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An academic conference for scholars on Asia scheduled to be held in India next month has turned into a vocal and growing imbroglio over academic freedom after the Indian government banned the attendance of Pakistanis and people of Pakistani descent.

The turn of events has become a public relations disaster for the U.S.-based Association for Asian Studies, which began planning the conference in 2014 but apparently made no contingency plans for geopolitical hurdles such as the long-standing tensions between India and Pakistan.

As a result, some 600 scholars from major colleges and universities in the United States, Asia and elsewhere across the globe have signed a letter to AAS-in-Asia organizers and its Board of Directors, protesting the organization’s “failures and negligence” on a number of points outlined in the letter. Another letter, anonymous and unsigned, titled “Boycott of AAS Meeting in Delhi: FAQs,” also began circulating Tuesday, making a detailed case for withdrawing from the conference scheduled for July 5-8 in New Delhi.

Some 829 delegates from 429 institutions in 44 countries were expected to attend, according to the association, which claims 7,000 members worldwide and says it’s “the largest society of its kind.” It’s now unclear if the number of registered attendees has changed or will change, given the calls for a boycott.

“We, the following signatories and scholars of Asia, are deeply disappointed that AAS-in-Asia failed to express a collective ethical and political commitment to academic freedom in Asia by canceling this conference,” the letter signed by hundreds of academics states. “We urge the committee and Board of Directors to re-evaluate 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.

“As scholars invested in challenging and not just studying the dominant configurations of Asia, we expect AAS to be accountable to its own mission and its membership.”

James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University and a past president of AAS, was the first signer of the letter. Scott, whose research subjects include Southeast Asia, is the scheduled keynote speaker for the conference. He could not be reached for comment but said last week that he still plans to attend.

“I think it’s really, really unfortunate that we as scholars are getting caught in the middle of this cross fire,” said Farhat Haq, president of the American Institute of Pakistani Studies and chair of the political science department at Monmouth College. “I think it’s extremely wrong of any government to issue a blanket ban like this.”

Haq said she was speaking for herself and not for the institute. She wasn’t planning on going to the conference but said the ban essentially denied her the choice if she had wanted to attend. 

“When the whole idea of creating the AAS-in-Asia conference was to create more regional and local networks for scholarship, it sort of goes against the very intent of this sort of enterprise,” she said. “I’m just really sad and upset about the fact that there are scholars trying to so hard to create bridges between different sides and different studies. Our whole enterprise as scholars is to try to create these bridges, but obviously if you’re banning a whole group of people, we have to stand up to that. We cannot be neutral.”

Teresa Chi-Ching Sun, an AAS member and expert in Chinese cultural history and higher education, agreed.

“I feel strongly that this is against academic freedom,” she said. “People from any country should be allowed to come to a conference that is for scholars. Academic freedom should be above political issues, and AAS should be above international conflicts.”

Sun, a semiretired professor who taught at California State University, Whittier College and the University of California, Irvine, now teaches at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at California State University Long Beach. She was not planning on attending the conference.

She said the association should have taken a stand on the ban earlier or at least had a plan in place for how to handle it.

“In the future, if the conference is going to be held in China, will scholars from Taiwan be able to attend if they are representing papers on controversial topics that the host country may not like? What about Iran? They may not want people from the U.S. to attend. Today India rejects Pakistanis; tomorrow another country will reject someone else. This can keep happening. I don’t know if AAS has thought about this. I really think the organization has opened itself up to a big problem. The board should give serious consideration to international policies and develop a policy.”

AAS representatives, including the executive director, Michael Paschal, and the conference manager, did not return calls or emails seeking comment. A person who answered the organization’s phone said Paschal would not be commenting beyond a written statement posted on its website last week.

However, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based organization issued a longer and more detailed statement this week further explaining itself after the first statement was widely panned for being tepid and “anodyne,” among other criticisms, and the boycott letter began circulating.

AAS’s second statement was far from a mea culpa.

“We acknowledge and understand those who question how AAS has handled the situation, and we respect their views as to how we should deal with it now,” the statement, signed by officers of the association, said in part. “For those aware of the history between India and Pakistan, the fact that the MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] has denied visas to Pakistani scholars is, however reprehensible, not unexpected, given the tensions, border skirmishes and three full wars between the two countries over the past 70 years. Knowing that there was even a possibility that the Indian government would deny visas, should AAS never have agreed to work with an Indian university to hold AAS-in-Asia in India? Further, knowing that there are political complications involved in virtually every country in Asia, should the AAS-in-Asia experiment be terminated?”

The statement, which also addressed the financial costs of canceling a conference for which reservations were made a year in advance, posed a broader question.

“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 officers said they agreed “with those among our members who urge us to oppose restrictions on scholarly exchange across borders and to challenge such restrictions wherever possible. At the same time, we recognize the complex political climates in which many of our colleagues function. We believe that fostering intellectual exchange is often the best means of support, even though in many instances this will involve compromises rather than stances of absolute moral purity.”

It’s not clear if the second statement helped or did more harm, but as the boycott letter continued to circulate, the conference’s organizing committee reached out to AAS members by email to do more damage control and encourage people who registered for the conference to attend.

“We are looking forward to welcoming you in Delhi,” said the lengthy email, which also reminded would-be attendees that the conference “is the largest of its kind in India and promises to be a memorable platform for scholars from around the world to exchange ideas.”

The email stated, “We are writing to a) give you the full facts of the matter and b) assure you that AAS & Ashoka remain fully committed to universal participation and to free scholarly exchange across all national boundaries.”

The email explained that its conference co-sponsor, Ashoka University, a self-described leading liberal arts institution in India, was pursuing several channels to have the ban on Pakistanis reversed even as the university was in discussions with AAS leadership about the ban.

Because of time constraints, “we decided to resolve the issue for the time being by giving Pakistani scholars the opportunity to participate via Skype. But we continued, and are still continuing, to make efforts to secure visas for our Pakistani colleagues.”

The email went into deep detail, and included a timeline of events, to explain what happened.

“Unfortunately, all over the world scholarly exchange is held hostage to geopolitics,” the email states. “India is not unique in this respect. We would also like to make it clear that AAS and Ashoka do not in any way endorse the denial of visas to scholars. But we would like our participants to understand that granting visas is not within our power … we are still working to have this decision reversed even at the last minute. We regret a state of affairs where scholars from particular countries find it difficult to secure visas. But correcting this state of affairs will require us to all collectively work towards a world where visas do not restrict movement of scholars, in any part of the world. It is even more important therefore that we continue to meet as scholars even as we try and overcome these barriers that so many governments across the world still put in the path of scholarly exchange. We look forward to seeing you.”

The three-page boycott letter takes issue with much of AAS’s stance.

“Rather than take a strong stand against this blatantly exclusionary, anti-intellectual government position, the organizers have confirmed the right of governments to use visa regimes to deny the principle of academic freedom,” it states. “They go on to claim that there are pragmatic reasons why they cannot cancel or scale back this conference, and that they had, in March 2018, informed the academics affected by the government’s decision. This action, and the fact that they are attempting to use Skype to allow some academics to participate from a distance, in no way exculpates them from what was clearly a decision to keep these inconvenient facts from the other participants in the conference, and from the public at large.

"As concerned academics, members and non-members of the AAS, we find this situation reprehensible and unacceptable. Given the intransigence of the Indian government, the only responsible path open for the AAS would have been to refuse to host this conference in India; it is all the more objectionable that the organizers were willing to go ahead when scholars from the very region the association is meant to study cannot attend. There is much more at stake than the inconvenience of cancelled bookings and refunded conference fees; to go along with the partisan and punitive actions of governments who wish to blunt critical thought and scholarly exchange is to be complicit with policies that a great many of us have contested in our research and writing. There are many moments in which we are called upon to stand up for our ideas; this is a particularly important moment to do just that.”

Haq, of the American Institute of Pakistani Studies, said the organization has not yet taken a position on the boycott and will be meeting soon to decide on a public statement. The institute did withdraw as a sponsor of the conference last week, however.

“What is frustrating is that we are left with these kinds of no good choices,” she said. “If we boycott, it only hurts the scholars and the enterprise of building bridges. But on the other hand, what else can we do? It is really, really frustrating to be put in this no-win situation.”

She said she empathized with AAS because it takes years to organize such conferences.

“And while I can understand calls for the boycott -- and morally that’s where I stand -- it’s also going to take us further away from a greater understanding of each other.”

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