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An illiberal mindset

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Indian companies may be going overseas to acquire large firms and, barring a few sectors, India welcomes foreign firms coming and taking over businesses here and setting up greenfield ventures. Surprisingly, the same does not seem to apply to scholarship. As a series of reports in The Indian Express show, the government has refused to clear research proposals received from American Fulbright scholars, sometimes without even specifying a reason. Some trends can be discerned from the proposals that did not get clearance. Some deal with Muslims, the education of Muslim women, how migration affects them, and the Ramayana tradition in Urdu; others with energy security. These might be considered either sensitive or strategic. But some of the proposals that have not been cleared deal with issues as innocuous as Left politics in Maharashtra and the dabbawalahs (tiffin-carriers) in Mumbai. In some cases, scholars who suspected that their topics were uncomfortable to the government of the day changed their research subjects, but the authorities have not been moved, perhaps because they suspect the new topic is a ruse.
At the heart of the refusal to clear projects is the old fear that such researchers may be funded by, say, an intelligence agency, and that their research findings could be used in ways that could hurt India's interests or image. Apart from the fact that this reflects a serious lack of self-confidence and self-belief, and that it goes against the country's rich tradition of respecting scholars from all parts of the world, it is another manifestation of the same illiberal mindset that results in banning books, movies, television channels and any thoughts that do not reflect what the government considers acceptable. It is no help to argue that the sword cuts both ways, and that Indian scholars from the recognised universities also have to get their overseas visits/sabatticals cleared by the authorities!
Such chauvinism and illiberalism have traditionally been associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party and its more belligerent sister-organisations, as also the street-fighters of the Shiv Sena""remember how Water could not be filmed in the country""but now the United Progressive Alliance government has slipped into the same category. The banning of AXN, the TV channel, is of a piece with this mindset, with the information and broadcasting minister saying that he has the guillotine ready to come down on a few more offending channels.
What is particularly galling is that now, more than at any other time, is when India should be opening its doors wider to foreign scholars. The country's universities, for instance, have an appalling shortage of mathematicians and those teaching the pure sciences, while the erstwhile members of the USSR have a huge oversupply""encouraging such scholars to the country would surely be beneficial to students here? Indeed, given the shortages faced in higher education, whether for professional courses or in the liberal arts and pure sciences, it is obvious that allowing reputed foreign universities to set up campuses would be good for the country""and various reports suggest that this is what the government is preparing to do. But if these universities and their faculty are going to be subjected to the worst that India's vaunted bureaucracy can mete out, no one should hope for much by way of an outcome. It is widely recognised that one of the reasons for the vast body of knowledge being created in the US is its open-door policy to immigrants in universities, with generous funding from a variety of sources.

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First Published: Wed, February 14 2007. 00:00 IST
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