Wednesday, February 21, 2007

fullbright scholars to india upset over lengthy clearance delays and denials

in The Chronicle of Higher Education
New Delhi

The Indian government has delayed approving the projects of dozens of Fulbright scholars for months and has rejected some projects without explanation -- a move observers believe is an attempt to force the scholars to change their research topics.

The rejections and months-long delays have put a number of the scholars into professional and personal limbo, and have upset officials at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and the United States Education Foundation in India, which runs the Fulbright program there.

"Through these delays and censorship efforts, the government of India is harming those Americans who have invested their careers and aspirations in the U.S.-India relationship," said Larry Schwartz, public-affairs officer at the embassy. "These are people who would have become India's most vigorous advocates in the U.S."

Of the 94 Americans awarded Fulbright scholarships to India for the 2006-7 academic year, only 17 received their clearances within six months of applying, according to Jane E. Schukoske, executive director of the educational foundation in India. Most of the rest experienced delays of five to 10 months.

As of mid-February, 10 academics were still waiting for their clearances, including seven whose initial applications were still pending and three who changed their research topics after being rejected. Some scholars who were rejected reapplied after changing their subjects while others decided not to reapply.

The research subjects rejected by the Indian government, without explanation, include studies of language ideologies in the schools of Mumbai, India's financial capital (formerly known as Bombay), to which millions of Indians from others states migrate; of democratization in Kerala, a southern Indian state where India's communist parties have been influential; and of Muslim women's perceptions of the role of women in society.

India's Ministry of Human Resource Development coordinates the proposal reviews, also called the visa-authorization process. That clearance precedes application for the visa itself. Until recently, said Ms. Schukoske, the ministry's Web site said that projects were usually approved within three months. Repeated calls to the ministry requesting comment were not returned.

Many scholars applied for their clearances in March 2006, expecting to begin their research in India by the end of August, but did not receive approval in time. An orientation program in New Delhi, typically scheduled for late August or early September, was canceled because of the delays. The clearance delays began with the previous year's awardees, only 54 percent of whom received clearances within six months.

"These delays have caused serious hardships for many of our scholars," said Ms. Schukoske, noting that the review process is at odds with the rest of the Fulbright experience in India. "Once scholars are cleared and begin their Fulbright grants, they enjoy warm welcome and energetically pursue their projects with support from their Indian colleagues."

A number of scholars who spoke to The Chronicle were both angered and perplexed by their treatment. Some of those still awaiting clearances had decided to come to India on tourist visas and sit out the waiting period here. Having left their full-time jobs in the United States and, in some cases, having no other means of support, they noted that, at least, living in India is cheaper.

"Frankly, my research is in jeopardy, and I've spent most of my savings, and I don't think I can afford to stay much longer," said Forrest Fleischman, who arrived in India in September on a tourist visa. In mid-February, he said, he was told that the Ministry of Home Affairs, one of several government agencies that screens the proposals, had placed "adverse comments" in his file.

"While there is no final word, it seems highly probable that my application is about to be rejected," Mr. Fleischman said. He had planned to focus his research on political empowerment and biodiversity protection in Kerala's agricultural ecosystem. The home ministry deals with matters of domestic security, and Mr. Fleischman says his project has no negative implications on domestic-security concerns.

"I've spent the last nine months planning my life around this project," he said. "I have made it the cornerstone of my graduate-school application -- and hoped to make it a core of my doctoral work."

Last September the Board of Directors of the educational foundation in India sent a statement of concern to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of External Affairs, urging them to expedite the review process, and noting that many of the scholars "relinquished their normal duties or studies, and, in some cases, their spouses and children have left jobs and school."

Anupama Bhatnagar, a member of the foundation who is deputy secretary at the human-resource ministry, did not sign this statement. Ms. Bhatnagar did not return repeated calls made to her office by The Chronicle.

Aseem Sharma, a foundation board member who is president of Corning SA, India, said in a faxed message that he and others on the board had been in regular touch with the ministries since sending the letter. "I am not aware of any response from the ministries to the board," he wrote.

In December, 33 Fulbright scholars sent a petition U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, urging her to get involved in the matter.

"When we received our acceptance letters, we understood our selection to be a great honor and a prestigious career boost; for many of us, it has instead become a financially and emotionally debilitating obstacle," the petition says. The signers add that they have received no funding or accurate information that would help them plan for the future, and that many of them are without incomes and health insurance.

Secretary Rice did not respond to the letter, but Thomas A. Farrell, the State Department's deputy assistant secretary for academic programs, said the United States had raised the problem with the Indian authorities "at an extremely high level."

In October Mr. Farrell met with the Indian chargé d'affaires -- the second in command at the Indian embassy in Washington -- to discuss the issue. Since then, he said, "we've gotten a substantial resolution of the problem." He added: "The backlog is virtually cleared."

Mr. Farrell characterized the problem as an "ongoing issue that has been around for a number of years." He said it had grown more acute as the number of American scholars seeking visas to India has grown. The problem does not represent any anti-American hostility on the part of Indian officials, he said. Instead, it is strictly "an issue of bureaucracy."

That is little consolation for those who have suffered through lengthy delays or failed to get their clearances. Tariq Tapa, whose documentary film project, "The Imaginary Princess: A Muslim Girl's Story," was rejected, decided not to change his subject and re-apply.

"Given the choice between either churning out a half-baked proposal just for the sake of getting back on the one-year merry-go-round with still no guarantee of success, or just walking away clean, I chose to walk," said Mr. Tapa.

"I spent years researching it and months preparing the proposal and building the contacts and context to give it integrity. Starting over from scratch and handing something in during the space of a few weeks was more than absurd; it was offensive, as if I were writing a thank-you note and not a graduate dissertation due in the time I promised my department."

Instead, Mr. Tapa, who said he began to suspect months ago that his project would be rejected, privately raised money to shoot his film. He came to India on a tourist visa last October, has begun shooting his documentary, and expects to finish on time, this April, as planned.
"But I am now required to begin repayment on student loans because I no longer qualify for an academic deferral," he said. "So, to be quite honest, becoming a Fulbrighter has been one of the most financially and emotionally regretful experiences of my life."

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