Sacrificed at the altar of politics?
‘We don’t want a <g data-gr-id="73">karykarta</g> chairman! We are striking for a better day!’ This graffiti adorns the walls of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune - one of India’s premier film schools - as the students’ strike enters its 6th day. The students are protesting against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairperson of FTII. Chauhan’s sole claim to fame is that he played Yudhishthir in the famous television serial, Mahabharata. And now he is occupying a position that has been held by some of the legends of Indian theatre and cinema like Girish Karnad, Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, not to mention that Ritwik Ghatak taught at the FTII. Apart from the blatantly partisan nature of the appointment – Chauhan being a BJP card carrying member – the students are questioning his credentials to lead an institution such as the FTII. They have declared him as not even qualifying, “as a footnote or passing reference in the history of Indian cinema and television”.
The strike has brought FTII to a stand-still for the past week and has foregrounded issues of institutional autonomy, political interference and falling standards in our academic institutions.
It would be naive to believe or expect academic institutions to be completely immune from the politics of the day. Parties in power are likely to appoint people closer to their ideological moorings to academic institutions or curriculum-framing bodies. Just as the rest of society, these institutions are also sites of ideological contestation. And in this contestation, those who yield power use it to gain an upper-hand in the ideological discourse. This is not to justify the erosion of institutional autonomy, but to understand that a ‘perfect’ situation of a totally independent institution is never going to exist. So is political interference in academic institutions desirable? No. But is it likely to happen? Yes, as no institution exists in a political vacuum.
What is worrying about these of confrontations between the government and academic institutions that have taken place in Delhi University, IIT-Delhi, IIT-Bombay and IIT-Madras is not merely the erosion of autonomy, but also of degradation of culture and standards associated with these institutions. In a recent television interview, a renowned nuclear scientist and Director of IIT-Bombay’s Board of Directors said that the reason for his resignation was the selection process of IIT directors. In a damning statement, he said that the process of selection was extremely casual and like “…running a lottery”. IITs are undoubtedly India’s premier engineering institutions. It is extremely worrying to know that their directors are being appointed in a thoughtless manner.
Directors for three IITs were chosen in a process which took just six to seven hours. The leadership of any institution shapes its culture, activities and performance. An IIT is no different. If political interference is resulting in poor leadership, it doesn’t augur well for institutions that are regarded as symbols of academic excellence in our country.
The ban on the Ambedkar-Periyar Society in IIT-Madras represents the assault on another cornerstone of academic institutions – the culture of debate and dissent, the free-flowing exchange of ideas outside the classroom space. Universities have been spaces where young minds are exposed to philosophies and ideologies; where ideas have been debated much before they acquired centre-stage in society and politics. This has not only enriched the academic output of those institutions, but also made universities a nucleus of political activity. Political movements the world over have often started from universities. Many politicians in present day India, including many (ironically!) from the ruling party, have cut their teeth in student politics. So when a student society is banned for supposedly criticising the Prime Minister, it is not merely a quelling of dissent, but the clamp-down on a culture that has been the foundation of new directions in academics and politics.
It is important to remember that the lack of respect for institutional autonomy seems to cut across party lines. The previous UPA government also stands guilty of similar charges in its tenure. What is worrying under the current regime is the frequency and pace at which such intrusions are taking place, and the possible impact they are likely to have on the academic standards of our premier institutions. Be it the knee-jerk replacement of German by Sanskrit in the middle of the academic session, the sudden removal of the FYUP, the resignation of the IIT-Delhi Director and IIT-Bombay Chairman, the ban on the Ambedkar Periyar Society or the current choice of the FTII director – each of these represent a movement away from creating a world-class education system.
Falling academic standards affect all of us, as a society, and it is for this reason that we collectively owe a debt of gratitude to the FTII students. Their intense resistance to the mediocrity being imposed on them has brought the issue of academic standards to centre-stage. It is for this end that autonomy for educational institutions is important; not merely as an end in itself, but as a mechanism to ensure that academic standards are not sacrificed at the altar of politics.
(<g data-gr-id="49">Atishi</g> Marlena is a social activist and policy researcher, who is a member of the Aam Aadmi Party. Views expressed are personal)