After facing strong criticism from the academic and scientific communities, the central government on Sunday said that it would “soon modify” an order that requires universities and professors to get prior approval for holding online seminars and conferences centred around India’s “internal matters”, The Indian Express reported.
Principal Scientific Advisor K Vijay Raghavan told the newspaper that the matter was under active consideration of the government. “This has been taken note of a couple of weeks ago,” Raghavan said. “There is no intent to curb academic and research interactions at all. Modifications that both clarify and make enabling changes will be coming out very soon.”
Science and Technology Secretary Ashutosh Sharma, too, said the idea of the order was not to curtail scientific discussions. “But the science academies have expressed their opinion, and the government would certainly like to allay their concerns,” he added. “I don’t know what the final outcome will be, but I think we can expect some form of modification or clarification.”
In a revised set of guidelines issued on January 15, the Centre said that all publicly-funded universities, professors and administrators in the country will need prior approval from the Ministry of External Affairs if they want to hold online international conferences or seminars on matters relating to the security of the Indian state, or “sensitive subjects” which are “clearly related to India’s internal matters”.
While “sensitive subjects” had been vaguely defined as anything that is “political, scientific, technical, commercial and personal”, the phrase “internal matters” was left open to the government’s interpretation.
The revised guidelines – issued by the foreign ministry in November and forwarded by the Ministry of Higher Education to universities across India in January – also required state government ministers and officials, including doctors and scientists, to take permission of the foreign ministry if they wish to participate in any such online events.
The order caused a fierce backlash among universities, professors and scholars, deepening fears of a crackdown on academic freedom. Members from the scientific community also pointed out that the new restrictions would make it difficult to conduct any open discussion on science.
On February 20, India’s two largest and oldest science academies, the Indian Academy of Sciences and the Indian National Academy of Sciences, said that the order could “lead to a complete halt of all topical scientific discussions”, The Indian Express reported. The two academic bodies represent over 1,500 top scientists of the country.
The academies wrote separate letters to Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal seeking withdrawal of these “blanket restrictions”. The Indian Academy of Sciences President Partha Majumder said that the order was “too constraining” for the advancement of science in the country.