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Fear of the 'outsider'

Print edition : Jun 23, 2001 T+T-

The Union Home Ministry's decision to invoke the decades-old Foreigners Order and attempt to restrict the participation of foreigners in academic events in the country reveal a misplaced perception of threat.

ON May 24, several national newspapers carried a notice issued by the Union Home Ministry (Foreigners Division). It said: "This is for the information of general public that as per Foreigners (Report to Police) Order, 1971 under the Foreigners Act, 1946 (31 of 1946), every householder or other person shall report to the officer in charge of the nearest Police Station about the arrival or presence in his household or in any premises occupied by him or under his control of any foreigner, if he knows or has reasons to believe that he is a foreigner. Non-compliance of this order would attract punitive action under the Foreigners Act, 1946 (31 of 1946), i.e, imprisonment up to a period of five years or with fine or with both." Earlier, the same Ministry had sent a circular to all universities through the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry, revising the guidelines for security clearance for international conferences, seminars and workshops.

Viewed together, the notice and the circular reveal a perception of threat and a sense of paranoia at the governmental level. They evoked angry responses from people who had relatives, friends and acquaintances living abroad. For once, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government could not see the hand of the Opposition in the general resentment, which was articulated mostly through the media. The ire of the middle class, among which the BJP enjoys considerable influence, became increasingly apparent. Many newspapers carried articles criticising the order. When it became evident that even persons in government might be affected by the order, the Home Ministry was on the backfoot, saying that it would modify the order in such a way as to narrow its scope. It is learnt that its ambit will now be restricted to persons from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In its present form, it applies to all foreigners.

The order has its origins in the developments that followed the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. Its ostensible purpose was to check the influx of illegal immigrants from across the eastern border. Notified by the government on December 14, 1971 as an emergency war-time measure, the order makes it mandatory for citizens to inform the police about the presence, if any, of foreign citizens in their homes and other premises.

Home Ministry spokesperson P.D. Shenoy told Frontline that the government was considering modifying the order in view of the fact that it could lead to the harassment of citizens or cause inconvenience to them. Shenoy said that the order was originally directed at illegal immigrants from the eastern border. It was invoked again in 1985 at the request of the Rajasthan government in the wake of the influx of immigrants from across the western border. The basic purpose of its invocation this time, Shenoy said, was to cast an obligation on citizens harbouring illegal migrants to report to the police as the foreigners' presence might adversely affect the economy and have implications for the demography of the country. There were "pouring complaints from various States regarding illegal migration from both eastern and western borders," he said. When asked about the magnitude of the "influx", the spokesperson said that it was difficult to estimate the number of the immigrants because of their ethnic, linguistic and racial similarities with the local population.

As stated in the "statement of objects and reasons" of the Foreigners Act, 1946, a Foreigners Ordinance was issued in 1939 as a measure to meet the situation of emergency caused by the Second World War. Under this Ordinance, the Foreigners Order and the Enemy Foreigners Order were promulgated. Although the British government recognised the need to enact a law in this regard, it decided to take up the matter after War. The Ordinance was replaced by the Foreigners Act, 1940. The Act, which was in force until September 1946, was extended by the Foreigners Act (Amendment) Ordinance, 1946, up to March 1947. The British administration introduced the Foreigners Bill in the Legislature after consulting the provincial governments. The Bill was passed in November 1946.

The invocation of an order that has its origins in a war-time emergency has created a sense of unease among the people, especially among certain minority groups. What makes the government's motives even more suspect is that it has not thought it fit to rely on the Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, and the Registration of Foreigners Rules, 1992, which seek to monitor the entry and exit of foreigners.

EQUALLY suspect is the Home Ministry's circular to the Registrars of all universities, revising the guidelines for security clearance for academic events with the participation of foreigners. The covering letter states that universities intending to hold such events will have to forward their applications to the Ministry a month and a half before the event. Although the circular was issued on January 18, 2001, it appears that the moves in this direction started in September last.

The revised guidelines are listed in the Home Ministry's office memorandum. The memorandum categorises conferences into three - A, B and C. For conferences under Category A, prior approval of the Home Ministry is not required. These are events organised by a Ministry or a Department of the Indian government; those organised and sponsored by a State government; those organised by a non-governmental organisation with or without the official sponsorship of any Ministry or Department of the Union government or a State government; those organised by a public sector undertaking or an organisation owned and controlled by the Union government or a State government; and those organised by the United Nations and its agencies.

Clearance is needed for an event under Category B if the subject matter is political, semi-political, communal or religious in nature or is related to human rights; if it is proposed to be held in areas covered under Protected/ Restricted/ Inner line regime; if the participants include persons from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. In all these cases, the HRD Ministry would have to send the details of the proposed event to the Home Ministry.

For conferences under Category C, clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs is required if the subject matter has a bearing on the country's external relations and if the participants include persons from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan or Sri Lanka.

The grant of visa to foreign participants is also contingent on the category of the event that they may attend. A "guiding principle" in the circular is that a foreigner should not be generally considered for invitation to conferences whose subject is political, semi-political and communal or religious in nature or those related to human rights or sensitive technical subjects, which can be utilised as a platform for any particular line of propaganda or where the subject matter of the conference is purely national or local in character. The time-frame for clearance could range from four to six weeks and the nodal/administrative Ministry will decide the category under which an event falls. The onus of obtaining clearance will lie with the HRD Ministry and not with the organisers.

There is apprehension in the academic community that the circular is a part of the government's attempt to stymie intellectual debate in the name of national security. According to P.K. Yadava, secretary, and Kamal Mitra Chenoy, executive council member, of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers' Association, the guidelines reflect the government's intent to remodel education and impose thought control mechanisms to stifle dissent.

According to Chenoy and Yadava, the interference by this government in academic matters has reached unprecedented levels. For instance, they said, in the last Academic Council meeting of the JNU a proposal was made to start a School of Indology and Classical Studies, with a department of human consciousness and yogic sciences. The proposal, which was not on the agenda of the Council meeting, was resisted by the members.

The agenda is set by the Sangh Parivar, especially in the sphere of education. And it has bulldozed all divergent opinion. The introduction of courses on Vedic astrology and purohitya (priesthood), the removal of certain history textbooks from secondary school education and now the circular on academic events. The saffron juggernaut rolls on.