Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Narendra Modi’s worrying push into India’s cultural institutions

Government intrusion into academia appears aimed at changing the nation’s ideological mindset

July 23, 2015 2:00AM ET

For more than a month, students at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) have been on strike. They are protesting the appointment of an actor, Gajendra Chauhan, whom they see as grossly unqualified, as the chairman of the institution. What might appear to be an issue affecting only the school’s students has become the subject of a raging national debate, in part because of the influence that cinema wields on the Indian psyche. But more important, it demonstrates a larger pattern of troubling intrusion into educational and cultural affairs by the government formed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The FTII is one of numerous institutions of higher learning funded by the government. Other premier institutes cover technology, management, medicine, architecture and statistics, among others. In his book “The World Is Flat,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) “were one of the best bargains America ever had,” since 1 in 4 IIT grads settle in the United States. FTII graduates pervade the Hindi film industry and are among its best technicians. The school has a rather misleading reputation as an artsy space in which learning is second to pretentious politics. FTII graduates have gone on to direct critically acclaimed and commercially successful Indian movies. One of Bollywood’s most successful filmmakers in recent years, Rajkumar Hirani, whose latest movie, the satirical “PK,” is India’s highest-grossing hit of all time, is a graduate. Filmmakers who have lectured there include Academy Award recipients Satyajit Ray (director of the “Apu” trilogy) and David Lean (director of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), and among its alumni are some of India’s finest actors — Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. 

In this context, Chauhan, the government’s pick for chairman, appears extremely ill suited. The Indian media haven’t tired of pillorying his body of work, which includes films such as “Jungle Love,” “Vasna” (“Desire”), “Jungle Ka Beta” (“The Son of the Jungle”) and various other B-grade — semipornographic or forgettable — movies. His main qualification appears to be his affiliation with the party in power; he was the BJP national convener for culture, responsible for promoting “the party’s ideology through cultural activities,” as he put it in an interview with The Indian Express.

Equally worrisome is the selection of other FTII officials. (The FTII’s governing council is elected from the ranks of its society members and, according to its website, “is responsible for making all major policy decisions of the institute.”) One society member, Shailesh Gupta, is an FTII graduate who made an over-the-top propaganda film in support of Modi before his election. Another society member, Anagha Ghaisas, apparently doesn’t know the difference between fiction and documentary, according to a 2014 court order regarding a disputed payment.

India’s academic freedom appears to be hanging in the balance. How far will the people let their government go?

What is most unnerving is that the FTII affair is part of a larger pattern of governmental intrusion in areas that ought to be autonomous. In the Aug. 13 issue of The New York Review of Books, the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen describes how the government pressured him to step down from his position as chancellor of the newly formed Nalanda University — most likely because of his criticism of Modi before the elections.

Sen lists the ways in which the government has interfered in the management of other academic institutions — the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, IIT Delhi, IIT Bombay and the National Book Trust. It has proposed a bill that would give it direct control of the 13 Indian Institutes of Management. The caliber of two recent appointments is also alarmingly questionable: Lokesh Chandra, the newly selected head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, which oversees India’s cultural relations with other countries, has said Modi is an incarnation of God, and Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, the new head of the Indian Council of Historical Research, has praised the caste system.

Moreover, the FTII appointment is not the only way in which the government has tried to influence the future of filmmaking. Pahlaj Nihalani, a director and the new chairman of the Censor Board, which assigns certifications to movies and greenlights their release, was allegedly rewarded with this position because of “Har Har Modi,” a music video he created for the Modi campaign that went viral and was adapted into a popular campaign slogan. Under Nihalani’s leadership, the board quickly banned 28 words from Indian cinema, including, bafflingly, “Bombay” (the city is now known as Mumbai), as well as double entendres of all kinds. It gives pause to many Indian artists and thinkers to see how the government is pushing its acolytes into leadership positions everywhere. The larger agenda, it seems, is a change in the ideological mindset of the nation. In retrospect, it seems prescient that President Barack Obama, who visited India earlier this year, said that India will succeed as long as it doesn’t “splinter along religious lines.” Many Indian commentators at the time considered the comment preachy, but with ideologues now in charge of these important institutions, the threat of such splintering is growing.

It is unclear whether the protesting FTII students will be able to continue their battle. They face the threat of expulsion, and government representatives have made it clear that there is little room for negotiation. But academic freedom appears to be hanging in the balance. How far will Indians let their government go?

Ananya Bhattacharyya is a Washington-based writer whose work has also appeared in The GuardianThe New York TimesThe Washingtonian, Reuters, Vice and The Baltimore Sun.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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