministry was extremely unhappy with the slow pace of progress at the university under Sen as chancellor and Sabharwal as vice-chancellor.

The revival of Nalanda – India’s first residential university that attracted scholars and students from far and wide before it was burnt down in 1193 – had started in 2006 with a proposal from the then president, APJ Abdul Kalam. In 2007, the Nalanda Mentors Group was set up with both Sen and Yeo as members. The university came into existence in November 2010 with the implementation of the Nalanda University Act.

But the varsity’s first school, the School of Ecology and Environment, rolled out only in August 2014 with 15 students. While two more schools have since been opened and the institute now has 130 students, it’s still a long way away from establishing itself as an international institution of repute.

Other problems have bedevilled the Nalanda project in recent years, including audit objections by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the vice-chancellor’s fat pay packet. Sabharwal was forced to take a voluntary pay cut after this became a contentious issue.

While Yeo, in a Facebook post, said it was “puzzling” that the government had not given him notice of its decision to reconstitute the governing board, the Nalanda University Act allows the Centre to do just that without having to consult the chancellor. But its decision to do so comes across as dictatorial, especially after its earlier promise of autonomy to Yeo. Also, while it may have had its reasons to reconstitute the board and seek Sabharwal’s removal, surely it could have gone about the task in a more diplomatic manner.

Nalanda’s revival was a glorious idea. But turning the idea into reality has proved an uphill task for both the Modi government and its predecessor, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance administration.