The biggest surprise in the standoff between the government and students of the Film and Television Institute of India has been the response of the Hindi film industry. The students might have expected support from alumni like Vidhu Vinod Chopra, as also from directors and actors such as Dibakar Banerjee, Kiran Rao, and Kalki Koechlin interested in alternative forms and niche movies.

But surely Ranbir Kapoor’s video interview expressing solidarity, and Salman Khan’s recent message were pleasant shocks. Even Anupam Kher who has close ties to the ruling party has come out strongly against Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment as chairman of FTII.

I think it boils down to hierarchy. Every profession develops a recognisable pecking order, and the Hindi film industry is far from an exception to that rule. Chauhan briefly climbed to the middle rung in the late 1980s, during the run of the vastly popular serialised Mahabharata, but then slipped back to the bottom or thereabouts. Since the industry perceives FTII as an A-grade educational centre, the placement of a C-lister at its head is such an obvious misstep that even those keen to stay in the government’s good books feel obliged to make themselves heard. Salman Khan stands to profit handsomely if his new film is given tax exemption, but that hasn’t stopped him from calling for the resignation of Chauhan, who played a cameo in Khan’s forgettable Tumko Na Bhool Payenge over a decade ago.

A number of intellectuals, notably Ramachandra Guha and Amartya Sen, have criticised this government for placing loyalists at the head of major educational institutions. The valid counter-argument made by Bharatiya Janata Party sympathisers, as also by some neutral pundits like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, is that the Congress was no stranger to stuffing organisations with supporters. Should we conclude, then, that the BJP has been no worse, if not any better, than the government that preceded it? Not quite. While the Congress preferred insiders, it wasn’t averse to non-partisan thinkers perceived to be broadly sympathetic to the Congress ideology if not its practice (Amartya Sen being a prime example). Consequently it had a relatively wide field to choose from, and tended to appoint B-listers when it couldn’t settle on a politically acceptable A-list scholar or professional.  Few United Progressive Alliance-era sinecures were as egregious as Gajendra Chauhan’s nomination as Chairman of FTII; the replacement of Gopalkrishna Gandhi at Simla’s Indian Institute of Advanced Study by Chandrakala Padia; Baldev Sharma’s appointment as chairman of the National Book Trust; Lokesh Chandra’s placement as head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations; and Sudershan ‘Ramayana-is-history’ Rao’s designation as head of the Indian Council of Historical Research.

Rejecting scholarship

The question then is why the BJP does not have a cadre of distinguished intellectuals qualified to take up high posts. The simple answer, obscured by political parties manipulating the idea of secularism, is that the scholarship game is secular, while the BJP’s favourite  intellectuals are religious. We can find chemists who are Buddhist, linguists who are Muslim, historians who are Christian, and literary scholars who are Hindu; but we will find no worthwhile Buddhist chemistry, Muslim linguistics, Christian history or Hindu literary theory in the contemporary world. The Modi government, unfortunately, believes in Hindu science, and Hindu history, which are fantasies no important scholar would ever take seriously, and whose propagators could never achieve widespread recognition. As a reaction to their failure to make it to the top of their fields, the BJP-RSS gang rejects scholarship itself, or at least the institutional structures undergirding scholarship in various fields. For instance, if mainstream linguists dismiss claims that Sanskrit is the root of all Indo-European tongues (if not of every language in the world), Hindutva sympathisers retort that the field of philology was corrupted early on by imperialist prejudice and has never corrected itself.

This kind of thinking originated, paradoxically, in the home continent of imperialism, and on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. It grew prominent among post-Marxist thinkers in France in the 1960s, and has infected strands of feminism and much environmentalist thought since then. Raising pertinent questions about the role of authority in establishing consensus within scholarly and aesthetic disciplines, this new thinking suggested that all systems are inextricably trapped in a web of power relations and stand on a foundation of slippery words. It replaced the idea of one true story proffered like a long-stemmed rose, with a bouquet of equally valid narratives.

It didn’t take long for the Right to seize upon the possibilities this approach offered. Exactly 90 years ago, on July 21 1925, a schoolteacher named John Thomas Scopes was convicted for teaching Darwinian ideas to his students, contravening a Tennessee state ban on teaching evolution. Despite the Monkey Trial, natural selection eventually became part of curricula across the United States. In recent years, however, conservative groups have lobbied for religious theories, specifically Biblical myths under the guise of ‘creation science’, to be given equal time in schools, arguing it is democratic to offer different narratives of the way the world came to be. Darwinian evolution, in this interpretation, is not established truth, but just one story among many possible ones.

Hindutva ideologues have developed a conspiracy theory analogous to Creationists in the United States, equally inspired by ideas borrowed from the Left. Mainstream Indian history, according to them, is just an imperialist imposition modified by ideologically driven Marxists. It is entirely irrelevant if a historian fails to make headway within a system so fundamentally flawed. The BJP does not care if its appointees are viewed as C-listers, for it repudiates the system that assigned them that position and intends replacing it with a religiously oriented one. It’s a fight the loonies are destined to lose, but India will suffer substantially in the process.

Funnily, one of the few fields where the ruling party counts the support of individuals of great accomplishment is cinema (economics is another). I cannot fathom why it nominated Gajendra Chauhan when it had such a wealth of eminent persons to choose from. Has the Sangh Parivar grown so radical that it rejects even the hierarchies established in the film industry? Or, more likely, does it dismiss the contribution of FTII so thoroughly that it considers the institution’s chairpersonship beneath the status of its most celebrated supporters?