Engage with the academic world | HT Editorial
In January, the ministry of education, in consultation with the ministry of external affairs (MEA), issued revised guidelines for virtual conferences/seminars/trainings. The guidelines stipulate that any ministry or department, central educational public institutions, public-funded universities, and state-owned companies would require the approval of the relevant administrative secretary for both the event and list of participants. The subject matter must not be related to the security of State, border, Northeast states, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh or “any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matter/s”. The guidelines add that there must be “appropriate level of scrutiny” to “identify the nature and sensitivity of data/contents of presentation/information” shared by the Indian delegation. MEA approval will be required for all events related to “India’s internal matters”, events with foreign funding, and events “involving sensitive subjects (political, scientific, technical, commercial, personal) with provisions for sharing of data in any form”.
India has always taken pride in being a democracy and an open society. A fundamental tenet of an open society is the free and frank exchange of views and, in academic settings, cutting-edge research on all subjects, including those which may not align with the State’s narrative or priorities. Given the interconnected nature of disciplines which blurs the line between internal and external domains, the presence of specialised academics working on India abroad, the value of comparative perspectives in sharpening the understanding of events at home, and the fact that “internal affairs” can encompass every subject related to India, the guidelines are excessive and will stifle academic discussions. At a time when the pandemic has accelerated the shift towards virtual conferences, this is a moment to deepen international knowledge-sharing, rather than curtail it.
A range of academic organisations and scholars — from the American Historical Association and 17 other umbrella American academic organisations to the Indian Academy of Sciences and Indian academics in foreign universities — have criticised the provisions, and rightly so. India has legitimate security concerns and must be fully vigilant. But India is also a confident democracy, willing to examine its strengths and weaknesses, and open to learning from the best. And that is why it must not be insecure about free academic exchanges on all subjects.