When the BJP government came into power last year, much of the nation heaved a sigh of relief. There were hopes that the previous government's inertia, scams and an ill-defined leadership would be replaced by action and a well-defined agenda. One year on, we are witnessing the more sinister aspects of that agenda, highlighted currently in the government's reconstitution of Pune's prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). The fact that this makeover is a saffron one is blindingly obvious and the government's steps brazen and dangerous.
On 9 June, the I&B Ministry reconstituted the FTII society. Nominated for the post of FTII society president and chairman of the governing council was Gajendra Chauhan, best known for playing Yudhisthira on the popular TV series Mahabharata (since then appearing in highly unnotable television serials apart from starring in a raunchy B-grade sinker from 1989 called Khuli Khidki). This is not all. Narendra Pathak, Anagha Ghaisas and Rahul Solapurkar were among the appointments made under the 'Persons of Eminence' category.
"The NDA seems to believe that the best way to curb an institution's autonomy is to put its own people there and neutralise it from within."
Not only has Gajendra Singh been a member of the BJP since 2004, the three new "Persons of Eminence" have also had a long association with the party and its affiliates.
Narendra Pathak, a former ABVP president, was at the helm of the BJP's student wing in August 2013, when ABVP activists thrashed FTII pupils at a cultural event. Anagha Ghaisas is known for making pro-RSS and pro-Ram Mandir documentaries, apart from Shri Narendra Modi -- Gatha Asamanya Netrutva (Tale of Extraordinary Leadership). Her credibility was once tainted when in the course of a civil suit, a court said she did not seem to know the difference between a documentary and fiction. Rahul Solapurkar was offered (and later denied) a BJP ticket last year.
The ideological reason for the appointment of all four was shockingly obvious, and immediately the students of FTII and youth in other parts of India erupted in a continuing protest. Their outrage is understandable. The BJP's drive to further its ideological agenda is playing out like a predictable movie: the weeding out of unfavourable thought, the intent to saffronise and a sense of righteousness based solely on power. The institute is being targeted for being a liberal bastion. The Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in IIT-Madras recently had a similar experience.
The NDA seems to believe that the best way to curb an institution's autonomy is to put its own people there and neutralise it from within. It cares little about ruining the fabric of an important, enduring centre of learning. Nearly all the controversial appointments have an RSS or BJP affiliation and a self-admitted need to uphold 'nationalism'. And a very frightening definition of nationalism it will turn out to be. Worst of all, it is realising its toxic nature at an institute where great minds have flourished.
The FTII was set up in 1961 and in the decades since the work of its students has been showcased at nearly every important platform, including the film festivals at Cannes, Berlin and Venice. The institute is alive with a great work ethic and pupils who push themselves, watch everything they can get their hands on and everyday try to hone their craft. For a place which has churned out actors like Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah, and has been administered by the likes of Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, to have Gajendra Singh in charge is akin to Yo Yo Honey Singh being nominated as chief of Berklee College of Music. The Centre's actions would be funny if they were not so disconcerting. They represent an attempt at a systematic spread of influence at the expense of a generation.
"Weeks of protest have made a dent on the will of the government no bigger than the dent made by Gajendra Chauhan on the world of art."
On 3 July, I along with around 150 others was detained at Shastri Bhawan by the Delhi police and CRPF personnel for protesting against the Centre's move. We were taken to Parliament Street Police Station and confined there for four hours. The protest, at the time when the police swooped in, was 20 minutes old. There wasn't a hint of civilian violence, either real or perceived. Nor were the protesters' numbers strong enough to be considered threatening by any parameter. There is an official paranoia brewing, stabbing at the very culture of dissent we celebrate as part of our democratic identity. Our failed attempt at a peaceful protest indicated that. While we sat in the courtyard of the police station, news reached us that I&B (and Finance) Minister Arun Jaitley, in a meeting on the same day, had told representatives of FTII that there would be no going back on the appointments. Following this, the FTII Students' Association stated in a press release that the minister "indicated that if students persisted in their demand for reconstitution of the (FTII) society, they might have to face the bleak prospect of shutdown and eventual privatization."
As it stands, weeks of protest have made a dent on the will of the government no bigger than the dent made by Gajendra Chauhan on the world of art. However, this is no reason to relent, but rather to oppose high-handedness with even more vigour. Veteran actress Pallavi Joshi has already walked out of the FTII society over the matter. Nobody, in high offices or out, is blinder for the official rhetoric.
If the NDA government fails to retain power after the next general elections, this attempted hostile takeover of a higher education institute may then, in review, be recognised as a small but significant factor in the saffron machinery's collapse.