New Delhi: The recent revelation by Amnesty Internal India researcher Christine Mehta that she was charged with ‘visa violations’ and deported from India in November 2014 for pursuing research on the violation of human rights in Jammu and Kashmir without securing clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs is likely to herald a tightening of the restraints on foreigners keen to pursue research in India.
In fact, says former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan Satyabrata Pal, the Christine Mehta case is bound to trigger a shift from the hitherto existing policy of a ‘light touch’ towards greater stringency. “The requirement for research applications on issues of human rights and environmental concerns to be vetted by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has always existed,” he says. However, “unlike most governments of the past which took a fairly liberal view on this issue, the current government has a different view on whether free thought is actually good or not. When a Greenpeace activist was denied permission to go abroad, it submitted in the High Court that it did not want her to speak against its economic policies abroad.”
The problem, according to Pal, who is also a former Member of the National Human Rights Commission, is that no ministry possesses the requisite expertise to deal with anything technical or fully academic. “The principle of the lowest common denominator applies to the decisions taken on research applications by some official. If a research application were to mention the ‘greater glory of Vedic India’, I am sure it would get cleared.”
‘If we find [their research topic] appropriate, non-controversial and beneficial to India, then only the applicant will be given a visa.’
The bottomline is that the MHA is all set to tighten the norms governing the involvement of foreigners in research areas deemed sensitive or inconvenient for the government. On Sunday, PTI quoted a ministry official as saying that “all research visa applications will henceforth be thoroughly scrutinised. An applicant has to submit a brief note in advance about the project in which the research work will be conducted. If we find it appropriate, non-controversial and beneficial to India, then only the applicant will be given a visa.”
The government’s stance stems from its belief that visas are being misused. Foreign nationals “whose research work involves visits to ‘Restricted’ or ‘Protected’ areas in India etc. or involves politically and socially sensitive subjects” must apply for, and come to India on, a research visa that the MHA and Ministry of External Affairs will vet to ensure the “national interest” will not be compromised by their topic or methodology.
Government officials believe many researchers and activists in the field of human rights and environmental protection come to India on tourist visas even though their real intention is to conduct research or organise protests. Scholars and participants in academic conferences also sometimes come on tourist visas because the procedure for MHA approval can be cumbersome. The government is all set to tighten enforcement of its rules on this matter.
Writing in The Hindu about her deportation, Mehta said she was “on the cusp of publishing a report on the abuses committed under the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Jammu and Kashmir” when she was expelled from the country. But she also admitted to having used the liberal visa norms for Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) to conduct research in J&K on behalf of Amnesty International India without applying for a Research Visa and obtaining the necessary permission from MHA.
In her article Mehta mentioned the likely reason for her deportation, namely a restrictive clause listed on India’s Bureau of Immigration website stating that OCI and PIO card holders were prohibited from conducting `research, missionary or mountaineering activities without the prior permission of the Government of India’. Admitting that this clause was discussed at the time she was offered her research job at Amnesty, Mehta noted that “the AII management was confident the United Progressive Alliance government wouldn’t use the little-known and apparently rarely used provision against me. It decided that attempting to apply for permission would only draw unnecessary attention to my work, and invite the government to deny permission outright.”
Amnesty’s assessment of the UPA wasn’t misplaced. Soon after news of Mehta’s deportation became public, P. Chidambaram, who had once served as Home Minister in the Manmohan Singh government, tweeted:
On this aspect, Delhi Policy Group director-general Radha Kumar said that while she could not condone the deliberate act of violating visa norms and breaking the law, “what should not get compromised under any circumstances is the freedom of enquiry.”
Reiterating that many countries have separate visas for researchers, she said, “You always have restrictions in place when it comes to military and strategic issues, e.g. nuclear installations. But when it comes to general research, the rules of universities and departments inviting foreign researchers should provide the yardstick for clearance of applications. Similarly, NGOs too should be accountable for the work undertaken by their researchers.”
Kumar, who in 2010-201 served in the three-member Group of Interlocutors appointed by the Government of India in Jammu and Kashmir, said that “ the Government should not interfere with research. The MHA should not be involved in approving or rejecting research applications. Research in academic areas is for the academics to judge, not for MHA, or any other government ministry.”