India’s premier educational institutions continue to be at loggerheads with the Narendra Modi government. And the Film and Television Institute of India [FTII], the country’s leading training institution for aspiring filmmakers, is up in arms three years after a bruising battle with the federal government.

Based in Pune, a city adjacent to Mumbai, the home of the multi-billion dollar Hindi film industry, the institute saw months of strikes against its government-appointed director in 2015. The agitation is back on campus again.

Placards outside the office of the FTII director tell the story: ‘India fit but academic unfit’, ‘Light? Camera? – No Action’, etc. Some 50 students from 2017 have been protesting on campus demanding basic infrastructure and an advanced syllabus to be taught in their current semester.

Students in their third semester have been boycotting classes and protesting against lack of basic facilities for more than two weeks. One of the students, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said: “We wanted detailed syllabus and enrichment programs for the ongoing third semester in advance. To get a [modern] syllabus is as per the norms. We are in need of a camera, lenses, studio and light meters and a proper classroom with a working projection system to have workshop classes, discussions and theory classes.”

Crippling lack of infrastructure

Students from the last three years – from 2015 to 2017 – will be making short films as a part of their syllabus at the same time due to their overlapping schedule. One said: “[We] use resources like a camera, a lighting unit, lens kit, that is generally used by one batch [of students] at a time, but now will be used by all the three batches. We just want the administration to tell us what the resources are and for what duration they will be available for us to use. We have been demanding this for over two months. We also met Anupam Kher [a noted actor who is chairman of the FTII and the husband of an MP with the ruling party]. But no solution was found.”

Kher did not comment when Asia Times reached out to him. Bhupendra Kainthola, director of the FTII, also refused to comment and only said that discussions were ongoing. A meeting was held on August 31 but the solutions provided were not long-term.

Some experts have claimed that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to destroy eminent institutions like FTII and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which are known to cultivate critical thinking, and freedom of speech and espouse liberal values.

FTII alumni include Resul Pookutty, who won an Oscar in 2009 for best sound design for the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Others like Girish Kasaralli and Adoor Gopalakrishnan are known as pioneers of parallel cinema in India. In the past, the Institute’s top people were, like Girish Karnad, known for their deft and critical thinking.

However in 2014, when the BJP came to power, it appointed Gajendra Chauhan, an actor who had roles in a few low-budget commercial films, as chairman of the Film and Television Institute. Students went on strike for 139 days, demanding that a person with expertise in cinema be appointed, but the government did not budge.

Harishankar Nachimuthu, who an FTII graduate who led the student protest, said: “Our strike was never against one person like Gajendra Chauhan. We protested against the appointment of a mediocre person at the helm of an institution like FTII. Today’s strike by students for basic infrastructure is the result of mediocre decisions taken by the central government.”

He said: “The BJP wants to destroy institutions like FTII. It does not want people to think and question the decisions of authority. They want people to pass out and work like labor. They came up with marketing schemes like Skill India, Maan Ki Baat [‘Thoughts on my mind’ – a radio talk show by Prime Minister Narendra Modi] to shut down the thinking of people.

“Another way of destroying institutions is to cut down or end [state] subsidies through infrastructure and expert staff. If this goes on, FTII and other institutions will exist for namesake and there won’t be any progressive thinking. This is not an issue of academics but a purely political one. While the Bharatiya Janata Party is in power, this will continue,” he said.

Another student noted the lack of funding and resources crippling the institution. “Students have been questioning FTII about its short-term course across India, from which it is earning money. The FTII or central government has money to run this course but they don’t have funds for infrastructure like classrooms and cameras that are important for institutions like FTII.”

The film institute has held over 80 workshops since May 2017 to educate people about cinema in various cities across India and over 4,000 people have attended these week-long courses.

Ideological battleground

Padmaja Shaw, an academic from Hyderabad, said: “By appointing higher posts and faculty, the BJP began to increase its influence in these prestigious institutions and thus giving a right-wing [slant]. That results in a celebration of handed-down knowledge as opposed to the liberal campuses where debate, discussion and exploration of ideas are encouraged.”

The clash of ideologies, she believes, is pushing some institutions to the brink. “There is also an authoritarian impulse to impose notions of a traditional society. Conflict becomes inevitable if the liberal tradition is deeply entrenched in the culture of the institutions like FTII, Jawaharlal Nehru University or Hyderabad Central University,” she noted.

She said the increasing privatization of higher education and lack of proper funding for public universities meant they failed to recruit good staff and this has led to them becoming weaker. That meant they were more vulnerable to pressure than ever before.

“This combination of dependency on favors and direct interference inevitably crushes academic independence. This process is faster now under the Modi-led government, and is infecting institutions like FTII,” Shaw said.

She feared that the liberal and left traditions of education on campuses was under greater threat, with decreasing support to marginalized groups. “Five years down the road, we may see a serious reversal of access to higher education for a large number of people.”

The left- and right-wing ideological debates play around these issues of how institutions see themselves and value liberal and critical thought. The advent of a right-wing Hindutva party indulging in populism seems to pose a serious challenge to those values.