Row over Australian visa rejection for top researcher
It also highlights the security vetting of postgraduate students at a time when Australian universities are stepping up research collaborations and student exchanges with Asian countries including under its New Colombo Plan, as the case is being seen as ‘unfriendly’ by Indian officials.
Indian officials said last week the government is in “active conversation” with Australian authorities over 'weapons of mass destruction'-linked denials of visas to Indian students.
The latest case concerns SM Ananth, who has an MTech degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur.
Ananth secured admission for fully-funded doctoral studies at the department of mechanical engineering, University of Melbourne in Australia, but received a visa rejection mid-July after waiting almost a year.
The letter from the Australian government said he was being refused entry because he was considered "a person whose presence in Australia may be directly or indirectly associated with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.
The issue came to light when Shashi Tharoor, a well-known former UN diplomat, currently the MP representing the Thiruvananthapuram parliamentary constituency where Ananth has his home, wrote to India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Tharoor, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, has previously held posts in the Indian government as minister of state in both the external affairs ministry and the human resource development ministry which is responsible for higher education.
He urged Swaraj to take up Ananth’s case directly with her Australian counterpart since the matter went beyond an “individual case” of visa rejection – other cases had also come to light.
"I asked the [Australian] high commissioner [in Delhi] privately over email how an Indian scholar could be subject to such a bizarre suspicion, and stated that such a position is unacceptable since it clubs Indian nationals working in certain sectors with those of rogue nuclear states like North Korea and Pakistan," Tharoor wrote in his letter dated 16 July which he released on Twitter.
He later tweeted he was “outraged” by Australia’s attitude on the matter. Ananth had been sent a letter that “cast suspicion on his motives”, Tharoor said.
Visa denials can be contagious since applicants must state earlier denials by any country and provide details on why an application was rejected.
Ananth believes his troubles may have originated with an earlier visa denial by the United Kingdom government in 2014, after he secured admission and scholarships to study at the engineering departments of both Cambridge and Oxford universities.
“I was denied Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) clearance even after changing my PhD research topic and re-applying as advised. I ended up losing a whole of 2014 with nothing gained at the end of it,” Ananth told University World News. “And now I am facing similar treatment by the Australian government.”
The UK foreign office’s ATAS vetting scheme for non-European Union students was set up in 2007 requiring mainly postgraduate students offered a place on ‘sensitive’ courses to apply for clearance. According to UK government statistics, some 20,000 postgraduate students applied for such clearance in 2014-15 and around 740 were denied.
But the UK foreign office also advises that the ATAS scheme must not be an “undue barrier” to academic exchange and is aware that it could have a “reputational impact” and affect international relations if the reasons for rejection are not clearly explained.
While Australia’s immigration department did not confirm referring to the UK rejections, its stated policy is that it relies on information from "other agencies".
A high-ranking official in India’s ministry of external affairs said at a media briefing on 17 August there had been “more than one case of visa denial” of Indian researchers admitted to Australian universities. His statements suggested this was now being addressed at a diplomatic level.
The high-ranking official ascribed the problem to “the visa guy signalling differently from the policy guy”.
Australia’s policy was apparent in a press statement by the Australian High Commission in mid-July which said: “We are strong supporters of India’s peaceful use of nuclear energy.” It referred to the 2014 signing by the two countries of the Australia-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.
India was subjected to an international embargo on nuclear technology and materials after it exploded a nuclear device in 1974. But that changed in September 2008 when the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group decided to allow India to engage in civilian nuclear trade under a special waiver to rules that included signing on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
This is small consolation for Ananth and others who were admitted to top universities on the basis of academic excellence, only to be denied visas while being blacklisted as potential 'weapons of mass destruction' proliferators in the bargain.
Faculty members of universities in the UK and Australia as well as Ananth’s professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur have backed him, clarifying to authorities that his work has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction.
Professor Richard Sandberg, chair of computational mechanics at the University of Melbourne, wrote to Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection in June to say that Ananth’s proposed project dealt with transport systems and renewable power generation.
He said: “I would like to emphasise that the project is of purely academic nature and in no way involves any classified technology.”
Ananth fears his academic reputation will be tarnished internationally by the debacle.
“We hope this [denial of an Australian visa] won't affect Ananth's chances and we are testing this by applying to another university in another country," Tharoor told University World News.