Now academics in government-funded institutions will need External Affairs Ministry clearance for organising, participating in conferences, seminars

Published : February 21, 2021 21:25 IST

A view of South Block of the Central Secretariat buildings, which houses the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministries of Defence and External Affairs, in New Delhi. Photo: PRASHANTH VISHWANATHAN/Bloomberg

The External Affairs Ministry has issued new guidelines under which government-funded academic institutions will have to take prior permission before inviting foreign scholars to participate in an online or offline conference or seminar. While the Ministry claims that this has been done with a view to enhancing national security, academics believe the new guidelines could limit academic freedom and free flow of thoughts and ideas.

The order says, “Ministry or Department, PSUs, Central Educational Institutions, Public Funded Universities or an organisation owned and controlled by the Government of India or State Government or Union Territory should take approval of its Administrative Secretary for the (virtual) event as well as for the list of participants”.

However, the government claims that it is a move to safeguard matters of national security as the order also mentions that permission of the MEA will be required if the topic of discussion deals with “security of State, Border, North East states, J&K or any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matters”. The universities will also require approval from the appropriate “administrative secretary for the event as well as for the list of participants”. They will also have to get prior permission from the MEA for “events involving sensitive subjects (political, scientific, technical, commercial, personal) with provisions for sharing of data in any form”. After the event, they will have to submit details of the event and share the link with the Ministry.

The revised guidelines, it is suspected, will greatly reduce foreign participation in academic seminars in the country and provide an unequal playing field as private or non-aided universities and think tanks will not have to seek the same permission before inviting foreign dignitaries. Academics whom Frontline spoke to see it as an attempt to curtail the autonomy of universities, and mould the students in a conformist manner. They fear that only those authors/academics will be granted permission who toe the government line. Further, the invitations to Indian authors/academics are likely to be impacted in the absence of mutual meets and conferences. “It will ultimately affect the worldview of Indian professors as neither will they be able to listen to their foreign counterparts nor go to the universities abroad,” says an academic who retired from Jawaharlal Nehru University recently.

“Will the MEA grant permission for hosting a Noam Chomsky talk?” asks an academic from the Department of West Asian Studies in Jamia Millia Islamia.

The move has already attracted international attention with the academic community expressing grave concern for freedom of expression and values of democracy in India. The American Historical Association, the largest organisation of professional historians in the world, was the first to issue a statement opposing the new policy on virtual scholarly exchanges. Expressing “grave concern” at the policy, the AHA said the guideline was “so sweeping that it encompasses most topics of interest to scholars of India”.