If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the proverb goes. When it comes to institutions of the humanities and culture, the Narendra Modi government’s attitude is more like: if it ain’t broke, break it. In the last week, protests disrupted Aligarh Muslim University and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Over 50 winners of National Film Awards boycotted the prize-giving ceremony after being told at the last minute their awards would not be presented to them by the president or the vice president. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was forced into an embarrassing climbdown over its sacking of Nina Lath Gupta, the dynamic managing director of the National Film Development Corporation. These protests and U-turns signal the government’s basic incompetence, a fact masked by polarising debates such as the one about whether a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah ought to continue hanging where it has hung for some 80 years.
To separate the notion of competence from ideology, let me start with the example of Dr Arvind Jamkhedkar. He was appointed head of the Indian Council for Historical Research back in February, and nobody protested. I welcomed the move silently, having attended a number of lectures by him over the years, always leaving with a deepened understanding of some aspect of Indian history. It is possible Jamkhedkar’s political views align with those of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. I assume they do since he has been appointed to a prestigious post. What matters more is that he is a fine scholar, linguist, archaeologist and administrator.
Few people agitated against Anupam Kher’s appointment as chairperson of the Film and Television Institute of India.
Kher is a prolific actor who has demonstrated a mastery of drama as well as comedy, and runs a training academy for aspiring actors. He happens to be an ardent supporter of Modi, but what is most relevant are his credentials for the position, which are excellent, unlike those of his predecessor Gajendra Chauhan.
Expertise can be separated from political beliefs, not absolutely perhaps, but with enough accuracy to determine who is worthy of an office and who unqualified. It is the prerogative of governments to nominate sympathetic persons to positions in state-controlled institutions. There isn’t an administration in the world that does not do so.
What is critical is for the appointees to fulfil the basic criteria demanded by the job. Protests happen when that condition is not met. The Modi administration has flouted it repeatedly over the past four years.
This is the case especially in the fields of arts and humanities because the nation’s culture and history are deeply-contested and politically-potent subjects. BJP supporters have been convinced for years that a left-wing cabal rules institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University. JNU certainly has had a historically left-wing slant and it is possible that scholars on the Right have been given a raw deal by certain departments in the past. The more important attribute of the university, however, is its abiding commitment to academic excellence. The BJP government’s own ranking of higher educational institutions placed JNU in the sixth spot, behind only Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science and the top four Indian Institutes of Technology. The University of Hyderabad and the Aligarh Muslim University also got high ranks. Rather than preserving what is good and making improvements where required, however, the administration is taking an axe to these institutions by exploiting emotive wedge issues.
Among JNU’s success stories is the School of Arts and Aesthetics, which was established 15 years ago and quickly became one of India’s leading centres of art historical research and cultural theory. It has a top-class faculty, many of whose members would be welcomed in art history faculties abroad that offer better salaries. Kavita Singh, until recently dean of the school, is one such. Not only is she a brilliant scholar, she is that even rarer thing – an inspirational teacher. Every time I hear a talk by her, I marvel at the mix of energy, rigour, wit and intelligence she brings to her lectures. Two months ago, she was dismissed from her position as dean, along with six other department heads, for disregarding an order making attendance compulsory for students.
Why should compulsory attendance be a problem? Well, JNU is primarily a university for graduate students, many of whom pursue field work far from the campus. It is idiotic to expect them to sign a roster each morning, something no respectable university in the world expects of post-graduates. Kavita (I use her first name because we are friends) is not close to being Marxist, and the issue over which she was removed has no Hindutva connection. As she explains in this talk given during a protest on the campus, the new dispensation at JNU is destroying traditions of democratic functioning. The examples she provides relate to issues which have no ideological ramifications such as instituting an MSc in mathematics.
Nina Lath Gupta is even less liable to be categorised as a left-wing activist than Kavita. She is a hard-nosed professional who slashed the National Film Development Corporation’s workforce soon after taking over in 2007.
She also shifted the institution’s focus from being primarily a financier of films, many of which did not receive adequate distribution, to being an enabler of connections between script writers and filmmakers on one side and private producers and distributors on the other. When the International Film Festival of India was founded, it was a way for cinema buffs to keep in touch with what was happening across the globe. It had none of the commercial tie-ins that undergird festivals such as Cannes and Venice. Gupta changed that by instituting the Film Bazaar alongside the festival. She also set up a project to restore and market old films under the Cinemas of India brand.
Funnily enough, one of the now-withdrawn charges against her was that the corporation “failed to use allocated funds for film restoration”. The charge becomes bitterly ironic when we consider how the ministry is doing preserving films in its charge. An investigation by The Indian Express revealed that thousands of precious films have been destroyed and more are under threat. The previous Congress-led government did little to fix the problem and the BJP has been equally lax. The problem relates simply to air-conditioning and dehumidifying. It isn’t rocket science, nor is it exorbitantly expensive to get the proper equipment working round the clock. But, in the Kafkaesque world that is India’s bureaucracy, the staff at the National Film Archive of India do not control the cooling system. For some reason, that is the responsibility of the Civil Construction Wing of All India Radio.
An example of the minimum government, maximum governance we were promised would be to transfer control of the cooling system to the film archive. Instead we have maximum government, minimum governance, with wacky policies being forced down the throats of universities, and the pioneering head of the National Film Development Corporation being sacked on flimsy charges, one of which is failing to use funds provided to restore films though restoring films was her brainchild.
I have been considering the Modi government’s performance in a series of columns. Since this one is about universities, I’ll end with grades. For the policy of demonetisation considered in the first column in the sequence, I give the government an F because no lower grade is possible. For foreign policy, it’s a C. For the electrification programme and other infrastructure initiatives, a B minus. For higher education, I give the administration a D