Without the film industry and education fraternity standing up in unison against this underhanded attempt to control a free educational institute, the 250-odd FTII students will fight alone.

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Without the film industry and education fraternity standing up in unison against this underhanded attempt to control a free educational institute, without citizens taking cognisance of a gross breach of civil conduct, the 250-odd FTII students will fight alone. (Source: PTI)The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) students’ protest is about to begin its ninth week. Any news beyond five headlines becomes its own opposite — the olds. Consuming news as entertainment, we become blunt to its core, as the issue radiates in the public space. Modern, ideologically oppressive states with pretensions to electoral democracy (imperial Britain, India today) rely on this tendency to douse, subvert and kill civil protest.

Few national dailies reported the students’ contention in its entirety. The real issue (the surreptitious planting of five Hindutva-championing political appointees and under-qualified nominees in a teaching institute’s governing body) was hijacked and muddled with nonsense (shrill TV debates about only the chairman’s appointment; smart-sounding debate on privatisation; cleverly planted data for the data-loving Indian — x lakh rupees spent per student, x number of strikes in the past years).

This brought on the usual clamour of soundbytes that nearly drowned out the facts. Luckily, the students have now succeeded in clarifying that this is not just about the proposed chairman, Gajendra Chauhan, (who was reportedly chosen over others on the basis of a two-sentence resume of his acting career) but as much about other members whose credentials need equal scrutiny.

FTII society nominee Anagha Ghaisas has conceived a “documentary” on the Babri Masjid issue titled Ram Mandir: The Court and the Faith (translated from Hindi), where, in the first few seconds, shots of destruction of the Babri mosque are described by the voiceover as the “the biggest freedom struggle of the nation” over a background score of conches and cymbals. FTII society nominee Narendra Pathak headed the student wing of the BJP, which under his watch assaulted and disrupted performances of a play and a film at the FTII. He has gone on record to say that mischief-makers working against the government shall be taught a lesson. FTII society nominee Rahul Solapurkar, who almost contested elections on a BJP ticket, has been quoted stating that FTII students need to be given lessons in nationalism. Appointments like these were the reason that three others nominated to the FTII society resigned — and that has not been news.

The students sent several letters to the I&B ministry asking for reasons why the five were nominated over the many others more qualified within the senior film fraternity. No answer was forthcoming. As the students launched a strike, they were threatened with rustication. A body of former and current students met ministry representatives and the minister with a proposal to constitute a body that would design a fair and transparent selection process for the FTII society. No real answers came forth.

The protest continues. As other political parties inevitably move in to scavenge in the media glare, the students are being accused of politicising an academic issue and stalling the holy work of education.

The script plays out like this. Do something blatantly wrong — quietly. Hope no one protests. When someone does, come on heavy with the deliberate gravitas of the venerable state and paint the aggrieved as troublemakers. Then, closing off avenues of discussion, force them to organise civil protest. Citing breach of peace, protocol or law, unleash police, legal and administrative action against them. Further, if it is a small group of protesters and easy targets like filmmakers or artists without political heft, browbeat, intimidate and slander them with threatening calls, physical intimidation and name-calling. Is this the India we voted for?

None of the Hindutva appointees should be singled out for any special distinction or misdeed. It is a pattern visible nationwide that we have chosen to overlook. Without the film industry and education fraternity standing up in unison against this underhanded attempt to control a free educational institute, without citizens taking cognisance of a gross breach of civil conduct, the 250-odd FTII students will fight alone. If that happens we must be prepared for the following.

One, other educational institutes similarly treated will lose a civil and legal protest model and submit to cultural bullying. But no matter. We can all duck under the fuzz storm of “elitism”, even as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (who we pony up in our national resume at every opportunity) warns us in vain about the endemic undermining of educational institutions.

Two, the only educational institute systematically and legally protesting against this misconduct may feel betrayed by the rest of the nation. But no matter. We can dismiss the relevance of free-thinking films and film students even as we flick our remotes to a moving portrayal of the Holocaust from Hungary or a genocide from Armenia that won the Oscar. And then have committee meetings about why we didn’t. Three, when a similar process is inflicted on a civic or municipal body that then forces us to have a temple or a “patriotic education” class in every residential society, it will matter. But by then, we would have lost the moral ground to protest. And those who we didn’t stand up for will not be free to stand up for us.

What we teach is what we live a generation later. To conjure a future of “patriotic” and “nationalistic” films in a world that has stepped closer to being a planet of humans is outdated crankism. To dig one’s head deep into an imagined past and then expect the world to take India seriously is insanity. Especially while sending out slick investment brochures on how developed, progressive and hip we are. This kind of schizophrenia gets the contempt reserved for colonial supremacists, faith bullies and hypocritical dictatorships.

If the rest of India had colluded with the Hindutva brigade in making this country a despotic, hateful, one-dimensional wasteland, it could have been accepted as history. But the fact remains that we look away because we are afraid of the goon squad landing at our doorstep. Or of a notice from one of a hundred official agencies that blackmail us into submission over procedural and legal knots interminably. Or of a pre-dawn knock on our door with a uniform on the other side. No matter how natural and almost justified this behaviour is, it will have to go down as the defeat of sanity, not history.

Unless we, the free citizens of India, vocally assert now that protesting against the government (of whatever political hue) is not being anti-India but the exercise of a civil right. That being against jingoistic nationalism is not being against the nation. That fighting back against meddling bullies is the patriotism India needs desperately. And that this fight starts in our classrooms.

The writer is director, most recently, of ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’

This article appeared in print under the headline “Don’t flick the remote”