Modi govt has mounted biggest attack yet on academic freedom with its diktat on international webinars

Narendra Modi’s government has launched what can only be described as a mini “surgical strike” on academic freedom in Indian universities, IITs, IIMs and other such educational institutions. The academic community — vice chancellors, teachers, scientists, researchers, students, members of university senates, managements of affiliated colleges and India’s intelligentsia in general — will soon see the wreckage and wonder how this could happen in democratic India.

The mini “surgical strike” has come in the form of an “office memorandum” on January 15 from an undersecretary, the junior-most bureaucrat in the Ministry of Education, and is innocuously titled ‘Revised Guidelines for holding online/virtual Conferences, Seminars, Training, etc.’ It is the biggest attack in the history of independent India on the autonomy of our universities. When it is fully enforced — and let there be no doubts over the government’s resolve to be iron-handed when it comes to restricting people’s democratic rights — India will find itself in the company of dictatorial regimes around the world that despise liberty of thought and muzzle freedom of expression in their institutions of higher learning.

Consider this. As per the new guidelines, all “central educational institutions, publicly-funded universities ” — this category will naturally include affiliated colleges — “and organisations owned and controlled by the Government of India / State Government” will now have to get prior approval from the ministry of external affairs if they want to hold online international conferences or seminars on subjects related to “security of State, Border, Northeast states, UT of J&K, Ladakh or any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matter/s”.

Furthermore, they will require approval from the appropriate “administrative secretary for the event as well as for the list of participants”. They will also have to get prior permission from the MEA for “events involving sensitive subjects (political, scientific, technical, commercial, personal) with provisions for sharing of data in any form”. After the event — hold your breath — the organisers will have to share the link with the MEA. In “Old India”, the government couldn’t send police into a university campus without permission of the vice chancellor. Welcome to “New India”, where the babus in MEA and the ministries of education and home affairs are empowered to do ubiquitous thought policing.

Does the prime minister even know, or care about, the raison d’être of a university? In its truest meaning, a university regards knowledge as a universal asset commonly owned, treasured, shared, used and augmented by the entire humankind. Knowledge is neither created by, nor belongs to, any single country or community. Reasonable regulations and restrictions by national governments on how it is learnt, taught and applied are of course understandable and necessary. But free, open and democratic societies abhor the idea of imprisoning knowledge within what Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore reproachfully called the “narrow domestic walls” of exclusive nation-states. Therefore, Indian universities must enjoy the highest possible degree of self-governance and freedom to conduct their educational activities in regular interaction with their counterparts abroad. The best judges of how this ought to be done are not unqualified and unaccountable bureaucrats, but those who lead our universities and the faculty and students that teach and study in them. It is an outright insult to India’s university fraternity that an “administrative” boss in a government office is given the power not only to approve the webinars planned and conducted by them, but also to vet and veto the list of international participants.

Isn’t it shocking how the mandarins in the MEA have empowered themselves to withhold permission for academic events on any subject that they can interpret as “sensitive” or “related to India’s internal matter/s”? The subject could be democracy, secularism, socialism (three preambular pillars of India’s Constitution), media freedom, human rights violations, atrocities on women, rights of refugees and migrant workers, tribal rights, caste system, wealth disparities, literary and cultural freedoms, nuclear disarmament, peace and cooperation in South Asia, India-China boundary dispute, demilitarisation of oceans and outer space — indeed, anything embarrassing to the ruling party. Similarly, they can say no if a university or a college wants to invite international participants who are either from “hostile countries” or are known to have ideas opposed to the BJP’s. The government will justify this in the name of protecting “national interests”. But isn’t it an arrogant and undemocratic assumption that bureaucrats alone know how to safeguard India’s “national interests” and that it is dangerous to trust the academic fraternity in this regard?

Even those with a nodding acquaintance with the academia know that India’s knowledge of its own “internal matters” has been enriched by foreign scholars, just as Indian intellectuals have contributed immensely to knowledge about the rest of the world. In this worldwide co-creation and exchange of knowledge, there are bound to be differences and even serious disagreements. Except in authoritarian regimes, academics are not expected to endorse the thinking of the government and the ruling party either on domestic matters or foreign policy. Which is why universities in free societies have evolved a consensus that dialogue and unfettered search for truth based on respect for diverse, even dissenting, thoughts is the life-breath of higher education. By bulldozing this consensus — and by mounting similar efforts to curb press freedom — the BJP government has let the world know that it is determined to implement its “One Nation, (only) One Thought” policy.

The government’s new order constrains our universities (also independent think tanks and NGOs) in other ways, too. Unlike their western counterparts, they are severely under-funded. They can neither organise many international conferences, nor send their faculty to participate in such events abroad. The recent boom in webinars has, hence, come as a big boon to them. It saves travel and hospitality costs and also overcomes the hassles of getting visas for invitees from “unfriendly” countries. Moreover, such events can be easily, and more frequently, organised even by institutions in rural and remote areas. Disturbingly, the government wants to curtail these major benefits of the digital revolution to millions of our teachers, students and scientists.

By issuing this diktat without consulting states, the central government has also given yet another example of its contempt for the Constitutional powers of states. After all, central universities (54) are far outnumbered by state universities (418), to which almost all the nearly 38,500 colleges are affiliated. Sooner rather than later, the diktat will also become applicable to private (370) and deemed (125) universities.

Instilling conformism and fear in society, and subjugating democratic institutions, has become the hallmark of the functioning of the Modi government. After the media, judiciary, election commission, anti-corruption and investigative agencies, now our universities too have been ordered to fall in line. Will our proud, freedom-loving and self-respecting academic community succumb? It must not.

The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

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