The Home Ministry's policy on visas for foreign scholars attending conferences in India is just as bone-headed as its recent restrictions on the entry of tourists and non-resident Indians.
As Union home minister P. Chidambaram grapples with the new architecture for counter-terrorism that he says India desperately needs, here's a suggestion he ought to consider: Dismantle the Department of Bad Ideas. Never heard of it? This is the section of his ministry which recommended that preventing foreign tourists and non-resident Indians from visiting India twice in a two month period would somehow protect the country from the likes of David Headley. That the alleged American terrorist travelled here to and from Pakistan multiple times on a business visa — for which the new restrictions do not apply — is a matter of detail the Ministry of Home Affairs seems to have overlooked.
One month on, the geniuses in Bad Ideas have struck again. Scholars from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan, as well as scholars from any country who are of Pakistani origin, they reminded us last week, will no longer be given visas to attend conferences, seminars and workshops in India unless the MHA grants them “security clearance” in advance.
This is what the security guidelines, first framed in 1999 during the paranoid days of the BJP-led Vajpayee government and amended thrice since then, state. Any event that is either (i) on a subject which is political, semi-political, religious, communal or linked to human rights, or which has a bearing on external relations or national security, or (ii) is to be held in an area requiring an inner line or restricted area permit regardless of subject, or (iii) is to be attended by scholars from the eight red-flagged countries, must be referred to the MHA for “security clearance” at least six weeks before its commencement date. As the MHA stated in a recent press release, the lengthy timeline is needed to “ensure that security clearance for the event and for the participants could be suitably assessed … Security vetting is a time-consuming process”.
Now why is this a bone-headed idea from the security standpoint? Consider the example of a Sri Lankan professor at a small college in Kandy who plans to use an invitation to present a paper at a Pune University conference on food technology to plan an act of terror in India. In Mr. Chidambaram's fantasy world, the university would apply for clearance from the MHA, whose procedure for “security vetting” is so good that it would uncover the professor's terrorist proclivities and deny him a visa. So far so good. But guess what? If the same professor were to simply apply for a tourist visa, he would get it without any security vetting!
It is one thing for Mr. Chidambaram to be wary of visitors from these eight countries but why does he believe scholars are potentially more dangerous than their less educated compatriots and, therefore, in need of “security vetting”? In fact, it is not just scholars from the red-flagged eight who worry North Block but academics from anywhere in the world who may be invited to speak on a “political”, “semi-political”, religious, “communal” or human-rights related subject. Were the recent Nobel-prize winning NRI chemist, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, to be invited to give a talk on the relationship between chemistry and the Vedas, for example, he would require “security clearance” from the Home Ministry.
Security vetting for scholars is only the most restrictive hurdle that academic institutions need to surmount but there are a raft of other clearances that all conferences with foreign speakers must secure. And it doesn't require a Nobel prize to guess that what the MHA is concerned about is not “security” but ideas and thought.
According to the “liberalized” overall “Guidelines for organisers of international conferences, seminars, workshops etc. being held in India' — issued by the ministry in 2000 and still in force today — official clearance from a “nodal ministry” is needed to invite foreign scholars and experts for any event “where substantive discussions/deliberations/interaction and exchange of thoughts and ideas will take place on a specific subject matter.” The nodal ministry will then decide whether to permit the event or refer it on to the MHA if any of the three conditions cited above are triggered.
Business and corporate meetings with foreign participants are excluded from the purview of visa restrictions, as are sporting and cultural events. But what is striking about the ministry's guidelines is the attempt to regulate and control every branch of learning. Thus, the rules say that the organizers of an academic event involving foreign scholars must first approach their “nodal/administrative ministry” — defined as that ministry of the Government of India “which is dealing/regulating framing rules etc. in respect of subject matter chosen for the event”. Now a conference on education can be referred to the Ministry of Human Resource Development but one wonders which ministry the organizers of an international conference on the hermeneutics of Gadamer would have to go to in order to get “clearance” for their event, or one on emergence of nationalism in 19th century Europe! Presumably knowledge isn't knowledge if our omniscient babus are not framing rules for it. A scholar can't be a scholar if she or he has no “nodal ministry”.
At the heart of the home ministry's guidelines on conference visas is the fear of knowledge, ideas, discussion and scholarship. And this in a government headed by a former professor of economics. Which brings me back to the visa rules for tourists announced last month. Another Very Well Known economics professor recently told a very, very important person about the difficulty some equally eminent friends of his were experiencing getting a visa for India because of the new mandatory two month ‘cooling off period' ‘between visits. The VVIP apologized and indicated that a top official in the Ministry of External Affairs could intervene on their behalf. But surely India has more pressing tasks for its top officials than getting foolish restrictions waived, the professor is said to have replied.
Sadly, all appeals to reason and logic and all attempts to shame have failed as far as the two month rule is concerned. Meanwhile, the travel horror stories multiply. An NRI groom had to turn back from Delhi airport unmarried because he had visited India just a few weeks earlier. A U.S.-based techie who used to visit his ageing mother in Bangalore on his way to and from Singapore can no longer do so. A British couple who left their luggage in a Mumbai hotel and flew to Colombo for an extended holiday were unable to come back to claim their bags. The world-renowned African-American scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard, couldn't get a visa for the Jaipur Literary Festival in January because he could produce neither his birth certificate nor his 10th grade marksheet — apparently the only documents the Indian consulate in New York is willing to accept as proof that he was not really of Pakistani origin!
Needless to say, none of the mindless restrictions the MHA has imposed will help prevent terrorists from coming to India. Most will come without a visa; the others will have the ingenuity to come up with all the required paperwork. As for genuine tourists and scholars – who care for and love India — many will be scared off while those who brave the absurdity of our rules will be resentful. The organizers of academic events would rather plan their conferences and workshops in Sri Lanka, Nepal or perhaps even Malaysia or Singapore, confident that they would face less restrictions on what they can or cannot discuss than they would in India.