How Centre’s webinar curbs will impair exchange of ideas, scientific freedom
The COVID-19 pandemic saw several universities banking on online seminars and webinars due to curbs on travel and shut down of educational institutions. Photo: iStock

How Centre’s webinar curbs will impair exchange of ideas, scientific freedom

The Union government on January 15, 2021 made it mandatory for academics and organisers to obtain prior clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to hold international webinars or online seminars on various topics touching on (a) India’s security, (b) internal issues and on (c) subjects the government believes are sensitive.

Even though Vijaya Raghavan, the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India has said (to The Hindu) that the Office Memorandum might be reviewed and modified, after it received flak from scientists and academics, the “restrictive” nature of the order not only threatens academic freedom but also signals to more curbs in the offing.

The guidelines dictate that when giving permission to hold the online event, the government has the power to ensure that the subject matter is not related to the country’s north-eastern states, considered sensitive due to a long history of insurgency; the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Ladakh region which saw clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in 2020.

Curbs on freedom under category (a) are very much required, but, on the same on the other two – (b) and (c) – amounts to ‘pre-censorship’ of spreading of academic knowledge, through debate and discussion. ‘Sensitive’ subjects include ‘political, scientific, technical, commercial, personal subjects with provisions of sharing of data in any form: presentations’. Earlier permissions were required for personal visits of foreign speakers.

This is extended to virtual conferences while adding ‘inclusive’ expressions like ‘India’s internal matters’. The subject (c) i.e., “subjects the government believes are sensitive” is very expansive, wide and can include anything.

Related news: Academics call MEA order on permission for webinars restrictive, vague

The set of guidelines also mandates that the participants are expected not to broach issues related to India’s ‘internal matters’ or state security. The MEA approval will be required if these specific issues are likely to be debated at the international conference, the guidelines say. It is clear that MEA may not approve if such subjects are proposed, because once the debate is launched, it could be surely an analysis of entire issue. The government also wants the names of all participants to be submitted in advance for the approval.

The Ministry of Education revised the guidelines and issued them after consulting the MEA. The same came into effect immediately after an Office Memorandum was notified on January 15. While we are ready for internationalising market and trade, the governments are unwilling to accept the criticism from beyond the borders.

Imposing restrictions on physical seminars would have been difficult, but limiting the webinars is possible with controls on internet and Information & Communication Technology. It will just add to India’s reputation, tarnished by frequent shutdowns of internet and blockade of mobile communications.

Scientists want withdrawal of guidelines

These newly-laid down rules would govern online conferences, seminars and training programmes organised by publicly funded institutions. It is mandatory to obtain clearance from the MEA to invite scientists at the highest grades of seniority. Many scientists criticised these limitations on free scientific discussion at international forums. The President of Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS) Partha Majumdar wrote a letter to Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal requesting withdrawal of the guidelines.

This academy noted that the provisions of the order were “overly restrictive, lacking in clarity, and detrimental to the progress of science in India, including capacity building”. Majumdar in the letter urged the minister to withdraw the “blanket restrictions and the requirement of permission on the organization of scientific discussion meetings and scientific training programs in India”. National Academy of Sciences and Indian National Science Academy also supported the stand of the IAS.

The American Historical Association (AHA), the largest organisation of professional historians in the world, with over 11,000 members spanning the globe, expressed grave concern about this policy requiring Indian scholars and administrators to obtain prior approval from the MEA for their intended virtual international conferences, seminars, or trainings.

The AHA felt that the new policy is likely to affect a wide range of scholarly exchanges that are critical to free international expression of ideas. By monitoring and potentially censoring or cancelling virtual and online communications of scholars in India, the Ministry of Education threatens the very foundation of those exchanges.

“The policy puts Indian scholars at a disadvantage in ongoing discussions among scholars in all disciplines, including history. It also deprives scholars in other countries (including members of the American Historical Association) of the benefits of the knowledge and insights that Indian scholars bring to the table. The AHA strongly maintains that government agencies should not intervene in the content of scholarly exchange. Such intervention would constitute arbitrary censorship and violate the principle of academic freedom,” the association said, urging the government to reconsider the policy.

This letter was signed by American Anthropological Association, American Sociological Association, American Studies Association, Central European History Society, College Art Association, Society of Biblical Literature and World History Association.

Policy will end critical discussion, say JNU academics

The new restrictions also mean academics and research scholars would be under pressure not to raise subjects or issues which could be construed as affecting ‘national security’, as explained by Prof. Alka Acharya, of the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. “Everything can potentially have implications for security and organisers will be under great pressure to also screen participants who are known to have critical positions. This will certainly have an impact on free and frank discussions,” Acharya, an expert in Chinese studies told University World News.

The discussion on the subject itself could not be presumed as a threat to security of the nation. Even if the analysis is critical, it does not mean that debate is against the interests of the nation. In fact, factual analysis and appraisal of possible consequences is in national interest, she said. It will improve the understanding of the issue and help in developing the proper policy. Acharya said, fundamentally that is the aim of a debate, but states and governments may think otherwise. So the overall impact will be largely of a dampening kind.
Nandini Sundar, Professor of Sociology in JNU apprehended: “Soon, no Indian academic will be allowed to log into a seminar or talk held elsewhere in the world without approval.” On Twitter, she said that “everything in the social sciences is ‘sensitive’ and touches on India’s ‘internal matters’.”

Curbs on foreign researchers

In November 2020, Sundar attended a webinar on ‘academic freedom in India’ organised by US-based organisation Scholars at Risk. She said, “It was becoming harder for foreign research scholars to get research visas to India, and for a long time at my university we have not been able to have any seminars on Kashmir or on Naxalism”.

Visas for participants in university-organised conferences from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and China have been subject to particular scrutiny for some time. However, participants who have been denied a visa in the past, have been able to participate via video links. Now, the new guidelines would block the same facilities.

India does not stop the export of iron ore and such raw material to China, and import of various goods, as that agreement is part of world trade arrangements. But the government had already imposed restrictions on collaborations with Chinese institutions in 2019, requiring the approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs and MEA for any activities, even under existing agreements.  It was also noticed that short conferences and workshops involving the participation of Chinese academics had been monitored by MEA. Besides, the collaborations with Chinese universities were further scaled down drastically under dictates of the ministry after military clashes with China in June 2020.

There was another attempt in October 2020 to prevent or restrict collaborations with foreign universities. This time it came from the Education Ministry, which floated a plan to make it mandatory for Indian universities to obtain prior permission before signing any memorandum of understanding or holding activities with educational institutions from countries that share a land border with India – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

The government imposed restrictions earlier, on physical seminars too. Earlier guidelines required institutions to obtain authorisation for real seminars. Technology makes it easy for regulation and restriction. Technology earlier aided the spread and speed of the freedom, but is now becoming an easy tool in the hands of authoritarian regimes. The virtual events can be easily supervised live and inspected afterwards. They can be verified at leisure as video recordings are available.

During COVID-19 lockdowns, the academia was more active due to the support of technology. It was easy and really not expensive at all to organise online conferences, which accorded organisers greater freedom to invite foreign speakers. But, the same technology is now becoming a weapon in the hands of authorities to curb freedom. The names of all participants in such webinars will need to be approved in advance by the government.

The guidelines are, however, silent on virtual events organised by private institutions and research organisations. It does not mean that they are free. It is perhaps more easy to restrict them because of their dependence on government for permissions, land, constructions and other regulatory controls.

For academics, this is an unexpected and unprecedented restriction on academic freedom. They felt the latest restrictions on online conferences would surely hamper the growth of higher education in the country and curtail academic freedom as the guidelines also require MEA approval for events funded or sponsored from overseas, or involving foreign participation, or events that touch on sensitive presentations or subjects – political, scientific, technical, commercial or personal – with provisions for sharing data in any form.

Data security restrictions

University World News Asia editor Yojana Sharma in her article wrote that presentations by research scholars and academics could also come under greater scrutiny as the January guidelines also advise organisers to ensure full compliance with India’s existing IT data security provisions, personal data and protection of other sensitive information, and also exercise an “appropriate level of scrutiny to identify the nature and sensitivity of data” or contents of presentations and information to be shared by the Indian side.

Another major step that India initiated was banning the IT apps of China. In fact, such a ban was not opposed because it was done for national security. Video conferencing platform Zoom, which was widely used during the COVID-19 pandemic for online webinars, has come under the scanner for monitoring of China-related online meetings. Sharma wrote that it has also been known to channel user data via Chinese servers, although it is based in the US.
The ministry also mandated “judicious selection” of IT apps, platforms or a medium for interaction. It said preference should be given to apps having servers which are not controlled, hosted or owned by countries or agencies “hostile to India”, although the countries or agencies were not specified.

Yojana Sharma quoted the proceedings of ‘Scholars at Risk’ which said: “While state authorities have a right to protect national security, they must ensure that relevant legislation and its enforcement are consistent with national and international legal obligations to protect the rights to academic freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of association.”

In its recently-published Free to Think 2020 report, Scholars at Risk reported a surge in clampdown on academic freedom in the country in the past two years.

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