This Script Will Settle the Storyline for Cultural Freedoms in India

The students of FTII know they are fighting for more than just the independence of their institution

Poster by Orijit Sen

Poster by Orijit Sen

The strike by the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) has completed two months and is showing no signs of ending any time soon. Last week, the students moved to Delhi to give their agitation a higher profile. They held a panel discussion the other day, which was attended by writers and artists. But coverage of the strike has slowed down – the news cycle moves on to other, more current and more exciting stories. The students are now back in Pune, mulling over their next step.

The messages of solidarity from the film industry too have dried up. There was an initial burst of support from many stalwarts, but now everyone has got on with other things. This is not to say that they don’t identify with the cause, what more can they do? The government, meanwhile, has made it clear it will not go back on the appointments of Gajendra Singh as chairman and a few others on the FTII society. The government does not want to be seen bending to demands, but most importantly, it may want these and no other names for those offices. Consider the possibility that while many others may be appalled, the government does think that Gajendra Singh is the best possible candidate for the job.

More than FTII’s fate at stake

The students at FTII, who have been striking against these appointments, pointing not just to the rank mediocrity of the worthies but also to the brazen attempt to saffronise the FTII – and other institutions – have understood this. They have realised that behind the government’s unbending resolve not to give in is a determination that this premier institution will be guided by someone who will take direct orders not just from his ministry but also from the shadowy czars who are now spreading their tentacles to take control of educational and cultural bodies. It is not easy to remain on strike for a long time; that these students have done so, putting their careers on line, is a clear indication that they know they are fighting for something far more important than just the FTII’s independence.

Ever since the Modi government took power in Delhi, it has gone about systematically planting its own men and women in positions of power across the educational and cultural landscape. Most governments do it, but take care to select candidates who command respect within their own domains. This government has done the exact opposite – it has plucked out nobodies from within the ranks of its supporters and installed them to manage institutions that are responsible for research in history, the writing of textbooks, certifying films and training students to become filmmakers. There is an obvious pattern to this and no one is even pretending otherwise. For the RSS, this is an opportunity to once and for all shape the cultural and educational agenda of the country, and to “present the right view of history,” by moulding future citizens.

Hardly any protests

For one reason or the other, there have been no more than token protests against these appointments. The film industry, which expressed its shock when Pahlaj Nihalani was made the chief of the Central Board of Film Certification, piped down soon enough, realising it had to live with him. Historians were aghast when Y S Rao was made chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), but again, there was not much anyone could do. Rao is no doubt working hard to pin down the exact date of the Mahabharata.

The students of FTII did not take the imposition of Gajendra Singh and others lying down. They put up the only kind of resistance students know – they went on strike. In our growth-at-any-cost mindset, where neo-liberal economic thought and social conservatism have come to dominate, strikes are seen not just as disruptive, but positively anti-national. They are chaotic and disturbing to those who want to see social harmony and stability, virtues that created the tiger economies of China and Southeast Asia.

For aspirational India (which presumably aspires to not just good jobs but also consumer goods), strikes disrupt our march towards our manifest destiny as a great global power. By now, student bodies all over India should have come out in full support of the FTII strikers, but barring a stray voice here and there, what we have seen is silence. In any case, film students are seen as doing little that is socially worthwhile – they are all going to churn out Bollywood blockbusters, aren’t they? Do they – subsidised, pampered, arty druggies – even deserve our support, some must be asking.

But they do. The FTII students are no longer fighting to save their own institution; they have become the flag-bearers of resistance to a government that has not faced any real opposition so far. The agitation in Pune tells the government that it cannot get its own way so easily and that not everyone will lie down and let it trample over culture so easily. After it got away with a series of appointments to the ICHR, CBFC etc., the government must have been taken aback at the hostile reaction of film students. This is a strike that has now assumed a bigger, more important dimension. The students deserve the support of all those who believe in cultural freedoms.

  • Cheena

    If I’m to look beyond the palliative ambit of internet-based media, what might support look like in this context?