Students from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) on Wednesday called off their hunger strike and said they would go back to their classes. However, the agitating students were clear that they would not engage in any more talks with government officials. According to a news report, the students said that their agitation, which started in June, had reached the public and hoped that luminaries from the film fraternity would take their cause forward. For the uninitiated, the students have been protesting against the appointment of Bharatiya Janata Party worker Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairperson, saying they doubt his credentials and are suspicious of his involvement with the ruling party at the Centre. In addition to Chauhan’s appointment, the students have also raised doubts about the appointment of four Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) propagandists to the FTII panel. The strike has brought into focus concerns that the government has made high-level appointments to major institutes to push its ideology. Many commentators on this issue have argued that since Gajendra Chauhan is a BJP supporter he is automatically disqualified from heading an institution like the FTII, as this smells of partisanship of the highest order. This argument does not have much merit considering that supporting a political party is not a deterrent to selection in any way. What is problematic however is the fact that Chauhan’s resume has nothing remarkable on it to merit him leading an institution. One only needs to visit information available in the public domain to gauge Chauhan’s lack of merit. The entire fiasco has exposed the government’s remarkable ineptitude in head hunting competent talent to take over the reins of important offices.
Is it any wonder that when an absolute non-personality is hoisted over the head of eminent rivals, it invites vociferous protests? It would be naive to believe or expect academic institutions to be completely immune from the politics of the times. Parties in power are likely to appoint people closer to their ideological moorings to academic institutions. Just as the rest of society, these institutions are also sites of ideological contestation. Although political interference in academic institutions is not desirable, it is likely to happen, since no institution exists in a political vacuum. The appointment of an intellectual pygmy like Chauhan, however, crosses a rather fundamental line, where academic standards are sacrificed at the altar of politics. Surely, the Centre could have picked more able candidates from their ideological stable. Suffice to say, falling academic standards affect all of us, as a society. The intense resistance to the mediocrity being imposed on the students of FTII has brought the issue of academic standards to centre-stage. Instead of addressing these concerns, however, Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore focused on “complex” issues, including the backlog of academic sessions. The lack of an honest discussion on the Government of India’s part of key appointments to the film institute has been unfortunate.
Disagreement between students and authorities may not be the ideal state of affairs, but it is a very important state in the evolution of learning. Disagreement brings in new critical thought as a challenge to old ones and keeps the momentum of search going. Suffice to say, there are many problems with the current setup at FTII, from rampant overcrowding in the hostels to a directionless syllabus, among others. Quick fixes will not work. However, if the Government of India cannot even appoint decent candidates to bring about these important changes, what can it expect, besides protesting students. For the sake of the students, however, who have to deal with the pressures of conforming to a directionless syllabus, one does hope that luminaries from the film fraternity and other civil society members carry on the fight.