Ban on Pak Scholars Against Open Exchange of Ideas: Asian Studies Conference Organisers

A political clearance letter from the MEA includes explicit instructions from the Indian government to not include any scholars from Pakistan at next month's event.

New Delhi: Next month, India will be playing host for Asian studies scholars from all over the world for a major conference. But, following explicit instructions from Indian government, Pakistani academics will not be allowed to participate.

The Association for Asian Studies is the premier international academic body of Asianists with around 10,000 members. Every year since 2014, it holds an annual AAS-in-ASIA conference for scholars who cannot attend the annual event in North America. The last four conferences were held in Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

This year, Ashoka University, India’s premier private liberal arts institute, is the co-organiser for the AAS-in-Asia conference from July 5 to 8 in New Delhi. The topics that will be delved into range from anthropocentrism to the South China sea and urbanisation.

Foreign scholars had to apply for an Indian visa with a copy of the invitation and no-objection letters from the ministries of external affairs and home affairs.

But the political clearance letter from the MEA includes explicit instructions from the Indian government to not include any scholars from Pakistan at the event.

The political clearance letter from the MEA.

“This ministry has no objection from political angle for the proposed event with foreign participants (as per the list attached) (except participants from Pakistan), as stated in your aforesaid communication, subject to clearance of Ministry of Home affairs as applicable and nodal ministry,” said the MEA letter to Ashoka University, dated February 19.

Pakistan was scratched out from the list of 57 countries that was attached with the letter.

The MEA missive repeated the objection against Pakistani participants twice. “Kindly note this Ministry does not recommend participation from Pakistan in the proposed event,” it said.

Incidentally, the American Institute for Pakistani Studies is listed as one of the partners and sponsors on the conference’s website.

The home ministry letter to Ashoka university noted that there were no participations from the PRC (prior reference countries) in the conference, therefore “event clearance from MHA is not required for conference visa”. The ‘Prior Reference Countries’ are Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, foreigners of Pakistani origin and stateless persons.

Annie Zaman, an independent researcher, is the only Pakistani participant who had registered for the conference. Having registered in February, she was to speak on the morning of July 6 on the topic of virtual geographical identities through the lens of Balochistan’s secessionist movement, of which most members live outside Pakistan.

“Balochistan is a sensitive topic in Pakistan. It’s a black hole when it comes to freedom of expression and media or news so I thought this conference would be a good platform to talk about it,” she told The Wire.

However, just over a month ago, the conference organisers contacted her to say that it would be futile to apply for a visa.

“We regret to inform you that the Indian Embassy most likely will not sanction the visa for you to attend the conference, as such you are eligible for a full refund of the conference fees,” an organiser e-mailed on May 1.

She was offered a refund of her registration and accommodation payment. They also suggested that she could, if still interested, could use Skype to take part in the conference.

When she got the email on May 1, Zaman said that she wasn’t surprised. “I had applied for a visa in January to attend a wedding. But despite a recommendation from a senior Indian government official, I didn’t get it. I was told at that time by a visa officer that there is a blanket ban on visas for Pakistanis,” she said. Therefore, the letter from the AAS organiser in Delhi did not ruffle her feathers much.

However, Zaman learned about the existence of the MEA instructions on Wednesday. This changed her perspective. “I am disappointed that I was not told that there are Indian government directions on the participation of Pakistanis by the organisers. It is almost as if they are trying to sweep it away,” she said.

Zaman was scheduled to be part of a panel co-organised by Sinjini Mukherjee of the University of Heidelberg and Mira Mohsini of the University of Akron on “Framing Spaces: Encountering Affective Geographies in South Asia”.

In a statement to The Wire, Mohsini said, “As a co-organiser of a panel at the AAS-in-Asia conference, I am disappointed that one of our panelists, who is a Pakistani national, was not even provided a letter of invitation by conference organisers to apply for an Indian visa. Supporting fellow academics, regardless of nationality, even as a symbolic gesture, is critical for maintaining the standards of academic freedom”.

An Indian participant of the conference, Srirupa Roy from Germany’s University of Göttingen, expressed her outrage.

“The MEA has made national origin rather than merit the explicit and exclusive criterion for academic selection. India’s quest for global excellence and recognition will surely be derailed by this ‘recommendation’. An ‘Asian-studies-without-Pakistan’ conference is just absurd,” Roy said.

The organisers of the conference have said that they “deeply regret” the decision of Indian government to bar Pakistani academics as it was “not in tune with open exchange of ideas and knowledge”, but added that directive came too late in the day with preparations already underway for years.

In a joint statement to The Wire, AAS and Ashoka University said that the first AAS-in-Asia conference was held at the National University of Singapore in 2014, followed by Academia Sinica in Taipei, Doshisha University in Kyoto and at Korea University in Seoul.

The purpose of the conference, as per the statement, is to encourage collaboration and intellectual exchange among scholars based in various parts of Asia and between scholars based in Asia and those based in other parts of the world.

Addressing the question of the bar on Pakistani academics, the joint statement from the organisers said:

“The fact that the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India has decided to deny visas to Pakistani scholars (including scholars of Pakistani origin who are citizens of other countries) to attend the AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi is not in tune with the open exchange of ideas and knowledge that is the very purpose of the conference. However, neither the Association for Asian Studies nor Ashoka University has the authority to tell the Government of India, a sovereign nation, to whom it may and may not grant visas, and nor have we been able to influence the Government of India to reverse its decision in this case.”

They added, “Unfortunately, by the time we learned of the Government of India’s decision, the planning for the conference had been underway for a number of years”.

The negotiations to hold the fifth AAS-in-Asia conference in collaboration with Ashoka University began in 2014, with an MOU with Ashoka University signed in December 2016.

The deadline for submitting panel proposals was November 2017, while the committee to select the panels met in January this year. “As with all AAS-in-Asia conferences, the committee made its decisions based on the academic merit of the proposals and the diversity of the countries and institutions represented on the proposed panels,” said the joint statement.

As mentioned earlier, the Indian government’s decision was communicated in February 2018.

“We deeply regret the governmental decision preventing Pakistani scholars from physically attending the conference,” said the organisers.

The statement noted that affected delegates were informed in March. The registration fees have been refunded and efforts made to “facilitate their participation by arranging for them to present their papers via Skype,” it added.

Asked about the exclusion of Pakistani academics from getting a visa for AAS-in-Asia conference, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that there are “several factors which goes into taking a decision on participation by an individual or a country in any conference or seminar”.

Besides inputs from “agencies”, Kumar said that “one very important input is the state of relationship”. “If the state of relationship is good, positive, then these things are very smooth and free-flowing. If you have a relationship which is not smooth, then of course there are due diligence…and all these come into play. And yes, I think, participation by Pakistan or any other country is a reflection of the current state of relationship of India and that country,” he stated.

Note: This article was updated on June 7 to include the statement from AAS and Ashoka University, and the MEA’s response.