Facing flak for its rules requiring foreign academics to obtain “security clearance” from the Home Ministry in order to attend conferences in India on “sensitive political and social subjects”, the government is considering a relaxation of the norms for “genuine scholars”. This was disclosed by Union home secretary G.K. Pillai at a debate here Tuesday on whether the government’s restrictions amounted to “thought policing”. The event was organised by the Foundation for Media Professionals.

Citing the permission granted to the BBC for holding its ‘Doha Debate’ in India on whether Muslims were discriminated against, Mr. Pillai said the intention behind insisting on security clearance “is not to restrict ideas” but to ensure security. He said clearance had been granted to 900 conferences and rejected in “only one or two cases”.

Mr. Pillai said academics from eight countries needed clearance regardless of conference subject because “these are countries on which we have more inputs”. India did not want Chinese citizens to visit Arunachal Pradesh, for example. Pressed about the effect of such restrictions on friendly countries like Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, he said, “We are working on new rules so that genuine scholars will be able to come without security clearance”. One criterion could be that the applicant should be on the staff of a well-known university.

In his remarks, Mail Today editor Bharat Bhushan said the visa rules effectively designated India’s neighbours as adversaries. The Home ministry’s guidelines would erode the autonomy of academic institutions in India and also affect Track-II interactions. Sanjoy Roy of the Jaipur Literature Festival gave examples of prominent writers who faced trouble coming to India because of the new visa restrictions. He said a home ministry official recently warned him that the government did not like the content of some discussions at this year’s festival and that “the might of the state will be brought to bear against you” next year.

Independent legal scholar Usha Ramanathan and The Hindu’s bureau chief, Siddharth Varadarajan, also criticised the restrictions, describing them as symptomatic of the state’s increasing allergy to debate. Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times spoke about the evolution of American policy on the ideological vetting of foreign visitors.

Former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal strongly defended the visa restrictions, saying that while Indians were free to debate whatever issue they wanted, there was no reason to invite foreigners to conferences. Academics could act as couriers or advisors to terrorists, he said, adding that it was “well known” that some academics had connections with intelligence agencies. “As a society we can be very easily penetrated.”

Mr. Varadarajan questioned the “security” rationale for scrutinising foreign scholars attending conferences, noting that the same individuals could always come to India as tourists without the Home Ministry vetting. “That is why we say it is thought that is being policed here”, he said.

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