The Indian Council of Philosophical Research, the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s apex body for the study of philosophy, postponed an academic seminar on religious pluralism last week because a few papers submitted for discussion dealt with tribal religious practices, The Wire reported. The seminar was to be organised at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

“There are some papers on tribal religious practices, some only abstracts,” the organisation said in a letter to the university on April 6. “Some papers are by foreign scholars [and] many of the papers do not seem to conform to the theme note.”

SR Bhatt, a philosophy professor who is supposedly close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, leads the philosophical research body, the website reported. He was appointed to the post during Smriti Irani’s tenure at the Human Resource Development Ministry.

In the letter to the university, signed by the council’s member secretary RK Shukla, the body said it would pay the cancellation charges that the participants would incur as well as the “retention charge for accommodation arrangements”.

The council had cleared the seminar concept note that clearly listed that the organisers were seeking academic papers on “arguments about religious diversity in Classical and contemporary Islamic texts, the Bhagavad Gita, Jain Buddhist and tribal traditions”.

Bhatt first told the website that the reference to tribal religious practices in the letter might have been a “mistake.” However, he later defended the council’s decision. “We cannot have papers on Adivasi religion,” he said. “The papers must only be on religious pluralism.”

He claimed that there was a difference between “the religion of tribals” and “what tribals think about religious pluralism”. The papers had no conceptual clarity, he added. “You see, we take these things very seriously, this is a philosophy seminar…Our reviewer has done justice to the papers.”

Unidentified officials at the university disagreed with Bhatt’s contention that the university had not sought the Ministry of External Affairs’ permission to invite foreign scholars. The varsity officials said that the home ministry’s rules for conference visas for foreign scholars state that public-funded universities are required to seek the government’s clearance only if the conference is being held in a restricted area such as Jammu and Kashmir, or invites foreign scholars.