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New Delhi: Holding various political parties responsible for failing to uphold secularism in India, Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen says that the threat to secularism from the ruling party is greater today than it has ever been in the past. He believes that the Narendra Modi government is nothing like the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, which as a coalition had “many forces in the way". On Nalanda University, which he helped set up, the Harvard University professor says there has been a deliberate planting of stories in the media. “It became clear to me that given the hostility of the government, I could not be an effective leader of Nalanda," he says, justifying not accepting a second term as chancellor. Edited excerpts of an interview:

In India many political parties that profess commitment to secularism have a poor record of probity when they are in government. Do you think secularism can survive without honesty in public life?

Well, first of all, in politics things survive to the extent that we fight for their survival. As has often been said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and the price of secularism is also eternal vigilance. And you are right that in various ways different political parties have often failed to uphold secularism adequately. I think the threat to Indian secularism right now from the governing party is rather stronger than it has been in the past. That’s the issue.

Is this a reason why secularism as an ideal has seen erosion in the Indian public in recent years?

I don’t think quite that. I think what has happened is that for various, tactical, reasons different political parties have often failed to uphold secularism in terms of the high standard that perfect secularism demands. And we have reason to be critical of that, certainly. On the other hand we have not typically had a rule of a dominant party which is committed to a certain religious outlook, only one particular part of the Indian heritage—the Hindutva heritage (and that again in a highly oversimplified form)—in a way the present government seems to be doing. We do have to recognize the failure of the Congress to live adequately up to India’s secular ideas, and the limitations of other political parties in India. But there is a difference between lapses of the kind we have seen before, and a basically Hindutva-dominated government, as we see now. That did not apply to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) the last time, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leading a coalition government, including people who were concerned about the values of secularism. It is reputed that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the prime minister, was in agony when he heard about what was going on in Gujarat in 2002. That came from the leader of a coalition government led by the BJP. And it showed a certain commitment that Vajpayee had to secularism despite his being associated with, and being a leader of the Hindutva movement. So the issue is to what extent the present situation is similar to that of the past. I believe it is not.

Recently, Michael Walzer, in his new book The Paradox of Liberation, says Jawaharlal Nehru did not fight religious ideas as strongly as he should have. Walzer compared the Indian situation with Israel and Algeria. Has that weakness in fighting tradition and religiosity led to a weakness in secularism over time?

I haven’t read this book of Michael. He is a friend of mine. I don’t know what Michael has said in the book but I am not willing to accept that Nehru’s commitment to secularism was less than that of the government of Israel or Algeria. I wouldn’t have thought that was the case. In fact in many ways Nehru was very committed to secularism. Whether there were failures in that respect in some ways is a matter for detailed scrutiny. There might have been some particular way that Nehru might not have acted as Michael would have liked (laughs).

His argument was that probably the resistance to these ideas was not strong and that later led to their recrudescence some decades later.

That I am not sure I agree with. But you know I don’t criticize a book I haven’t read.

What would you say is the bigger problem in India today—lack of opportunities for the poor or the threat to secularism?

Forgive me but I won’t go for answering an unnecessary choice. We do not have to choose between secular ideas and our commitment to poverty removal – we can pursue both values simultaneously. Is the lack of healthcare a bigger problem in India than the terrible state of Indian education, particularly school education, or undernourishment? If there are two problems bothering you then address both the problems and not try to say which one is more important of the two, as if we cannot do both together.

Your reservations about Prime Minister Narendra Modi before he came to power are well-known. One year after he has been prime minister, have you had reason to change your opinion about him? His performance?

Well, I think this is a complex question. Let me differentiate between two roles of mine. One is that of a proud Indian citizen who has not taken the citizenship of any other country and has ultimate loyalty to India. And there in democracy it is not only my prerogative but also my duty to judge different leaders and in that context I did think that Mr Modi was not a prime minister that I was able to support. There is also another role: I am also a citizen of a democracy and when a democratic verdict comes as a democratic citizen I accept the verdict of the people and in that context when Mr Modi was elected I did think it would be appropriate for me to give him time and give him the chance to do the things that he wanted to do and perhaps even, dare I say it, learn from India’s experience. After all he had only ruled a state. If you read the last two numbers of The Economist you will see that Gujarat had a very low performance, lower than Bihar in terms of child care and immunization. In terms of many of the public duties of the state, Gujarat under Modi had failed. So I was concerned that in moving from Gujarat to India, Modi should pay attention to the broadness of India and India’s experiences, rather than try to replicate what he did in Gujarat. He did many things there that were good, particularly in dealing with physical infrastructure, but not social infrastructure, not school education, not healthcare, not immunisation. So, as a democratic citizen it was very much my hope that, in spite of my not being a cheerleader for Mr Modi, he would become a leader who would lead the whole country and not try to replicate the very partial and defective experiences of Gujarat.

Now that one year has gone I cannot say that the hope I had as a citizen of a democracy has, in fact, been fulfilled. The budget in education, which was in any case low, has been cut further. School meals are under threat; the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan is under attack or certainly under reduced funding. Similarly, the budget for healthcare has been cut. Now to say that the money that states can spend has increased is misleading. You see when the last Finance Commission said that the states should have more money; it wasn’t that you give them more money and also give them more tasks, which neutralizes their being given more money. So, I think the purpose of the Finance Commission to give more money to the states is to some extent neutralized when the central government says “I will not do these things; with your new money, you do that." Because the purpose of more money was that out of the extra funds that the states get, they can take new initiatives rather than carry on old initiatives abandoned by the Centre. The real backwardness of the Indian economy and of Indian public intervention—very much true under the previous United Progressive Alliance government—is continuing in India and has become more intense.

No country in the world has become universally literate and achieved universal healthcare without the state playing a very central role in that. From Japan all the way to the United States to Europe to South Korea and the big example of China, in all these the state has played its role whether these countries were market-oriented economies or government dominated ones. India is the first country in the world that is trying to become an industrial giant with an unhealthy and ill-educated labour force. This has not happened in the past and it cannot be done now, by India or any other country. This was the main defect in planning in the previous government. Instead of rectifying them, the present government has intensified it. So I am disappointed.

How easy or difficult has it been to attract a high quality faculty from across the world to Nalanda University?

It hasn’t been difficult at all. We have very good faculty not only from India but also from South Korea, Germany and the United States. The salaries are lower than what they are paid in their respective countries but they have still come. Now you have to bear in mind that classes began only a few months ago and we began with a very small student body. Our fees were rather high, which have now been cut. People were also very uncertain whether Nalanda was a going concern. We did have press criticism some of which was planted by the government itself, stories that were repeated - based on handouts coming from one ministry or another. So there was that problem. We have a large number of applications and as things stand now, we expect the coming batch to number between 60 and 100 students.

Some of the stories that fed politically motivated discussion were not only baseless but peculiarly crude. For example one of the BJP leaders [Mr Subramanian Swamy] declared that the Nalanda Chancellor gets a salary of 0 lakh. In fact, the Chancellor gets zero salary. It was said that we have already spent 3000 crore. In fact up to the end of the financial year 2014-15, the latest year, we have spent, including construction expenses, 46 crore, which is less than two per cent of the amount that we were accused of “squandering away." There have been deliberate plantings of stories in the media – some based on crude misstatements, and others more complicated but equally baseless. But in general the media has been understanding of the real challenges we face, and has been very supportive.

What do you think was the reason for this government’s hostility towards your second term as chancellor of Nalanda University?

I can only deal with what I decided. Why the government decided to do what they did, I will not speculate about. I don’t have to speculate on that. When it became clear that even though the board unanimously asked me to continue as Chancellor, the government would not like to ratify the Board’s decision, my question was what should I do? It became clear to me that given the hostility of the government, I could not be an effective leader of Nalanda. And since it was much more important for me that Nalanda flourishes rather than my remaining as Chancellor, I decided that I will not accept a second term. And I was also very happy to lead the discussion that was going on in the board about who should be my replacement. We have a very good replacement in George Yeo (former minister of foreign affairs, Singapore). He is an excellent leader. It was a unanimous decision of the board led by me. And the Minister of External Affairs was happy to endorse a decision that she approved of and which she could justify to the public.

In order to have good leadership in academic institutions, it appears that you have to fight in India because the tendency to interfere is very strong. Consider here the examples of Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), National Book Trust (NBT), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and even IITs and perhaps even IIMs in the future. Given that, it is important for citizens to take an active interest in what the academic leadership should be, and how much the government should be allowed to make their authoritarian choices, without a public protest. I made a strong decision – and a public declaration - that I will not seek a second term as Chancellor because I wanted people to take an interest in the governance of the institution, rather than the personalities involved. The Indian government has, it seems, great difficulty in distinguishing between two different roles, namely the role of a government that spends public money. That is true in every country in the world. The other is to treat academic institutions as if they are under the authoritarian command of the government. That distinction is very important – and the former should not be seen as the latter. Now when that distinction is under threat, as I believe it is in India, I think the citizens should take an interest.

Do you think this controversy is going to have a bad effect on Nalanda University in the future?

I hope not. I removed myself from reappointment to try to get the independence of Nalanda accepted as a subject of public interest, and to get a good Chancellor. I think we have succeeded in doing that. But it is very important that the government gives the new Chancellor the independence that he would need to continue the work of re-establishing this glorious educational institution, which India needs, and so does the world.

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