The Union government’s decision to force state-funded universities and educational institutions to line up before the mandarins of the Ministry of External Affairs for permissions each time they wish to host “international conferences and seminars online” reeks of a paranoia that has no place in a self-confident democracy. Under the new guidelines, there will be a blanket freeze on “international” webinars on matters related to India’s security, the Northeastern states, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh or other “internal matters” of the country. Not just the theme for discussion, but even the list of participants will have to be vetted by an “administrative secretary”. The history of bureaucratic meddling in Indian academia is long and inglorious. But even by those low benchmarks, this is extraordinary overreach — and a self-goal for a country with aspirations of turning into a knowledge economy. It makes a mockery of the claims and ambitions of the New Education Policy, announced by this very government last year, which included a vision of the “internationalisation” of education, which sought to invite world-class universities to open campuses in India, and promised to make autonomy and freedom central to higher education.
The ministry’s new procedure exhibits a deep mistrust, bordering on paternalism, of the capabilities of women and men in positions of leadership in Indian universities to frame the narrative. But just because the sarkar thinks it knows best, it cannot empower itself to decide what constitutes “internal matters” and then to ring-fence sensitive political tangles and place them beyond contest, debate and questioning. It does so at the risk of turning the Northeast or Kashmir or Ladakh into blind spots of scholarship, while devaluing its own credentials. As the long and illustrious tradition of India scholarship in the best of foreign universities underlines, knowledge is not bound by nationalism. It shrinks and suffers from a narrow interpretation of atmanirbharta. In a changing, interconnected world, it is mystifying why the Ministry of External Affairs would want to strike at the very academic freedoms that distinguish India’s soft power from that of its neighbours.
Democracies are not only defended at the electoral booths. The university and the seminar hall, even their virtual equivalents, are democratic spaces where governments, however powerful or assured of their righteousness, must not be allowed to play police. The Ministry of External Affairs must immediately withdraw its misguided diktat. A university is a place for the contest of ideas and thoughts, not the tyranny of the government circular.