February 12, 2007Public Policy

Coccyx, vermiform appendix, FCRA etc

A budding knowledge superpower cannot have its intellectual shutters closed

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

Vestigial structures, according to Wikipedia, are anatomical structures of organisms in a species which are considered to have lost much or all of their original function through evolution. These structures are typically in a degenerate, atrophied, or rudimentary condition or form”. If the government of India were an organism, it would have a whole lot of them.

In a brilliant essay, Pratap Bhanu Mehta exposes how one of those vestigial laws has severely encroached on academic and intellectual freedom in India. The recent rejection of visas for Fulbright scholars is a manifestation of a deeper malaise.

The ugly truth is that the NDA and the UPA are often more like each other in their abridgements of freedom. Forces in Gujarat may ban the screening of Parzania, but the ‘sensitive subject’ argument has often been used by the Congress to ban all manner of things. And if you wonder why there is not more outrage when freedom of expression is abridged in India, think of this: we have bought into the ‘sensitive subject’ argument much too easily. The Fulbright episode is not about visas for a bunch of American youngsters, it is about our insecurities and specious obsessions.

Patriotism may or may not be the last refuge of scoundrels. But security-based arguments are often the last refuge of those who want to control for the sake of control. That is the sentiment underlying the new FCRA act as well. But like that act, this restrictive visa regime institutes some bizarre hierarchies. For instance, it is relatively easy for consultants in the private sector to get access to India; and apparently scientists have an easier time with research visas than social scientists. Why single out the non-profit sector for special scrutiny, as opposed to the private sector? And why single out social science research for extra scrutiny? From a security point of view neither distinction makes sense. What is the logic that compels us to believe that a researcher is statistically more likely to be subversive than your average tourist or private sector consultant? There is something wrong when universities have to seek permission from the government on a routine basis to get clearance for researchers. [IE]Forget closed shutters, a knowledge power can’t even afford to have intellectual blinkers on.

Related Links: Closing India’s intellectual shutters, a post from Sep 2004. The home ministry has a helpful guide to that tells you how you can apply for a permit to conduct a conference where substantive discussions/deliberations/interaction and exchange of thoughts and ideas will take place on a specific subject matter and in which participants from foreign countries will take part”. Yes, you need a permit for that.

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