The government of India must really think highly of Gajendra Chauhan. Perhaps they place him in the pantheon of movie greats, as an actor of the calibre of Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan or Marlon Brando and Ralph Fiennes. Why else would the bosses sitting in Delhi fight so doggedly for him? Not only have they refused to reconsider his appointment as the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) but have now gone and arrested students who were striking to get him removed.
The ostensible reason for the arrests – under several sections – is that the students had gheraoed the Director of the Institute. That, apparently, amounted to rioting and many other crimes, according to the police. But this situation would not have arisen had the government not appointed Chauhan – and four others with almost zero credentials – to the FTII society and then, when the students protested, found a way around it. Instead, the Information and Broadcasting ministry chose to dig in its heels and made it clear that Chauhan’s appointment was non negotiable. If that is not love, what is?
But while the babus and their bosses may be congratulating themselves on this action, in line with their own self-image as no-nonsense types, the arrest is a foolish and short-sighted step. What does it achieve, apart from alienating the students and further fostering the perception that this government cannot stand dissent and does not know how to handle it? (For further proof, consider the rough arm tactics with war veterans who were on a peaceful agitation at Jantar Mantar. After realizing what a PR fiasco that was, the cops have apologised, but the damage has been done.)
No government likes to be seen to go back on its decision, and certainly not under pressure. But what if the original decision was clearly wrong? It was not just the students who were against Chauhan’s appointment. Film industry stalwarts, including some who otherwise support the BJP, were appalled that a nonentity had been picked out for this prestigious post. Surely there must have been some rethink about Chauhan when the protests broke out. Clever strategists of the BJP could have worked out a compromise which allowed everyone to save face, that is if they wanted do. Even if the students were obdurate and foolish, it was the government that needed to walk that extra mile. Students are students, they will protest. They could have been talked to, or even given a talking to, but always with a mindset of finding a solution. This could have been a good occasion to work out a deal that if their demands were met, they too would put in their best to make the FTII a world class institution.
As for the gherao—today’s India has forgotten the art of the agitation. When conformity and harmony are virtues, dissent becomes anti-national. (And for those absurd tweets which claim the director was chained, he was not.)
But this is the FTII, not an IIT, which this government – and Indians at large – has come to think as more prestigious for Brand India. Which parent pines to send a child to FTII? With no societal support, the FTII students had no chance. The strike must be low down on the priority list of the government and someone must have suddenly woken up and said, just shut it down any which way; when the students gheraoed the director, an opportunity presented itself and the rule book was thrown at them. Arresting them at midnight is a favourite tactic of governments and policemen, no matter who is in power.
So is this going to be how all dissidence is to be dealt with? Is this supposed to send a shiver down the collective spines of all those who disagree with this government? Should all those film industry stalwarts like Rishi Kapoor who criticised Chauhan’s appointment worry they will be picked up at night? What happens if tribals protest against a project, or farmers refuse to hand over their land for an SEZ or any group of marginalized people come out on the streets? Will the government refuse to hear their point of view and strike an uncompromising posture?
The UPA was frozen in indecision when the anti-corruption agitations began; the government took one wrong step after another. The NDA wants to be seen as tough. In any case, culturally, this dispensation is incapable of dealing with anyone asking questions. But most important, it is determined to put its own people in key positions, talent, credibility, merit and standing be damned. Chauhan may not have admirers, but he has supporters—he will do what the government and the larger parivaar asks him to do. There may be some in government who may harbour doubts, but they will keep these to themselves. And if the students object, they have to be made to shut up, by police tactics, if necessary. The arrests were not because the students surrounded the director; no, they were to teach them and all other objectors in future, a lesson.