18 June 2001

Scholars chafe at official curbs

18 June 2001
The Times of India

Scholars chafe at official curbs

By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

NEW DELHI: Indian academics may be upset at the home ministry's renewed
desire to vet foreign scholars attending conferences in the country but
they are also angry about the more stringent enforcement of an older rule
requiring official clearance before they can travel abroad for conferences
and seminars.

It's a little-known fact but as government employees, academics working at
any university or centrally-sponsored institute are required to apply in
writing on a prescribed form to both the human resource development
ministry and the ministry of external affairs for ``political clearance''
whenever they wish to accept an invitation to attend a foreign conference.

Last year, an internationally renowned professor of performing arts at a
leading national centre was told that even though he had been attending
workshops abroad for years without any problem, he would henceforth have
to apply to the government for permission. His centre cited an HRD
ministry order making it mandatory for official clearance to be sought,
especially when a conference invitation came from an NGO, foreign
government department or even the UN.

In his case, permission to attend a conference on performing arts in a
south-east Asian country was eventually given but the professor was told
by the MEA that he should provide a report on what transpired at the
conference to the local Indian embassy. Though the professor showed copies
of his correspondence to The Times of India, he was unwilling to be named
for fear of disciplinary action.

According to academics familiar with the HRD ministry order, the decision
to make university-based scholars conform to a rule that normally is
binding only on direct government employees dates back to the time when
Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. Though many universities and institutes
had stopped enforcing the rule, HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi seems to
have decided to revive it, perhaps as a means of more closely monitoring -
or even regulating - the kinds of academic linkages Indian scholars
develop with colleagues overseas.

That the requirement to seek prior political clearance is a hindrance for
Indian scholars is illustrated by the fate of Prof Kanti Bajpai, who
teaches international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New
Delhi. Last summer, he approached the ministry for clearance for a
conference he was to attend in October. ``But the permission was finally
granted to me only in December'', Bajpai told The Times of India. Those
scholars who travel without the requisite political clearance run the risk
of being penalised by their universities, he said.

In another case two years ago, a professor whose participation as an
invitee in an Indo-Russian seminar had been approved by the government was
taken off the list after her husband made a statement criticising the BJP
on an unrelated issue.

In virtually no democratic country are scholars required to seek
government permission for attending conferences abroad. If at all, it is
the concerned department of the university which approves attendance.

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