The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has made specific government approval essential for holding virtual foreign symposiums, training sessions and webinars. It has also prohibited such virtual events on issues related to India’s defense, Northeastern States, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh or any other cases related to India’s “internal matters”.
The latest set of instructions – released in November 2020 and part of the new “approval procedure” informed by the MEA for the organizing of virtual activities – extends to all government ministries and agencies, public sector corporations, public-funded universities and organizations managed by the Union and state governments.
The expression “internal matters” is so broad that it covers nearly any subject of concern to academics. For instance, the recent farmers’ protest relates to India’s internal affairs, as does the government’s treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic, or caste concerns, or even the pros and cons of demonetization.
In addition, the names of all participants in such workshops have to be certified by the Government in advance. Authorization will also be necessary for activities involving sensitive, controversial issues with provisions for the exchange of data in some manner, in compliance with an updated collection of guidelines released by the Ministry of Education two weeks ago.
“While granting permission, the concerned Department should guarantee that the subject matter of virtual events is not linked to State Security, Borders, North East States, UT J&K, Ladakh or any other issues that are tenuously connected to India’s internal affairs,” said the MEA on November 25, 2020.
The guidelines, however, do not explain or define what would constitute as the nation’s “internal matter”. Moreover, the Ministry has urged caution and vigilance when it comes to data and content exchanged at online conferences.
And as per government outlets, a new series of recommendations has been released since the Covid-induced lockdown caused millions to turn to interactive workshops and conferences this year, and there was no government monitoring of these multimedia activities.
Looking back on how the government has been monitoring academicians’ speeches and actions, we are reminded of the Bhima Koregaon case. Professors- Prem Kumar Vijayan, Rakesh Ranjan and HT Hany Babu are known for their anti-caste activism.
The summons was given pursuant to a number of provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
Activities featuring participants from closely controlled countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, China and Pakistan are susceptible to keen surveillance. The updated guidelines seem to mechanically apply these laws to online conferences and seminars which do not entail international participants entering India.
Necessitating government permission for international applicants is equivalent to establishing a de facto visa system (according to The Wire).
The MEA guidelines advise universities to stop using apps that have servers that are operated by countries or agencies that are ‘hostile to India,’ a provision that directs attention to Zoom, a common US-based conferencing software that has been known to route user data via Chinese servers. The paper states:
“There should be judicious selection of IT applications/platforms, medium for interaction; preference should be given for those apps having servers not controlled/hosted/owned by countries/agencies hostile to India.”
However, there is no registry of “countries/agencies hostile to India.”
Sources: The Wire, Scroll, The Indian Express