Don’t worry (or be happy, depending on where you stand on online conferences). The webinars are here to stay.
However, their content and freedom would soon be hampered.
In what is called as the “biggest attack in the history of independent India on the autonomy of our universities“, the Ministry of Education has released guidelines seriously curbing academic freedom in the country.
What the Office Memorandum says
As per an Office Memorandum from January 15, Public Sector Undertakings, Central Educational Institutions, Publicly-Funded Universities, and organizations owned and controlled by the Central/ State Government have to get prior approval of its Admin Secretary for the event as well as its list of participants.
In case the event pertains “to the security of the Indian state, border, North East states, J&K, or any other issues which are clearly/purely related to India’s internal matters” then approval by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is required.
Other than that, international conferences, events having foreign funding, events involving sensitive subjects like political, scientific, technical, commercial, personal subjects, with provisions for sharing of data in any form or presentations, will need MEA approval.
It also stipulates a preference for software/medium for interaction to be those whose servers are not controlled/hosted/owned by countries or agencies outside India.
And finally, the link to the event must be shared with the MEA.
This is a brilliant move by the government. Brilliant in one respect: thought control.
Imagine, the names of participants in online seminars will now have to be approved in advance by the government. That’s bizarre.
This move has attracted criticism from various fronts. One of the academics has questioned the fact that when social media has been so vitriolic, where conversations go haywire, webinars are harmless. However, social media clampdowns have also become a thing now.
These rules have been brought as erstwhile physical conferences would require a ‘visa’. However, one thing which they miss, is that this is also a wasted opportunity to make academia more accessible. Since foreign trips require considerable financial backing, online conferences would allow more people to engage with global peers. But the important things are left for a later day.
The recent rigmarole about international celebrities tweeting in India’s “internal matter” as a part of a large conspiracy, doesn’t give much confidence on how the Office Memorandum will be implemented.
The Wire Science reports that internal matters could also relate to matters of science. The President of the Indian Academy of Sciences has also written to the Minister of Education, saying that the guidelines are “overly restrictive, lacking in clarity and detrimental to the progress of science in India”. However, when vacinnation can be made a chest-thumping nationalism issue, everything can be.
The American Historical Association, which is the largest group of professional historians in the world, has also released a statement. They said that the new move promotes “arbitrary censorship and violate[s] the principle of academic freedom.”
This move is a harbinger of the bad times to come.
What Looks Familiar?
I was reminded of a novel called ‘Madame’ by the Polish writer Antoni Libera. In this novel, a professor in Soviet-controlled Poland had written a brilliant paper and was invited to France to talk about it. However, the professor was better left to his own, for when he found out the hoops he would have to jump to get letters, approvals, and finally, a chance to go.
I’m sharing a few quotes which I found amusing. Sharing them for others to read. I would like to say that any connection between anything happening in India is incidental and not intentional.
Mediocrities were promoted and genuine scholars passed over; every decision was the result of intrigue and power play; you had to be ‘in’ with the right people in order to get anywhere or to get anything done. Scholarship, intelligence, general culture were irrelevant. The only things that counted were enough gall to bulldoze your way through to what you wanted and faithful submission to the regime.
He read the letter of invitation from Tours, shook his head sadly and explained succinctly what Freddy could do with it. The best thing would be to frame it and hang it on the wall, because from an official point of view it was worthless. No government functionary, no official at the passport office would even glance at it. For one thing, it was in French.
Out of concern for their welfare, therefore, our sensible People’s government has worked out a clever compromise: it will agree to let out the people on whose presence the West, for obscure (and generally suspicious) reasons of its own, seems to have set its heart, in exchange for a second invitation, with the understanding that this time the choice of who is to have the honour of representing Polish learning is to be left to us.
Finally, the Professor was made to sign a promise of loyalty to the Polish government during his trip abroad. He is accompanied by a party-man to keep an eye on him.
Ministry of Education DHE Office Memorandum 15.01.2021
Don’t they realise they’re making fools of themselves? They’ll be the laughing-stock of the academic world. But perhaps they don’t care . . .