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This July, India is all set to host  Asian studies scholars from all over the world for Association for Asian Studies (AAS)-in-Asia conference. However, the Indian government has decided to not allow Pakistani scholars to participate in the conference.

The Association for Asian Studies is the premier international academic body of Asianists with around 10,000 members. Since 2014, it has held an annual AAS-in-ASIA conference for scholars who cannot attend the annual event in North America. The last four conferences were held in Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. This year, Ashoka University is the co-organiser for the AAS-in-Asia conference in New Delhi.

MEA’s Ban on Pakistani Scholars

The political clearance letter from the Ministry of External Affairs includes explicit instructions from the Indian government to not include any scholars from Pakistan at the event.

 

The letter MEA sent to the organisers of the conference(source: AAS)
The letter MEA sent to the organisers of the conference(source: AAS)

The MEA repeated the objection against Pakistani participants twice. “Kindly note this Ministry does not recommend participation from Pakistan in the proposed event,” it said. Incidentally, the American Institute for Pakistani Studies is listed as one of the partners and sponsors on the conference’s website.

The home ministry letter to Ashoka university noted that there were no participations from the PRC (prior reference countries) in the conference, therefore “event clearance from MHA is not required for conference visa”. The ‘Prior Reference Countries’ are Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, foreigners of Pakistani origin and stateless persons.

The response of Annie Zaman, Pakistani scholar who was denied Visa

Annie Zaman, an independent researcher, is the only Pakistani participant who had registered for the conference. Having registered in February, she was to speak on the morning of July 6 on the topic of virtual geographical identities through the lens of Balochistan’s secessionist movement, of which most members live outside Pakistan.

“Balochistan is a sensitive topic in Pakistan. It’s a black hole when it comes to freedom of expression and media or news so I thought this conference would be a good platform to talk about it,” she told The Wire. However, just over a month ago, the conference organisers contacted her to say that it would be futile to apply for a visa.

“We regret to inform you that the Indian Embassy most likely will not sanction the visa for you to attend the conference, as such you are eligible for a full refund of the conference fees,” an organiser e-mailed on May 1.

Email sent to Annie Zaman by organisers (Source: Twitter)
Email sent to Annie Zaman by organisers (Source: Twitter)

She was offered a refund of her registration and accommodation payment. They also suggested that she could, if still interested, use Skype to take part in the conference. When she got the email on May 1, Zaman said that she wasn’t surprised.

“I had applied for a visa in January to attend a wedding. But despite a recommendation from a senior Indian government official, I didn’t get it. I was told at that time by a visa officer that there is a blanket ban on visas for Pakistanis,” she said. Therefore, the letter from the AAS organiser in Delhi did not ruffle her feathers much.

However, Zaman learned about the existence of the MEA instructions on Wednesday. This changed her perspective. “I am disappointed that I was not told that there are Indian government directions on the participation of Pakistanis by the organisers. It is almost as if they are trying to sweep it away,” she said.

Zaman was scheduled to be part of a panel co-organised by Sinjini Mukherjee of the University of Heidelberg and Mira Mohsini of the University of Akron on “Framing Spaces: Encountering Affective Geographies in South Asia”.

The response of the Panelists

In a statement to The Wire, Mira Mohsini said, “As a co-organiser of a panel at the AAS-in-Asia conference, I am disappointed that one of our panelists who is a Pakistani national was not even provided with a letter of invitation by conference organisers to apply for an Indian visa. Supporting fellow academics, regardless of nationality, even as a symbolic gesture, is critical for maintaining the standards of academic freedom”.

What’s emerged is a severe limitation on the principles of academic freedom,” she said  “The whole point of academic conferences is to have an open dialogue, as much as possible open and free dialogue with exchange of ideas. What this directive and what in my opinion implicitly AAS is saying is this is not a space for that. It does call to question: As a conference, ethically, what are we all doing here if we are deliberately excluding voices from Pakistan, if we are deliberately excluding the Pakistani perspective? This is not to say that Pakistani topics are not going to be addressed in the conference. I’m sure there are excellent scholars who are addressing Pakistan, but we’re not hearing voices from Pakistan. We’re not hearing voices of Pakistani nationals. This is a huge exclusion.”

“I’m sure if AAS had been more transparent about this directive, that they had received this letter, I am sure that many people might have chosen not to attend,” Mohsini said.

“I didn’t expect anything better from the government. But I did expect better from AAS,” said Sinjini Mukherjee, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Heidelberg and the co-chair, with Mohsini, of the session at which Zaman was scheduled to present. “They’re supposed to be one of us; they’re supposed to be on the side that resists these measures and these sort of fascist tendencies of states to curtail freedom, but instead of being transparent — fine, I understand there’s a lot of financials involved in all of this and I get it — but you could have at least made a statement and informed us so it didn’t hit us so late in the day.”

“With this lack of transparency things have been set in motion in a particular way. Now the decision is not just whether Mira and I back out [of the conference]; there are so many people involved in our panel who have made plans,” Mukherjee said. “That’s why I’m even more angry with the AAS that it took away our right to protest in the way we wanted to. If we’d had this information earlier, things might have been planned completely differently.”

Take of AAS and Ashoka University on the incident

In a joint statement to The Wire, AAS and Ashoka University said that the first AAS-in-Asia conference was held at the National University of Singapore in 2014, followed by Academia Sinica in Taipei, Doshisha University in Kyoto and at Korea University in Seoul.

The purpose of the conference, as per the statement, is to encourage collaboration and intellectual exchange among scholars based in various parts of Asia and between scholars based in Asia and those based in other parts of the world.

Addressing the question of the bar on Pakistani academics, the joint statement from the organisers said:

“The fact that the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India has decided to deny visas to Pakistani scholars (including scholars of Pakistani origin who are citizens of other countries) to attend the AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi is not in tune with the open exchange of ideas and knowledge that is the very purpose of the conference. However, neither the Association for Asian Studies nor Ashoka University has the authority to tell the Government of India, a sovereign nation, to whom it may and may not grant visas, and nor have we been able to influence the Government of India to reverse its decision in this case.”

They added, “Unfortunately, by the time we learned of the Government of India’s decision, the planning for the conference had been underway for a number of years”.

The negotiations to hold the fifth AAS-in-Asia conference in collaboration with Ashoka University began in 2014, with an MOU with Ashoka University signed in December 2016.

The deadline for submitting panel proposals was November 2017, while the committee to select the panels met in January this year. “As with all AAS-in-Asia conferences, the committee made its decisions based on the academic merit of the proposals and the diversity of the countries and institutions represented on the proposed panels,” said the joint statement.

As mentioned earlier, the Indian government’s decision was communicated in February 2018.

“We deeply regret the governmental decision preventing Pakistani scholars from physically attending the conference,” said the organisers.

The statement noted that affected delegates were informed in March. The registration fees have been refunded and efforts made to “facilitate their participation by arranging for them to present their papers via Skype,” it added.

The Response from the academic circle

Haq, of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, described “a sense of helplessness that this kind of blanket prohibition [on] a whole set of people can happen by our governments and there’s not much we can do about it.””The Indian government should realize that there’s a price to be paid for this kind of general ban of a whole nationality in a conference that is supposed to be an Asian studies conference,” Haq said.

“It’s an oversight both on the part of AAS and of Ashoka University not to have had a guarantee in advance that scholars of any national origin would be admitted to the conference,” said James Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale University and the keynote speaker at the AAS-in-Asia conference, which he still plans to attend.

“In a sense, the meeting ought never have been held until those guarantees were secured, and I suppose the first order of business at the meeting will be to have a petition that I think everyone will sign condemning the Ministry of External Affairs or I suppose the [Narendra] Modi government, for that matter,” said Scott, a past president of AAS.

“At this point, it’s a question of protesting at the conference itself,” Scott said, “but if the information that a conference is going to be restricted in this way is received well in advance, then the conference should be cancelled.”

The president of AAS, Anne Feldhaus, the Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, declined to comment beyond the joint written statement. The press office at the Indian embassy in Washington did not respond to an emailed request seeking information about the reasons for the prohibition on scholars from Pakistan, a country with which India has tense relations.

MEA’s Response

When asked about the exclusion of Pakistani academics from getting a visa for AAS-in-Asia conference, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that there are “several factors which go into taking a decision on participation by an individual or a country in any conference or seminar”.

Besides inputs from “agencies”, Kumar said that “one very important input is the state of relationship”. “If the state of relationship is good, positive, then these things are very smooth and free-flowing. If you have a relationship which is not smooth, then, of course, there are due diligence…and all these come into play. And yes, I think, participation by Pakistan or any other country is a reflection of the current state of the relationship of India and that country,” he stated.

A total of 600 academicians have condemned the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in a letter over their failure to inform the participants of an upcoming seminar after the Centre decided to exclusively bar Pakistani scholars from attending it, The Wire reported.

Accusing AAS of lacking transparency, the signatories to the letter added that had the AAS informed in advance that Pakistanis were barred, “participants could have made informed decisions about whether to support and attend the conference. The letter blamed The Association for Asian Studies for the delay in sharing this critical information with participants which served to limit their options for protest and has shifted the financial implications of any protest onto individual scholars.“These directives were written in a letter from the Ministry of External Affairs dated 19 February 2018, prior to the deadline for registration,” the academicians cited, adding that last-minute cancellation could be a financial burden.

It is ethically unacceptable that the AAS did not immediately publish a statement of support for our Pakistani colleagues, and did not immediately condemn the government’s attacks on academic freedom.
The letter stated. Further alleging that the organisation has colluded with the government, the signatories state that alternative logistical options of holding the meet could have been deliberated upon.A virtual event, a different location or expressing dismay over the Indian government’s decision could have been ways of organising the event differently.

“The AAS cannot simultaneously claim to represent scholarship on Asia while allowing its conference to become the grounds for the Indian state – or any other state, for that matter – to enact virulent and blatant forms of religious, national, or other forms of exclusionary violence,” states the letter.

The scholars expressed disappointment as AAS-in-Asia had failed to express a collective ethical and political commitment to academic freedom in Asia by canceling the conference. They urged the committee and Board of Directors to reevaluate their mission statement and their “statement on the denial of visas” in light of critical global events that threaten to erode the legitimacy, political value, free expression and dissemination of academic work.

The AAS  released a statement responding to the scholars’ letter. They said that they tried to use “back-channel negotiations” to ensure that scholars from Pakistan were able to attend the event. However, the group claimed that they did not know when choosing Ashoka University as the venue that the MEA would impose this kind of a restriction. “While there are financial costs in canceling a conference for which reservations were made over a year in advance, there is a broader question to be addressed: Is there merit in working with Asian institutions in the hope of helping to strengthen academic freedoms and civil society, recognizing the contexts of current limitations? We might also go further to ask if scholars should refuse to participate in international conferences held in any country with problematic government policies. This would include the U.S. which has a blanket ban on potential participants from seven countries,” the AAS has said.

 

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