Academic turned away

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Penny Vera-Sanso. Photo: V. Ganesan

JUST as Noam Chomsky was refused entry to the West Bank in 2010 by Israeli immigration officials, Penny Vera-Sanso, senior lecturer in Development Studies and Social Anthropology at Birkbeck, University of London, was denied entry into India in June at Hyderabad airport, reportedly for the kind of work she did in the country, which the state did not approve of.

Penny Vera-Sanso works on issues relating to old age, pension, liberalisation, food and gender rights and has visited India often. When she was turned away, she was to attend a conference organised by the International Federation of Ageing. Travelling on a valid visa issued to her, she was refused entry by immigration officials without explanation, said a spokesperson for Birkbeck in response to Frontline’s email query to her. She had last visited the country in March this year, for the Right to Food Campaign in Gujarat. It was this visit, reportedly, that laid the foundation for the refusal of entry to her three months later. On her return to London, she met an official of the Indian High Commission, but the reason why she was refused entry was not disclosed.

Meanwhile, the university expressed concern at the future of research in an environment that steadily seeks to curb free exchange of thought. “Birkbeck, University of London, is concerned that a member of its academic community has been excluded from India and has been unable to attend an international conference. Today’s academics work in an increasingly global environment and their contribution to the global production of knowledge is of benefit to all. It is vital that academics are given the freedom to associate with colleagues around the world and to share their research.”

Taking Rene Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am’ to ‘I do research, I know, I conquer and therefore I am’, the Indian government, by restricting the entry of researchers like Vera-Sanso, is, like its Israeli counterpart, sending a message out to the international research community that it can and will control the flow of information from the country. Any idea unpalatable to the narrative of the state will not be allowed to fester. Like elsewhere in the world, in India too some issues are taboo for even the press to report on. Anybody reporting from or about India knows that they may be able to push the invisible “line” drawn by the state but never cross it without repercussions. This is despite the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India has ratified and which protects the freedom of expression, the right to travel, and scientific exchange. The freedom to travel is intrinsically linked to the free flow of ideas and is the first casualty in restrictive milieus.

While there is no official word on which act of Penny Vera-Sanso is considered unacceptable by the state, targeting a few people serves to create an atmosphere of fear that ensures everybody falls in line. A Spanish journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Frontline that though he had been visiting the country often, he was nervous about his impending visit to New Delhi. “With the new regime, I am not sure how they will perceive the work I have been doing here,” he said.

Prof. Richard Shapiro, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies and Associate Professor, was refused entry in 2010 and was forced to return to the United States on the next flight out. He is married to Prof. Angana Chatterji, co-convener of the International People’s Tribunal for Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, and he was denied entry allegedly in an attempt to intimidate his wife. The journalist and activist Gautam Navlakha was denied entry into Kashmir. May Aquino, a human rights activist from the Philippines, was refused entry in September 2011 and in the same month, the Armenian-American broadcaster David Barsamian, was turned away from Delhi airport. He believes it was because of his previous reporting from Kashmir.

These refusals can have far-reaching implications irrespective of the government in power. Imagine the Moroccan adventurer and historian Ibn Batuta was denied entry because of some of the stuff he wrote. How deprived we would all be from the wealth of information we now have!

Divya Trivedi

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