You might recall all the loud and indignant protests last year when the US Consulate in Chennai denied a visa to some of our scientists. While this news hit the headlines in major newspapers across the globe, we must recall that it did so because of the high profile of the people involved; it largely ignored academics who are in their early or mid-careers and who routinely get treated roughly by the US Consulates in India, and particularly in Chennai.
Something else also went unnoticed at that time: India's own attitude towards academics and independent scholars who wish to visit India. From some of the visitors who come to attend our conferences, we routinely hear horror stories about the way their visa applications are handled. Some repeat visitors -- who are savvy about how the Indian embassies operate -- have even gone to the extent of simply applying for tourist visas (which are far easier to get) even when their visit is for a conference!
In a series of news stories (and more), the Indian Express has brought to our attention the plight of American scholars, including those who have won the prestigious Fulbright Fellowships. Some of their visa applications have been pending for as long as 21 months -- yes, you read it right. It is twenty one months!
Ashis Nandy's ToI op-ed (from two years ago) describes the oppressive environment imposed on academic institutions (and visiting scholars) by during Indira Gandhi's regime:
The new dispensation, among other things, ensured the dominance of a small clique of historians in Indian academe. In science, an even smaller clique already ruled the roost. A coterie of power-hungry, strategically placed educational administrators, who knew nothing about education but everything about academic politics — the names of G Parthasarathy, Raja Ramanna and M G K Menon immediately come to one’s mind — completed the picture. New rules and a stricter visa regime were introduced to control scholars and monitor them. Non-Indian scholars of India were discouraged unless they belonged to ‘friendly countries’ as defined by the foreign service bureaucracy — East Europe and the Soviet Union.
Simultaneously, old rules and regulations were rediscovered to keep dissenting scholars under control. Professor Arun Bose, no longer an ardent Leninist but still a creative Marxist thinker, was picked up for questioning while teaching a class at Delhi because he had published a book through Penguin, London. All commercial contracts with foreigners required previous clearance; books were no exception. Technically, no university could invite a foreign scholar to give a lecture even while he was visiting India as a tourist. It too required prior clearance, and of course, as everybody knows, foreign participants of all seminars had to be cleared. I had to once cancel a biannual conference of the World Future Studies Federation because there was tremendous pressure from the government to pack it with sycophantic scientists and academics.
You don't need a Ph.D. in international relations to realize that a country (and especially a poor one like ours) needs all the good will -- and the soft power that comes with it -- it can generate. In fact, we must be extra nice to academics and other thought leaders. Our own national self-interest demands good behaviour on this external front because, in this age of high career mobility, many of the academics we ill-treat today may become high government officials tomorrow. Institutional memories may be short; individuals' memories need not be.
Our government's visa shenanigans can only ruin whatever little good will we have managed to acquire. They must stop. If it means changing the rules and our law books, we must demand that change too.