In his first interview after taking over as Nalanda University chancellor, Vijay Bhatkar, a scientist best known as the architect of India’s first supercomputer and founding executive director of C-DAC— country’s national initiative in supercomputing— shares his vision for the university with HT. Excerpts:
How do you plan to shape a unique institution like NU?
My vision is more like what Swami Vivekanand talked about. India was in the role of Vishwa Guru when ancient Nalanda was thriving and it continued for centuries. The new one should strive to achieve that glory. Ancient Nalanda was engaged in pursuit of knowledge, as the name Bha-rat suggests – ‘Bha’ means light and knowledge and ‘Rat’ means devoted. It had a holistic approach towards knowledge – be it grammar, science, mathematics, life sciences, social sciences, spiritual system. There was an integrated system, bringing in multiple branches of knowledge with focus on living beings and common good. There were no straitjackets.
You are the third chancellor of Nalanda University in its third year? How do you view the change?
Well, upheavals and changes are good and part of growing. I have not seen a single project proceed in a straight line. There was a time when rockets were carried on bullock carts and today we are firing them. Times have changed. There is always a lot of learning along the way.
Founding chancellor Prof Amartya Sen talked of lack of autonomy in Indian universities in general and NU in particular? How do you see it?
The universities have to function in a particular way. A regulatory structure has not been created. Be it the ministry or various agencies like UGC, AICTE, MCI or others-they are all part of a mechanism for improvement in quality and they also need to evolve with time and changing requirements. When it comes to autonomy, I feel the universities must have academic autonomy and they have that. The universities should have open environment to discuss and decide their academic requirements, courses they should run as per changing needs.I don’t see any problem in that.
You are a scientist and the man behind India’s digital initiative and the first visitor of NU, former President late APJ Abdul Kalam was also a scientist? Will we see more of science now?
I worked with President Kalam when he was with the space science and missile programmes. I was computing with him. He was an institution builder. The digital world is today a reality. NU has planned seven schools and there can be new additions to it. But more importantly, NU needs to be liberal, as was the case with the ancient one, which also had several branches. What is required is to integrate science with other branches and then let them evolve in a truly inter-disciplinary way. I am a scientist, but I am interested in Sanskrit, linguistics and history also. For a student like me, there should be multiple options. Ii was not known to the people of ancient Nalanda, but today it cannot be ignored. Why can’t there be integration of science, archaeology and environment? That can be.
What should be the vision of NU?
It should stay relevant, as was ancient Nalanda. The fundamental question to ask is who am I, why am I here? Environment today is a global concern. In the last century, science has exploited nature to the extent that even scientists feel our future is at stake. Imagine a situation when there are no rivers 100 years from now! Why has this happened? It is because we misconstrued development in terms of roads, buildings, GDP etc. Some people will say Rajgir is not developed, while Mumbai is. This is because our vision for development makes Mumbai the yardstick. I find Rajgir to be better. Unless we learn to live in sync with nature, things will not change and that is the message NU should try to convey to the entire world. It is science that has created the biggest problem and it has to find a solution to it.
How do you see the NU journey so far?
I will not disregard the contributions of my predecessors in bringing the university this far. It has taken off. I am not the kind to criticize their work. Some good work has been done and the current set up is good enough as a launching pad for future. I have also seen the master plan and that does try to resurrect the spirit of Nalanda. They did what they felt right and now I will take it forward from there. A new vision has to be created and we will try for that in consultation with the teachers and others involved.
How soon NU will have a new vice chancellor?
It will happen very soon. The Centre is siezed with identifying a person suited to NU. We have laid down the criteria. The question is how soon we can get him or her.
In the digital era, Bihar has lagged behind though Biharis are doing well outside. Why?
For anything to flourish, a series of initiatives are required. Today the developments that we see in space science is because it was at the nation’s focus since independence and a series of initiatives were taken by the government. States also needs to take initiatives to catch up with rest of the world.