Curbs on ‘sensitive’ webinar topics reversed after outcry

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has dropped its demand that public universities seek official permission for online international seminars that touch on matters relating to India’s ‘internal affairs’.

It claimed that the easing of restrictions on travel and assembly of people brought in during the coronavirus pandemic meant such curbs on online activities were “no longer applicable”.

However, the same requirement of prior permission still applies to physical meetings.

In January guidelines were circulated by the education ministry to publicly funded universities, requiring them to seek permission from the Ministry of External Affairs for any online seminar that touches on “security of state, border, Northeast states, the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh or any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matter/s”.

Universities were required to gain prior approval for such events as well as communicating a list of international participants. The January notification based on an Ministry of External Affairs order dated 20 November had made no reference to the pandemic.

However, it is only a partial concession. “All such events will however continue to be governed by the same rules and regulations applicable to political clearances prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Ministry of External Affairs circular, issued 24 February rescinding the webinar restrictions, said.

Academics noted permission is still required for physical seminars on such topics and on foreign nationals seeking to attend physical conferences, workshops or other events, as was the case before.

Those earlier guidelines issued by the Home Affairs Ministry say anyone who has been declared “persona non grata” by the government of India, or is otherwise “considered an undesirable person” should not be invited to participate in events, which include academic seminars.

An academic at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “those earlier rules, which are still in force are intended to prevent academics from certain countries, including China, coming to India officially to attend academic seminars, but then travelling to sensitive areas in India including the Northeast”, referring to areas close to territory disputed by India and China.

Easing of tension with China

She suggested the timing of the reversal was related not just to the outcry by academics, both in India and internationally, but also to India’s slight easing of tensions with China this month, after the two sides retreated from confrontational positions after the two countries’ border skirmish in Ladakh in June last year.

“India’s restrictions on online webinars had a lot to do with its desire to control the narrative by academics on wider geopolitics and India-China relations. India has said in the past week it will allow Chinese investment in non-sensitive manufacturing sectors. This is part of the easing as [the two sides] pull back troops in Ladakh,” she noted.

But she warned that “the government has rescinded this draconian webinar policy now, but could reimpose it at any time on any pretext, even for just a short period. It has already shown it is prepared to control academic activities at will”.

Barbara Harriss-White, emeritus professor and fellow of Wolfson College Oxford University and an internationally renowned expert on India’s rural economy, said on Friday that the Indian government’s reversal “is welcome news”.

“Although, since [previous] Congress government times, India has restricted physical exchanges between scholars wishing to discuss some politically sensitive subjects – the January edict was on a different scale, anti-intellectual, a potentially all-invasive threat to academic freedom and impossible to operationalise for universities.”

Outcry from academics in India

The move to rescind extra restrictions on online seminars came after an outcry from academics in both India and abroad.

Partha Majumder, president of the Indian Academy of Sciences, which represents India’s top scientists, in a letter to Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, urged the government to withdraw the blanket restrictions on online events and the need for permission for the organisation of scientific discussion meetings and training programmes.

The Indian Academy of Sciences considers the provisions “to be overly restrictive, lacking in clarity and detrimental to the progress of science in India, including capacity-building”, he wrote.

“The progress of science hinges critically on open sharing and dissemination of information and knowledge through public communication and discussion of results of scientific investigations,” he wrote. ”Measures that limit and impose artificial constraints on such activities are detrimental to scientific progress.”

Majumder also noted that it is “unclear what is meant by ‘international’ in the context of an online/virtual conference/seminar/training programme”.

“Even if all speakers and trainers are scientists of Indian institutions, it is possible for scientists from institutions outside of India to listen to a lecture delivered online, ask questions and participate in discussions. 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 in time and timely clearance of applications will not be obtained.”

International concern

Internationally, the American Historical Association (AHA), with 11,000 members the largest organisation of professional historians in the world, together with the American Anthropological Association, American Sociological Association and other academic societies issued a statement expressing “grave concern” at the webinar restrictions. The AHA said the guidelines were “so sweeping that it encompasses most topics of interest to scholars of India”.

“Because of the pandemic, many scholarly exchanges that in normal times would involve foreign travel now take place online. This new policy therefore is likely to affect a wide range of scholarly exchanges that are critical to the free international expression of ideas. By monitoring and potentially censoring or cancelling the virtual and online communications of scholars in India, the Ministry of Education threatens the very foundation of those exchanges,” the joint statement said.

“The policy puts Indian scholars at a disadvantage in ongoing discussions among scholars in all disciplines, including history. It also deprives scholars in other countries (including members of the American Historical Association) of the benefits of the knowledge and insights that Indian scholars bring to the table.

“The AHA strongly maintains that government agencies should not intervene in the content of scholarly exchange. Such intervention would constitute arbitrary censorship and violate the principle of academic freedom.”

Adrian Mutton, CEO of Sannam S4, a consultancy that facilitates partnerships between Indian and foreign universities, told University World News such policies could be detrimental to Indian universities’ drive to internationalise, a key policy under the National Education Policy blueprint for education over the next ten years.

“These types of statements, and the way it is implemented and the way that it is policed, they are just very good reasons to give the people that are not pro-India a reason not to tie up with Indian universities,” he said.

“For a [foreign university] vice-chancellor who is doubting India as a strategic priority, it is a good enough reason to say ‘no’.”

Northeast restrictions

Despite the lifting of restrictions by the ministry, the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati (IIT Guwahati) in Assam state, in the Northeast – a region the government has flagged up as being of concern along with Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh – has issued its own internal instructions for mandatory permission for faculty members to participate in all types of seminars and webinars, in both online and offline mode, according to an internal circular issued on 22 February.

Parameswar K Iyer, dean of public relations at IIT Guwahati, told local media the notice was not intended to curb the freedom of the faculty to participate in events. “Any misrepresentation of this institute circular as curbing of faculty freedom of participation in events and committees is absolutely baseless,” he said.

“The notification issued by the institute is only to ensure there is a systematic mechanism to collate data on faculty involvement in outreach activities at IIT Guwahati. This is required for providing data for ranking and branding activities of the institute.

“This is not issued for denying permission to faculty for participation in webinars or conferences or any similar academic activities,” Iyer said in an email to the Kolkata Telegraph newspaper.