There have been occasions in the past when the Indian government has refused, withheld or delayed visas to individual conference or concert participants hailing from what are seen as countries with which India has a tense relationship. The most recent incident was the graceless removal of the daughter of Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Moneeza Hashmi of the KASHF Foundation, Pakistan, from the programme of a media summit held in May 2018. In many of these instances, government intentions were communicated through a faceless visa rejection or delay, but were noted in public forums and the organisers responded with varying degrees of compliance and protest.
For this reason, the letter of February 18 from the Ministry of External Affairs objecting to Pakistani participants in entirety (including those of other nationalities but of Pakistani origin), in a Delhi conference organised by Ashoka University and the Association of Asian Studies for early July, is unprecedented. The letter is a sign that the MEA will not take recourse to the usual obfuscation and intends to pursue exclusionary practices to a degree not seen in the past. In refusing to permit the participation of an entire nationality in an event in India, it has exhibited a degree of control and a desire to extend partisan politics, the consequences of which will continue into the future.
The AAS, however, is not an Indian university but a member of the American Council of Learned Societies, funded by both private and public grants, and holds annual conferences bringing together scholars on Asia. Though its statement on the visa matter distances itself from the political impetus behind the directive, its clarification that the Indian government has a right to deny visas as it chooses does not address the implications of this directive for academic culture at large or for Indian academia, which is an issue that will have to be addressed by other entities. The joint statement by the AAS and Ashoka University also leaves the position of the recently formed private university somewhat ambiguous.
More engaged criticism from both foreign and Indian academics has extended to a call for a boycott of AAS and this response to the handling of the MEA’s directive is in contrast to the absence of an independent statement from Ashoka University, though individual academics within these institutions have responded to the issue. This is a revelatory moment in the transition of the university system in India as it incorporates private entities of different kinds. The staffing of such institutions as yet is not markedly different from state universities and it therefore offers an opportunity for joint public discussion about what an appropriate response could be now and in the future and what kinds of political conventions private universities could uphold.
How to differentiate from the US
In response to the call for boycott, the fact that the AAS is an American entity has led inevitably to comparisons with conferences in the US that continue to be held despite the ongoing ban on several countries with a majority of Muslims in the population.
However, rather than suggesting that a response in India should be no different from the situation in the US, this moment calls for an acknowledgment of its implications for institutional culture in India. It is not incidental that the MEA’s exclusionary stance has been explicitly voiced to a private institution and an American one. The push towards the privatisation of education increases the likelihood that university authorities will disavow responsibility for the political cultures they live in as not of their making.
This is far from being a necessary corollary to privatised education as there are private and semi-private institutions in the country that actively espouse progressive principles. It is the logic of neoliberalism that has provided a renewed impetus to speak of education as a commodity for the middle class and to actively discourage or disable discourses that conceive of education in any other way. What is more destructive for economically disadvantaged groups is that the language of democracy is used for an instrumentalist agenda to impart highly restricted skills, with no guarantee about the longevity or versatility of their use in the future.
The aggressive attacks on any aspect of the syllabus and structure that is likely to foster independent and critical thinking in Delhi University, HCU, TISS and JNU among others indicate the thrust that educational policy has begun to take. The interference with the syllabus of public universities in particular (aside from their autonomy and critical culture) is designed to give an impetus to the student and faculty intake of private universities, while transforming the national discourse on education as a whole. The US provides a ready example of a realm where a professionalisation of the discourse of education makes the formation of student unions and teacher associations difficult especially in private universities.
A recent expansion in the international profile of several metropolitan Indian academics has been enabled by a neoliberal economy. The same economy has seen a spurt in transnational collaborations between universities, and an emphasis on hosting projects funded through competitive applications to grant-making private entities. These projects are intended implicitly or explicitly to fund graduate and postgraduate programmes.
Consequently, there is encouragement for a research agenda to be subordinated and in fact defined and curtailed to the objectives and directives of projects. At the heart of this design lies the financial withdrawal of the state from higher education, accompanied by an intensification of its political control over the university realm as a whole. Once again, those who have found contexts free of the feudal bureaucracies that define public universities may have expanded their horizons of research and pedagogic possibilities, though these are the exceptional few, as feudal relations can travel as easily as academic talent and political cultures do from public to private institutions.
This is therefore, a moment of possibility that demands as much initiative as the Ministry of External Affairs showed in order to counter its attempt to use academic space to complement its political agenda. There is a window of time available before the culture of the private and public universities diverge, as the faculty and students who transition between metro-based institutions still share conceptions and expectations of a common educational sphere.
In this context, the conference undeniably stands out as a new financial model in India that makes participation dependent on fees ranging from Rs 2,300 to over Rs 7,000 for Indian and other SAARC/LDS scholars and rising much higher for others. While paid courses and paid conferences are not new in professional fields, this fee is high for a social science conference inviting the participation of academics accustomed to state sponsored events, many of which are at least technically open to graduate students. It signals the marketability of conferences and exacerbates the coterie culture of academic patronage.
This factor has influenced the nature of protest and of institutional response. For many students and lecturers, boycotting the conference will entail a financial loss to a degree that they would not have ordinarily incurred. The prefatory discussion of neo-liberal policies was therefore intended to highlight how the extension of the logic of profit to every sphere of higher education cannot but shape its politics. Despite the national or financial identities of its organisers, however, the fact that it is the Indian state that has refused to grant visas to Pakistani academics is bad for India’s pedagogic culture and requires a range of responses from students and teachers in its universities.
Rochelle Pinto is an independent researcher and the author of Between Empires: Print and Politics in Goa, OUP, 2007. She was a research fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 2015-2017, and has taught at the University of Delhi.