The appointment on January 27 of scientist Vijay Bhatkar, the architect of India’s first supercomputer, as chancellor of Nalanda University has given rise to serious doubts about the direction this institute will take. It should not come as a surprise that a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sympathiser or activist now heads the university, or that someone closer to the Right wing could become its vice-chancellor in the near future. After all, that is how political appointments have been made under all kinds of political regimes.

What is of concern is that such an appointment goes against the very idea of a university that calls itself international and aims, as it says on its website, “to be universalist in its outlook, open to currents of thought and practice from around the globe, and it has to respond to the needs of a world”. The descriptor goes on to say, “Located in the town of Rajgir, in the northern Indian state of Bihar, Nalanda is a postgraduate, research intensive, international university supported by the participating countries of the East Asia Summit. The University came into being on November 25, 2010 by a special Act of the Indian Parliament and has been designated as an ‘institution of national importance’.” The emphasis is clearly on the institute’s international character, as a discernible characteristic when compared to other universities in the country.

Nalanda University calls itself international because of the involvement of multi-state stakeholders as its funders, and its effort to give itself a multi-country governance look. The university, also due to its supposed character, is to institutionally appear in its everyday working as more open and liberal. This entails an environment where students, faculty and staff from different countries can express their ideas without any inhibition. In this sense, an international space cannot be confined to national ideas of tolerance, identitarianism and parochial meanings of religious appropriateness. Rather, these have to be spelt out so that an engagement around these ideas can take place. This can be facilitated in different ways – through academic discourses that encourage diversity (including oppositional analysis) and through the physical presence of diverse cultures and nationalities.

In the case of Nalanda, this does not seem to be happening. Of its three academic units, the School of Historical Studies and the School of Ecology and Environment Studies have faculty almost entirely drawn from India while only the School of Buddhist Studies, which is smaller in size, offers some diversity in this regard. The administration of the university is comprised only of Indians. Nalanda says that “to reinforce the university’s international character, an inter-governmental memorandum of understanding came into force at the 8th East Asia Summit in October 2013”. The international part of the exercise seems to be absent in its operationalisation. Given the skewed demographic profile and academic engagement in the university, it becomes important that the effort to make it international in every possible way is given priority.

The RSS stamp

The appointment of Vijay Bhatkar definitely does not serve that purpose. It is because of his orientation and connection to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has been historically known to be a closed and parochial organisation. He has acknowledged his association with Vijnana Bharati – the Sangh body’s science wing, of which he is president – and, in fact, defended it. What also appears to be an interesting phenomenon unfolding within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is an effort to generate an intellectual legitimacy of the generic kind by bringing into its fold scientists who have held big positions and are celebrated because of their work. Once you acquire those heights in your career, a popular image of a person who cannot go wrong is also built. Hence, you find G Madhavan Nair, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, and his successor K Radhakrishnan attending Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh events.

Then, such personalities are given a forum such as Vijnana Bharati, which has now become the place the Bharatiya Janata Party seems to head for whenever it needs candidates with academic credentials but who, at the same time, could be anti-liberal, brahmanical elite. It did that while looking for a vice-chancellor for Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi – M Jagadesh Kumar, appointed in January last year, has attended events organised by Vijnana Bharati – and it has gone there again in search of a chancellor for Nalanda University. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and cosmopolitanism are anathema to each other, as history has shown us. It does not believe in welcoming ideas from others unless those fit its framework of a narrow and parochial conception of society – brahmanical, male-centric and anti-science.

It is difficult to deny Vijnana Bharati’s links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The initial consultative meet in 1990 that led to its establishment was attended by people such as HV Sheshadri, KS Sudarshan, Rajendra Singh, Dattopant Thengadi, Nanaji Deshmukh, Murli Manohar Joshi, Jagmohan Garg, KI Vasu, Sujit Dhar, VB Panicker, and Upendra Shenoy. These personalities do not need an introduction to their allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It is the same organisation that has been speaking, in different ways, about the need to establish India as a Hindu nation. Recently, its website had a message from its leader Mohan Bhagwat that said “those who do not consider themselves Hindu in our country, they are also descendants of Hindu ancestors. Therefore, Bharat is even their mother”. If the aim of an organisation is to prove that everybody has some relation to being Hindu, then its parochialism cannot be doubted. The RSS is known for its anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan rhetoric. It is known to be anti-women. It has celebrated the mindless killing of people by vigilantes claiming to protect cows. The current chancellor of Nalanda University has an allegiance to such a thought process.

A fatal flaw

The ability to create an organisation that can provide equal, unfettered space for counter-posing interpretations and analysis to co-exist cannot be developed if the ideological imagination of its leaders are paralysed by such overarching frameworks. A university in general has to be that kind of space and when it is an international space, then the diversity is enormous and more stark. Would an institutional leader with such a background be able to ensure that all this diversity and difference is harnessed to foster new research and produce critical and cosmopolitan minds? That remains to be seen, and it appears difficult looking at what the other vice-chancellor with a similar background is doing to Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The making of an international university is heavily dependent on the idea of cosmopolitanism that such an institution has to generate. While it is important that every decision is taken after consulting all the partners who have established the institution, it is equally or more important how one designs the everyday running of the place. What is the representation of different cultures in its staff, for instance? Everyday administrative control and terms of intellectual discourse have to transcend limited national borders. The lingua franca of the university, for instance, acquires significance in this. This is where the scholars who founded this university failed to foresee the perils of handing its governance to one state. This was a short-sightedness that will never allow Nalanda University to become truly international.

The life of a university is not compartmentalised, and cosmopolitanism is based on the idea of conversation among distinct cultures and knowledges and how it works every day in interactions and engagements. The imagination of an alternative institution that can truly be international, beyond the ideological and administrative control of one University Grants Commission or one ministry, was absent when Nalanda was conceptualised. Sadly enough, the intellectuals who were part of this project initially did not foresee the pitfalls of a governance structure that is today endangering the very idea for which this place was created.