The fear of Ideas: Is India a paranoid state? -- By Praful Bidwai Back   Home  
Indira Gandhi gave India a bad name in the 1970s by policing scholars' visas. Academics like Paul Brass paid heavily for this--as did good scholarship. The NDA is doing the same--even more hypocritically. Today, on the one hand, it endorses "globalisation" at the expense of national sovereignty...On the other, it is xenophobic about ideas. NOW everyone knows the Indian government grossly mishandled the media at Agra and lost the "information battle" to Pakistan. This is fashionably attributed to a tactical "failure" to practise "media-based diplomacy."

This criticism is largely valid. But the deeper failure isn't tactical. It lies in the culture of excessive secrecy. The government doesn't share what it knows with its own people, even after it becomes public knowledge.

Mr Vajpayee first disclosed the 1998 nuclear tests' rationale not to the Indian people, but to the President of the United States. Many are the disasters, including Indira Gandhi's assassination, about which our public learns first through the BBC. In line with this is the babu's mortal fear of new or heterodox ideas.

Take Mr M.L. Sondhi's dismissal from the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). This happened two days after the Agra Summit, to welcome which he had organised an India-Pakistan social scientists' conference. The dismissal's grounds-- "loss of confidence"; non-submission of accounts;-- and complaints of "irregularities"smack of a vendetta.

In reality, Mr Sondhi-- a self-confessed sangh parivar member--was sacked because he had antagonised powerful people, especially Human Resources Development (HRD) Minister M.M. Joshi.

Mr Sondhi is complex "saffron liberal". One can't credit him with academic excellence-- he can claim little recent work-- or tolerance. A Jana Sangh MP in 1967, he is a political maverick and a bull in the academic china-shop. He is known for his imperious style-- and his contradictions.

Mr Sondhi advocates India-Pakistan reconciliation and underscores India's "soft" face. Yet, he worships the Bomb.

He advocates free exchange of ideas, but opposes critics of nuclearisation to the point of censoring them. (As earlier reported, I was the target of his heckling in 1998--my sole experience of its kind in two decades.)

Mr Sondhi's stewardship of the ICSSR was partisan. He ignored its ill-funded 27 affiliate-institutes but started new projects. He blew up money on grandiose seminars at five-star hotels even though many ICSSR institutes can barely pay their wage bills.

If the HRD ministry was genuinely concerned about "irregularities", it could have asked for an explanation-- and no more; for the ICSSR is an "autonomous" body. But it was happy because Mr Sondhi's "five-star" conferences were "Shyama Prasad Mukherjee seminars".

The ministry was complicit in Mr Sondhi's creation of a new Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Institute of Social Justice, Manali, against the Council's rules.

Mr Sondhi, for his part, went along with the Ministry's equally partisan actions, including appointment of third-rate academics and pamphleteers to the Council.

This mutual indulgence vanished when Mr Sondhi stopped playing Dr Joshi's game. Matters came to a head as RSS appointees unfolded their agenda: "proving" India's "Aryan" "greatness", and negating its multi-cultural, multi-religious character.

This was academically embarrassing. Mr Sondhi got into an ugly scrape with the "RSS cabal".

This was thus an intra-parivar fight over ICSSR spoils. Finally, the HRD ministry, which had blatantly politicised the Indian Council of Historical Research and inflicted Hindutva even on the natural sciences, did a hatchet-job on Mr Sondhi.

One must condemn the rationale and manner of his sacking. This blow to academic freedom expresses official intolerance of even mildly liberal ideas.

The government fears free communication between India and the world. Take its two recent orders: one requiring citizens to report all foreign guests to the police, and the other demanding advance "security clearance" for international conferences of "a political, semi-political, communal or religious nature" or related to human rights.

The first order would even make President Narayanan guilty of not reporting Gen Musharraf as his guest! And the second obnoxiously violates academic freedom.

There has been a big uproar over the first order. But the Supreme Court has upheld the second.

Therefore, all organisers of international seminars must obtain Home and External Affairs ministry clearances for inviting participants from Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Invitees from elsewhere need prior Home Ministry approval. This can take months and dozens of visits/letters.

This makes a mockery of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution guaranteeing free expression. It is also incompatible with the spirit of academic debate. Such debate is international in character, as is scientific scholarship itself.

Indira Gandhi gave India a bad name in the 1970s by policing scholars' visas. Academics like Paul Brass paid heavily for this-- as did good scholarship. The NDA is doing the same-- even more hypocritically.

Today, on the one hand, it endorses "globalisation" at the expense of national sovereignty; it cannot even conceive of growth without foreign capital. On the other, it is xenophobic about ideas. The government fears free thought-- particularly when that defends the popular interest.

Exclusivist attitudes come naturally when our post-colonial rulers deal with progressive foreigners, as distinct from business people. (Those applying for a "business" visa get it instantly!)

Take Ms Ali Sauer, a Canadian who has praised the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Economic and Political Weekly; and US citizen Ann Leonard-- formerly of Greenpeace, who has long campaigned against the dirty global trade in toxic wastes.

Ms Sauer is being deported. Ms Leonard has been put on the "adverse" list.

Unless such mindsets change, we will become a backwater of chauvinism. Enlightened intellectuals must reject such insularity and support freedom of thought to the point of not just tolerating, but sincerely respecting, heterodoxy. Conformism is bad for free debate--and democracy.

So the recent judgment on Sahmat's Ayodhya exhibition, banned in 1993, is welcome. The Delhi High Court has pronounced that "everything" about the ban was "indefensible". The exhibition authentically depicted plural Ramayana traditions, including a Dasaratha Jataka version which portrayed Sita as Rama's sister.

Much of the "outrage" against the exhibition's spirit of tolerance was feigned. The silence of some intellectuals on the ban only encouraged Hindutva. They should have spoken out. They always should

This article was published in DailyStar, Bangladesh. The writer Praful Bidwai is an eminent Indian columnist.