They are believed to be the institutions of the mind, though controlled by the Government. They are built to bring the cultural and historical wealth of the nation to the people, though ideology invariably influences the process. They set the intellectual atmospherics of the Establishment. That is why Y Sudershan Rao, chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and Gajendra Chauhan, director of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), to cite just two examples of appointments by the Narendra Modi Government, matter. And that is why the academic record of Rao and the cultural credentials of Chauhan matter, and both are unlikely to enhance the reputation of the institutions they head or the image of the Government that chose them.
I thought I should read him before writing about him, but I could not find a work of Rao in the bookshop, unless I was looking in the wrong shop, in the wrong place. The glimpses of his worldview as they appeared in newspaper reports introduced me to a mind that belongs to another time, another world. Historians travel in the past, and in a country like India where the past is a disputed site, some, in the name of cultural antiquity, stray into mythology. They trade in the pulp of a perfumed past, and they are purveyors of heritage kitsch, and for them, it is always made-to-order history that suits their idea of cultural nationalism. I am not sure whether Rao’s India is Narendra Modi’s too. I think they are far removed from each other.
Rao was just the beginning. The great cultural shift needed more eminences with the right intellectual pedigree. So Gajendra Chauhan, too, was inevitable. I have not watched his portrayal of Yudhisthira in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, but I do not think that role alone should be a disqualification for the job of FTII president. Then there is nothing else in Chauhan’s repertoire that makes him an ideal choice for the job. I will not call it ‘saffronisation’ of culture; it is pure bad taste. It is politics of patronage, and Chauhan happens to be one of those who need to be rewarded. It is actually bad politics. The cultural atmospheric pollution one Chauhan generates makes appointments such as this worthless in the long run.
There are more cases of filling the slots with the ‘right’ people. They are the wrong people the Right can do without. They create an inappropriate context for Modi’s modernisation text. Institutions such as ICHR serve little purpose to the freedom of scholarship and research as long as they are funded and controlled by governments, which cannot be blamed for looking after their political interests in a democracy. We have universities, though hardly any that ranks among the world’s best, to do the job. Unfortunately for the BJP Government, there are not many right-wing historians with respectable titles to their credit at work today. The best it could have done—and can still do—was to give the job to an independent historian, not to someone just interested in a certain version of the past. Better still, do away with ICHR and other institutions whose job is to proselytise on behalf of the Government. That will be true modernisation.
That said, ICHR, FTII and other government-affiliated institutions should be liberated not because of protests by some academics from the Left who were denied the intellectual copyright. The intellectual establishment has been predominantly leftish since Independence, and its grandees cannot cope with a scenario where entitlements are being abolished. The Right alternative in ideas is yet to emerge, and it will be disastrous for the cause if the Government takes upon itself the responsibility of creating an intellectual elite—the office bearers of the mind space. It is a space that grows faster in the absence of guidelines—and one-dimensional leadership.
The irony of the intellectual Left is that it wants to monopolise as well as manipulate history even though history has made it redundant already. In India, it never had an empire that required all the brainpower it could command for the effective propagation of its thoughts. What it had, instead, were patron saints such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. And it succeeded in creating an imperium of the mind, and the great Indian history project, the official version I mean, was subordinated to it. The court historians thrived. It is the end, or the beginning of the end, of entitlement that angers them today.
It makes no sense—or intellectual profit—when the Right attempts to exorcise the Left by copying them, and in a cruder way. History has shifted in India, and it needs to be understood and interpreted by sophisticated minds. You just cannot create an intellectual establishment by employing people from the grey market of ideas. A political environment that owes its existence to a leader who conversed with the future should not be allowed to be polluted by the thinking of a few men still trapped between history and mythology.