In which direction is South Asian University headed? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 24, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:17 AM, October 24, 2019

In which direction is South Asian University headed?

The South Asian University, established in New Delhi in 2010, is a remarkable institution in terms of what it envisaged. SAARC-watchers are generally of the view that the university is perhaps ahead of its times, and is the best functioning SAARC institution despite its many problems. It was the well-known Bangladeshi intellectual and now the International Affairs Adviser to the prime minister of Bangladesh, Dr Gower Rizvi who drafted the concept note for the university, giving Bangladesh a more personal ownership over the university’s future.

According to the university’s website, its mandate as set out in the Agreement of the SAARC Member States, which made the establishment of the university possible, says that its programmes of study are aimed to: “enhance learning in the South Asian community that promotes an understanding of each others perspectives and strengthen regional consciousness; provide liberal and humane education to the brightest and the most dedicated students of South Asia so that a new class of quality leadership is nurtured; and enhance capacity building of the South Asian Nations in science, technology and other areas of higher learning vital for improving their quality of life such as information technology, bio-technology and management sciences, etc.”

As it further notes, “these three elements i.e. building a culture of understanding and regional consciousness; nurturing a new class of liberal, bright and quality leadership and building the capacity of the region in science, technology and other disciplines considered vital for improving the quality of life of the people, therefore, form the core objectives of the South Asian University.” Taking this mandate forward in practical terms, the university’s Vision Statement notes that South Asian University would offer programmes of study that “have the potential to promote regional understanding, peace and security which ultimately enhances the well being of the people of the region”, “reach newer, common and challenging frontiers in various disciplines, and inter-disciplinary outfits, usually not available in individual countries”, “can lead to creation and sharing of knowledge that has the potential of creating a South Asian Community of intellectuals, endowed with expanding mutual trust and appreciation of one another’s problems.”

When seen in this way, it is quite clear that the university takes the idea of regional cooperation and the creation of a South Asian sensibility as seriously as it takes the idea of offering specific subject knowledge through its academic programmes. This is also why the university’s rules say that 50 percent of its students should be from the host country while the other 50 percent should be from the rest of South Asia, so far diligently worked out through a complex quota system.

While the rules are open about faculty recruitment, it has so far failed to hire qualified teachers or administrators from countries other than India. While all SAARC countries contribute towards the operational funds of the university according to a pre-arranged system of cost-sharing where India pays 50 percent, the construction budget is borne fully by India. In this sense, India’s significant financial contribution to the university needs to be seen as an important and generous gesture towards regional cooperation. 

It is also due to the regional interest in the university’s mandate that its rules provide for the appointment of its president initially from the host country for obvious logistical and other reasons, and subsequently from other member states on the basis of rotation prioritised by the logic of the English language alphabet. So, since India appointed the first president, the next is supposed to be from Maldives, followed by Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.

Even the appointment of its vice presidents are supposed to reflect this regional character; its rules state that VPs should always come from countries other than that of the president.  The first president, Prof GK Chadha clearly violated this principle, when he appointed Prof Rajiv Saxena as his VP as both were Indian. The present president, Dr Kavita Sharma whose term ends on November 2, 2019, also has an Indian VP, Prof Santosh Panda, again violating the rules. Also, her own appointment as president is a violation given that India was only supposed to appoint the first president for one term in the first cycle. However, the president had the overall consent of the SAU’s governing board, which has representation from all member states. According to university insiders and Bangladeshi diplomats it was necessary due to the construction phase of the university, which it was about to enter.

The most serious violation of the university’s South Asian character is taking place as we write. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has now placed a vacancy advertisement on its website for the position of the president. Though nationality is not mentioned in this advertisement and the position seems to be open to any citizen in the world, it is without a doubt an Indian government advertisement. This is clearly seen from two facts: it appears only in the website of India’s External Affairs Ministry and cannot be seen on any other websites of SAARC member states; and its preamble is in Hindi, the state language of India and not in the official language of any other member states.

To make the position open or even to hand over the power to India to spearhead the recruitment process by the rest of member states or to offer India yet another turn at the presidency, it is first necessary to have a meeting of the university’s governing board and then, such amended rules must be ratified by the SAARC Standing Committee. 

None of these have happened so far. What has happened instead is the nudging of Indian diplomats in regional capitals to try and convince their other South Asian colleagues that the presidency this time also should be filled by India. Even so, there is no tangible proof of collective agreement even in these informal phases of bilateral conversations when what is required is a formal multilateral meeting to discuss and agree upon something as crucial as the university’s leadership. 

The absence of a formal agreement in this direction and the informality of this kind of decision-making is counter-productive for the university’s future and the maintenance of its South Asian character as it is creating unhealthy precedence for undermining rules and good practices that are central to the university. One hopes the Bangladesh government would lead its regional neighbours in rectifying this very anti-regional process that is ongoing.

Asif Bin Ali is a lecturer at the Department of English, Eastern University. Email:

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