Dragged down by ideology

While trying to balance a biased discourse might be a valid motive, the government is guilty of ignoring competence altogether in its selection of people for top roles in cultural institutions

Updated - June 22, 2015 03:17 pm IST

Published - June 22, 2015 12:45 am IST

WITHIN THE FRAME: Some nominated members in FTII have said that their vision is to ensure that students graduate with “nationalistic feelings” along with film-making skills. Seen in the picture is the student wing of Aam Aadmi Party protesting in support of FTII students in Pune.

WITHIN THE FRAME: Some nominated members in FTII have said that their vision is to ensure that students graduate with “nationalistic feelings” along with film-making skills. Seen in the picture is the student wing of Aam Aadmi Party protesting in support of FTII students in Pune.

“I have never heard of Gajendra Chauhan. Who is he?” asks the president of the students’ association of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Harishankar Nachimuthu, who is spearheading a protest against the appointment of Mr. Chauhan as FTII chairman.

Mr. Nachimuthu would have got his answer if he had taken time out to watch the tele-epic Mahabharat, the national obsession of the 1980s, on YouTube. In foisting Mr. Chauhan on the institute, an actor whose only claim to fame was playing Yudhisthira, the keeper of dharma, in the fratricidal mother of all battles, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry reminded the striking students that it reserves the right to pick people of its choice. It also reminded the students that frequent disruptions deviate from the overall objective of strengthening the quality of governance and training.

Wait a minute. Does that mean that it is not the appointment of some unsuitable persons that is likely to dent the image of the institute but only the fact of students striking? Even if we overlook that for the moment, could the Ministry have done better if it had chosen someone else — someone, perhaps, with stature and standing in the film industry, even if that choice came from the rank and file of the Bharatiya Janata Party? Did the Ministry not have a choice? Does it have a vision for the institute?

Government decisions are so opaque that answers are not easily forthcoming. But to answer the questions is to look at the series of appointments made to important cultural institutes by the National Democratic Alliance government in recent times, namely, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) — institutes that have shaped our historical and cultural discourse. Incidentally, the spate of new appointments also includes the removal of the able and one of the most successful administrators of the National Museum in New Delhi.

Hamstrung To look at the appointments is to also understand how a party with an ideologically well-defined position exercises its choice in selecting people for eminent jobs. Unlike the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which was largely served well by its fairly pluralistic perspective and which was able, therefore, to represent a spectrum of views, mostly acceptable to a cross-section of society, the current dispensation is constrained by its ideology in reaching out only to those who share a similar position.

Therefore, for instance, it is hardly surprising that some of the nominated members under the Persons of Eminence category in FTII have expressed that their vision for the institute is to ensure that students graduate with “nationalistic feelings” along with film-making skills.

How does one define “nationalist feelings”? Professor Surinder S. Jodhka of Jawaharlal Nehru University asks whether, for example, it is any less national to talk of the rich-poor divide in India. “How are those who talk of the rich-poor divide any less patriotic, or any less nationalist,” he asks. And if a student from FTII decides to focus his or her skills on highlighting the dichotomies in society, will he become suspect in the eyes of these nominated members who are intent on distilling their views on nationalism?

This brings us to the next question. In appointing those who are sympathetic to its ideological position, does the BJP seek to mould these centres to conform to that ideology, or to create an ideology-premised cultural nationalism that, in turn, is based on a one language, one culture concept?

Says Arvind Rajagopal, Professor of Media Studies at NYU: “We should note that there was a strong tendency even on the part of the Left for conformism and groupthink, so it is not as if the Left by itself was adequate to the task of creating critical debate sufficient for raising national political consciousness.” There is another interesting anecdote that Prof. Rajagopal shares about how film-maker Roberto Rossellini once said that Indira Gandhi had explained to him why someone like B.V. Keskar had got the Information and Broadcasting Ministry portfolio between 1952 and 1962. Keskar was known for his ideas that Muslim musical influence had had a harmful effect on Indian classical music and that AIR should purge that influence and dedicate itself to promoting 'Hindu' music. In other words, a highly sanitised version of music was aired on AIR. Mrs. Gandhi reportedly said that Keskar got the job because there was a shortage of ministerial talent in her father Jawaharlal Nehru's time.

Lack of choice A lot has been said and written about the appointment of Y.S. Rao as the chief of the ICHR by the Human Resources Development Ministry. His appointment is shrouded in mystery and besides the most obvious connection with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, it is not known whether the HRD Ministry zeroed in on him after considering other names.

Did the Ministry have a choice or was it limited, as Mrs. Gandhi said, by a shortfall on the supply side? Mr. Rao’s well-publicised comments about Marxist historians holding history hostage do ring true, but would ring truer if there was an equally compelling, competent and authoritative vision of rigorous historical research to share.

Manjari Katju, who teaches political science in Hyderabad University, says: “The RSS would like to see saffron goals, which it sees as ‘true Indianisation’ and ‘nationalism,’ to be implemented. And what better way to do it than by having cultural and academic institutions headed by people who support or sympathise with Hindutva or the RSS.” But she also adds that at this moment, personal loyalty looks to gain an upper hand over Hindutva.

In other words, it would appear that the government is prepared to appoint pliant persons who will do as the government asks them to regardless of their qualification or suitability for the job. So, it is not only important to have ideological empathy but also be amenable to the ruling government. This narrows the talent pool further.

Which is what prompts Prof. Katju to say, “One motive seems to be greater control of the Central government over these institutions. Complete individual loyalty and allegiance to the Modi government seems to be the criteria for these appointments rather than expertise and academic rigour in the area, whether it is history, cinema or art.” 

And perhaps that is why it was easy to zero in on a Pahlaj Nihalani as the CBFC chairman. His claim to fame? Some forgettable films and an election campaign video on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Going by the discontent against him, expressed by CBFC members, and going from his occasional diktats, it is as yet unclear what he will do down the line. What we do know is that he will not go against the government.

If there is a larger design in appointing a man who has played Yudhisthira in TV serials, and a historian who believes in the historicity of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the coming years will reveal all.


0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.