Representative image of an online seminar. Photo: Chris Montgomery/Unsplash
New Delhi: Withdrawing an official diktat compelling publicly funded universities to secure “political clearance” for any online seminar on subjects relating to India’s “internal matters”, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has blamed COVID-19 – rather than the pandemic of official paranoia – for its controversial guidelines and said the “easing of restrictions on travel and assembly of people” means the restrictions imposed “are no longer applicable”.
The controversial guidelines regarding online international conferences were first circulated to all publicly funded universities in January 2021 by the education ministry and were based on an office memorandum issued by the MEA in November 2020.
Over the last month, the onerous restrictions on academic freedom have been sharply criticised by leading academics and professors, including Indian Academy of Sciences president Partha Majumder, who wrote a letter to education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal last week requesting that the guidelines be withdrawn.
The external affairs ministry now appears to have done a U-turn, issuing a new office memorandum that says its November 2020 order is no longer applicable.
“In view of the easing of restrictions on travel and assembly of people by the Government of India and state governments, guidelines issued vide OM No. AA/551/22/2020 regarding political clearance for international conferences/seminars/training etc. due to COVID-19 pandemic are no longer applicable,” the new order notes.
“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 new order also notes that political clearances that were in place before the pandemic can be viewed at a home ministry website. The website, however, appears to list out pre-existing rules for physical conferences and makes no mention of online seminars.
Interestingly, the earlier MEA office memorandum and the guidelines circulated by the education ministry did not mention the pandemic as the driving force behind the need for political clearance for online conferences and seminars.
The guidelines issued last month, which are now defunct, noted any virtual conference being organised by a publicly funded university required approval from their “administrative secretary”.
They specifically noted, however, that the applicable ministry is required to ensure that the subject matter for the online event is not 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”.
For those international conferences and seminars that are structured around discussing these specific issues, approval will continue to be required from the MEA.
As The Wire noted at the time, the phrase “internal matters” is vague enough to include virtually every topic of interest to academics. The farmers’ protest relates to “India’s internal matters” as does the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, or caste issues or even the pros and cons of demonetisation.
However, The Telegraph reported on February 25 that “IIT Guwahati has made permission mandatory for faculty members to participate in all types of webinars, going a step further than the Union government that had covered only international online seminars.”
According to the newspaper, IIT Guwahati registrar Suresh S.M. circulated a memo on Monday, February 21, stipulating that all faculty members would have to seek prior approval from the dean of faculty affairs or the registrar before participating in any seminar, online or off – even to the level of “tender committee meetings”.
“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,” according to Parameswar K. Iyer, dean of public relations at the institute. “Any misrepresentation of this institute circular as curbing of faculty freedom of participation in events and committees is absolutely baseless,” he added to the newspaper.