Among the many agreements signed between India and China during Manmohan Singh’s visit, the MoU on Nalanda University for reviving the ancient seat of Buddhist learning, raises interesting questions. Why has China agreed to become a part of the Nalanda University initiative? Will the signing of the agreement between India and
China be of any help to the idea of reviving the Nalanda University?
The idea of reviving Nalanda University has been a part of Indian political and academic debate for a long time; the real push came when former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam took the idea to his Singaporean counterpart in 2007. Ever since many countries like China, Japan and South Korea came forward to support the idea. With their backing, the East Asia Summit (EAS) decided to make the leap from vision to reality.
The MoU on Nalanda between India and China can be perceived from two perspectives. First is a pan Asian view wherein India has agreed to collaborate with other Asian countries following the true essence of Nalanda, which was a true international university in ancient times attracting students from different countries. Second would be a nationalist perspective, wherein India would portray Nalanda University as an Indian educational institution and promote the same with India as the original seat of Buddhism.
The second approach, if implemented, would make it difficult for India to garner financial and logistical support for building an international university from scratch. Thus, projecting the university and its history as both Indian and Asian has helped in gaining support from numerous Asian countries of the EAS summit to come together for this purpose. The revival would benefit India in two ways - greater integration with the East Asian community on the basis of a shared culture, and creating a valuable strategic understanding in Asia Pacific and also attracting foreign investment for local development and infrastructure in the poor regions of Bihar.
Articles 1 and 2 of the agreement support this very notion as they state that “an international institution known as Nalanda University which will be a non-state, non-profit, self governing international institution is established” and “the objective of establishing the brightest and the most dedicated students from all the countries…..to build an Asian community of learning…to impart education towards capacity building of Asian nations.”
For China the MoU serves many purposes. First, it fulfils its international projection of peaceful and positive engagement with India in accordance with it ‘good neighbourly policy’. China has shown its interest from the beginning when Ye Xiaowen, during the inauguration ceremony of the Xuan Zang memorial in 2007, said that Buddhism has played an important role in establishing communication and cultural exchange between the two countries in the past. It also serves another purpose for China in portraying to the world that China considers Buddhism as an integral part of Chinese culture and history. This is against the image that has been portrayed because of its struggle with the Dalai Lama and religious freedom being the main thrust of demanding independence from Beijing.
However, keeping aside the political or diplomatic underpinnings of the two countries, the signing of the agreement would help the educational collaborations. As Prof. Tansen Sen, who has been associated with the project and is also part of the governing body says “it will have most impact on the development of China studies in India and South Asia studies in China. The main goal is to promote educational collaborations. It is hoped that the research and teaching at Nalanda will be of benefit to all sides involved since it will be based on partnership and collaborations.” He further adds that “the presumption that the Nalanda initiative is connected to India’s soft power projection is incorrect. The idea was initiated, fostered, and is being currently implemented as an educational project, one that not only symbolises the Nalanda idea of collaborative learning, but also one that all involved hope would contribute to the development of Bihar.” According to him, when Tagore established the Visva-Bharati he was not thinking about soft power but an educational institution without any boundaries.
The Articles 5 and 6 of the agreement states that the University’s income, assets and other properties will be exempted from direct taxes in the host country - India. Custom duties have also been exempted on the import and exports of articles for official use. Article 6 which provides privileges and immunities to its Vice Chancellor and staff and even their family members according to the agreement signed between Nalanda University and the government of India. These two clauses along with article 7 of the agreement where visas would be facilitated to all the students and faculty of the university conceptualises the idea of an international university that both the countries have agreed on.
Thus, there are two perspectives as to why India and China were interested in signing this agreement one is using Buddhism as diplomacy the other being the academic discourse of truly building an international educational institute. With the formulation of this agreement where instead of a particular country managing the university a set of renowned academicians will be managing it would help in supplying men, money and intellect for the development of this international university.
This series is published by IPCS in collaboration with the Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS)