A recent order of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), instructing professors and administrators of publicly-funded universities to seek prior permission before conducing online international conferences and seminars, is being viewed by the academic as a restrictive measure that would impair dissemination of information among the scientific community.
The MEA in its order issued in January had stated that webinars or virtual international conferences based on “India’s internal matters” or security will need its prior clearance.
Opposing the order, in a letter to Union Minister of Education Ramesh Pokhriyak Nishank, the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS) has said that the MEA’s instruction was “overly restrictive”, vague as it lacked clarity on what it meant by “India’s internal matters” and harmful for the progress of science in India.
“The Academy strongly believes that security of our nation needs to be protected. However, imposing a blanket requirement for obtaining prior permission to organize virtual scientific meetings or training programmes “which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matters” – without defining what “India’s internal matters” – is too constraining for the progress of science in India,” writes Partha Majumder, the president of IAS.
Majumder starts by underlining the importance of sharing and disseminating information among the global scientific community through public communication and discussion, and says any efforts to thwart it would be detrimental to scientific progress.
He says the MEA’s letter was also unclear on what it meant by “international” as it was imperative for any scientific discussion or lecture to have viewers from abroad despite having Indian panelists or trainers.
“It is unclear to the Academy, whether such events will be considered as “international” and prior clearance needs to be sought. If so, it is tantamount to obtaining clearance for all collective scientific events, which will lead to a complete halt on all topical scientific discussions within India, since a large number of applications will be waiting for approval at any point of time and timely clearance of applications will not be obtained,” Majumder noted.
The letter also said that the academy considers it inappropriate on the government’s part to only put public-sector institutions under the ambit of the order, while exempting private institutions.
“The current scenario of virtual meetings provides a wonderful opportunity for improving the quality of higher education in India by providing a much wider access to students and teachers including from less well-known institutions for organizing and participating in high quality scientific meetings. The requirements imposed by the O.M. will impede the growth of educational opportunities and interest in science for the younger generation in India,” the letter said.
Other academics and scientists have called the MEA’s order a sheer act policing the academia.
“Prior approval is required not only for seminars on “internal matters” but even for “sensitive subjects including on political, scientific, technical, commercial and personal topics,” says Niveditha Menon, professor at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“And the MEA expects a link to the event. So this is coercive policing of thought of any kind. The double speak of this regime is unimaginable – the NEP holds forth about internationalisation of education and this is the kind of control it seeks to exercise on academics. Of course the NEP basically lays down a blueprint for dismantling the public university system. So one wonders what kind of system they envisage to police private and foreign universities,” she retorts.
A senior government scientist who doesn’t want to be named calls it “an knee-jerk decision taken by a paranoid government” which he says is clearly rattled by small social media campaigns.
“Science needs collaboration. The decision will surely affect departments which must be conducting weekly seminars for students,” he says.
He adds that most hit would be the students and researches of smaller universities, which due to the COVID-19 pandemic were able to organise webinars with international experts, which otherwise is difficult for them due to funding issues.
“What was gaining momentum for these universities would be lost due to the government’s order,” he says.