“My Discussion of Yoga Was Threatening to Its RSS-Linked Administration”: Patricia Sauthoff On the Cancellation of Her Course At Nalanda

20 September 2017
Courtesy Patricia Sauthoff
Courtesy Patricia Sauthoff

Patricia Sauthoff is an American PhD scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a former faculty member at Nalanda University in Bihar. From August 2016 to 28 July this year, Sauthoff was employed as a teaching fellow at the university’s School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions. In her second term at Nalanda, which started in January this year, she taught two courses, including a course titled the “History and Politics of Yoga.” It explored the “history of Yoga in India as religious, social, and political practice.”

On 13 June, the university’s administration sent Sauthoff a letter informing her that her contract would soon expire and requesting her to communicate her “willingness for further continuance in the University.” Six days later, she received another letter, which informed her that the previous one “may be treated as cancelled and withdrawn.” Sauthoff’s employment contract was never renewed, and her course was subsequently discontinued—she later said that she was not given any official reason for this decision.

On 9 September, Ram Madhav, the national general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party and a director of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated think-tank India Foundation, criticised the course. He tweeted: “Stunned to hear dat Amartya Sen’s Nalanda Univ regime had a course on ‘Politics of Yoga’ taught by a foreigner. Now course abolished.” Madhav’s reference to Sen was odd—the economist resigned from his position as Nalanda’s chancellor over a year before Sauthoff’s course on yoga began.

Nalanda University has deep-rooted historical origins. From the fifth to the twelfth century, Nalanda was a renowned monastery and centre for learning in the ancient Indian kingdom of Magadha, situated in modern-day Bihar. In 2007, the decision to re-establish Nalanda was taken at the East Asia Summit—an annual forum held by the leaders of 18 countries of the Asia-Pacific region. In 2010, the university was established by a central legislation. The act mandates the constitution of a governing body, which is responsible for its policies, decisions, and the management of its affairs. In 2012, Sen was appointed as the chancellorof the university, and the ex officio chairperson of its governing body. The body comprises 14 members, which also includes five representatives of member states from the East Asia Summit and three renowned academics or educationists. In 2014, the university held its first academic session.

Within a year into the university’s revival, Sen demitted office. He noted in his resignation letter that that he was not appointed as a chancellor for a second term despite the support of the governing body. He wrote: “Non-action is a time-wasting way of reversing a board decision.” He also expressed concern that “academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government.” Sen continued to be a member of the governing body until November 2016, when the then president Pranab Mukherjee, in his capacity as the visitor of the university, reconstituted the body. The economist was not included in the new list of members. Along with the reconstitution of the board, the president also denied Gopa Sabharwal, the vice chancellor at the time, an extension for another term—though the governing body had already approved it. Within days of Sen’s ouster, the then chancellor George Yeo resignedfrom the position. In a post on Facebook, Yeo said that he was not consulted before the reconstitution of the governing body. He wrote, “I was repeatedly assured that the University would have autonomy. This appears not to be the case now.”

Sagar is a staff writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: RSS Bihar academia education Amartya Sen Bharatiya Janata Party Nalanda University academic freedom yoga Ram Madhav universities Sonia Singh India Foundation