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HUM HINDUSTANI: Not by another Nalanda -J Sri Raman.

Pakistan, Aug. 13 -- If students are taught by rote and the rod in primary classes, and evaluated by extremely unfair external examinations at the secondary stage, universities cannot be unique suppliers of scholarship of independence and integrity

Re-creating Nalanda: why has the idea failed to elicit an enthusiastic response in a country that seeks a future greatness to match its past glory? Is it because the media finds news of other kinds more saleable? Or is it because the people are instinctively more cynical about the significance of the impressive-sounding scheme?

A bit of both, perhaps. But a little more of the latter - or so it would seem to anyone with any experience of education in India, especially as it has evolved over the past couple of decades.

As anyone who went to school anywhere in the country knows, Nalanda (Insatiable in Giving) was the name of a centre of learning, indeed the oldest ever university in the world. The sprawling Buddhist campus was sited in what now is the state of Bihar, a byword for backwardness. It flourished for over seven centuries from 427 BC though, towards the end, it had ceased to be a symbol of liberal learning and become better known for 'tantric', or a black-magic-like version, of Buddhism.

For most of the time, however, the red-brick complex, surviving in tourist-drawing ruins today, was reputed for scholarship in a wide range of subjects besides religious studies. In its heyday, it is said to have boasted of over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers coming from Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Korea, Persia and even Turkey. Nalanda was sacked by Turkic invaders under Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1193, described as a milestone in the decline of Buddhism in India. The university's vast library, says the legend, burned for three months after it was set on fire.

It was in 2006 that the dream of re-creating Nalanda took a definite shape. A cluster of Buddhist countries - including Japan and China - and religious organisations from Singapore and other nations, in addition to India, came together then to contemplate the setting up of a Nalanda International University. The idea seemed to have made a major advance with the choice of the right man for its implementation.

Along with the chairmanship of the Nalanda Mentors Group, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen accepted the challenge of reviving the ancient university and give it modern relevance. A reverent but non-religious student of the Buddha's tenets and teaching, Sen could be relied upon to make the university a centre of contemporary learning without ruffling the religious feathers of the funders of the endeavour and enterprise.

The question, however, remains: will the re-creation of Nalanda resurrect Indian education?

This will be the second Indian experiment, or India-based university, of its inspiration. Sen himself is a product of the first. Set up on December 23, 1921, in the sylvan setting of Santiniketan (Abode of Peace) by another Nobel Laureate, poet Rabindranath Tagore, the Visva Bharati (Universal Indian) University was also supposed to represent a collective educational undertaking of the East, with teachers and students from China and Japan as well. Tagore created a new campus of open-air classes and a curriculum including seasonal festivals of song, dance and his own specially written plays.

The poet's dream died a premature death. The Visva Bharati is not vastly different from a majority of Indian universities today. It has seen quite a few student strikes, including some against fee hikes, and its finished products are not really distinguishable from the degree-holders churned out by other factories of avowedly higher education.

The dream, in retrospect, was destined to die prematurely. A Visva Bharati could not exist and excel in a vacuum. The utopia could not be built on the foundation of pre-university education of the widely prevalent kind. Tagore knew of the system that made schools Dickensian horrors for children. In his short story, Homecoming, Phatik Chakravorti, a terrorised victim of the system, dies with the words: "Mother, the holidays have come."

Sen knows this too. At a recent meeting in New Delhi, while unveiling the Nalanda plans, he was reported to have reprimanded the elite on their idea of India as a "knowledge superpower". He talked instead of the country's "dilapidated state primary schools and its poor basic literacy rates". Sen, known for his celebration of The Argumentative Indian, has also stressed elsewhere the idea of education as a question-driven quest.

If students are taught by rote and the rod in primary classes, and evaluated by extremely unfair external examinations at the secondary stage, universities cannot be unique suppliers of scholarship of independence and integrity. A Visva Bharati here, a Nalanda there cannot salvage the system.

Facts and figures reveal the miserable failure of the system, even while the media and the middle class brag on about the brilliance of "our boys and girls" in such frontier areas of knowledge as customer care centres. While neglect of pure science is projected as a national advance, India occupies the 52nd place in the number of patents won per year in computer software where the country is said to occupy a coveted position. It spends 0.6 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development and has R and D personnel of one per million.

Only one percent of students who complete their undergraduate degrees opt for doctoral studies in India. And engineering disciplines account for about 65 percent of them. As for the quality of doctoral dissertations, it can be the subject of a tragi-comical treatise. This, clearly, is an educational system that does not encourage thinking.

Little wonder that India has "intellectuals" like the right-wing economist who is convinced that, by citing examples of caste-based industrial clusters, he has demonstrated that the caste system is a catalyst of development. Or the left-wing scientist, who opposed India's nuclear-weapon tests but also disapproves of any "unilateral nuclear disarmament" by India, and can see no serious contradiction in his stance.

We hear much talk of sustainable development, but can development be sustained without thinking minds? A true successor to Nalanda can only emerge from a system of education that aims at producing more than outsourceable labour or drones in a scheme of outrageously unequal development.

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Publication:Daily Times (Lahore, Pakistan)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Aug 13, 2010
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