Loyalty as Eligibility For Important Chairs


The students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) continue to protest the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the institute chairman, and people will sympathize with their resistance. Chauhan has no credentials as a film worker: all he has to show was his acting role as Yudhisthir in B R Chopra’s Mahabharat on television in the ‘80s and his affiliation with the BJP. FTII is the most prestigious training institute for all disciplines of the film art; its chairmen have included eminent film makers Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalkrishnan and Girish Karnad. The idea of the BJP-led government in appointing Chauhan seems to be to use him to ‘purge’ FTII of ‘non-nationalist’ influences and elements. In that sense he is sort of a Dolores Jane Umbridge, the tyrannical ‘High Inquisitor’ and headmistress of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter series: a government employee with zero teaching experience and no idea about education appointed as a government spy in the magic school so as to keep its students and faculty on a tight leash.

Chauhan has been rewarded for loyalty to BJP, just as Pahlaj Nihalani, who was appointed as the censor board chief after Leela Samson quit citing “interference and coercion” by the Modi government, was. Nihalani is least likely to be remembered for the films he made, which include B-grade potpourri Shola aur Shabnam and Aag ka Gola. The top on the list of Nihalani’s eligibility criteria was his open support to the BJP and his fulsome praise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon after he took over. Nihalani told anyone who cared to hear that he saw Modi as his action hero and was proud to be a BJP person. The NDA government also nominated Telugu actress Jeevitha Rajashekar on the censor board. Jeevitha is BJP’s spokesperson in Telangana and released a song singing hymns of Modi during the last Lok Sabha elections.

The list of appointments to key posts in artistic, cultural and educational institutions largely on grounds of the person’s close association with the BJP and RSS has been growing. Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani has been making appointments on that basis in several institutions. V R Jamdar has been placed as the head of Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur; Baldev Sharma, former editor of RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya, as the chairman of National Book Trust; Professor Inder Mohan Kapahy as a member of the University Grants Commission (UGC); and so on. One of the first such appointees was Y Sudershan Rao as the chairperson of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). The purpose of appointing Rao was very explicit: the RSS and BJP have a plan to ‘rewrite’ the ‘distorted’ accounts of history that ‘leftist’ historians have been writing about India past and present. The leftists, in their view, have also been sceptical about the many claims of the ‘glorious achievements’ of India in various sciences.

Now, that is not true. The so-called leftist and liberal historians and scholars of India have noted the several ideas in astronomy, mathematics and other fields that originated in India and are as much proud of them as the ‘nationalist’ historians and scholars. It is utterly unjust to portray the leftist and liberal scholars as the upholders of the colonial mindset. They are as much nationalist as the nationalist scholars. The only difference is that they try to judge materials on the basis of facts. Belief and faith are something that may hold good for religion or emotional relationship. To depend on them in scientific research can be illusory and misleading.

If the ruling party goes on appointing a Chauhan or a Nihalani or a Rao to the exclusion of persons of better credentials they may have well rewarded their loyalists but the institutions headed by them would become poorer. A glaring example of such foolhardy attitude is the case of the NDA government delaying renewal of the contract of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen for chancellorship of Nalanda University for a second term, although the governing board unanimously recommended it. In a letter to the board written with a “heavy heart,” Sen noted it was “hard for him not to conclude that the government” wanted him to “cease” being chancellor. Academics in the country remain “deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government,” Sen observed. Is Amartya Sen not proud of being an Indian? Is he not proud of the glorious achievements of India past and present? Was he not using his renown and scholarship to restore the old glory of Nalanda by involving presidents, prime ministers and universities of Southeast Asia? The BJP should not become talent-blind in its partisan zeal.