The country's best education institutes are being tampered with by a government which believes that there is only one idea of India, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi told students of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), who are protesting against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the head of the Pune-based institute, on Friday.
"This is just not about you; it is happening across the country. A person who is mediocre has been put on top of people who don't want to be mediocre," said Gandhi as students cheered and clapped him.
The 44-year-old Gandhi, who wore a black T-shirt and was clean-shaven, told students the government was promoting the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and wants "mediocore" people in charge of education institutions. "The RSS and its wings promote mediocrity. I have seen this everywhere," he said.
Over 250 students at the Pune-based film school have been demonstrating against the appointment for almost two months, saying Chauhan, who is also a member of the BJP and has served as its joint convener for culture, lacks the “stature and vision” to head the prestigious institution.
Protesters say the work of the actor, best known for his role of Yudhisthira in TV epic Mahabharata, is “irrelevant” to what is taught at the FTII.
Watch |Rahul Gandhi's pep talk to FTII students
“This will make a really nice movie – how the entire might of the Indian government is trying to push 250 students aside,” Gandhi said.
“They will say you are anti-national or a Naxalite. This way they are trying to shut you up. They are scared of you.”
Gandhi also took a veiled swipe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said only one man in the BJP decided everything.
“A person, who is mediocre, has been brought on top of people who do not want to be mediocre,” he said, to loud cheers from students.
The BJP quickly hit back, saying the Amethi MP himself represented the lowest form of mediocrity in politics. “Rahul comes across as an ordinary and incompetent political leader,” said party spokespersons GVLN Rao.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley wrote on Twitter: "Does Rahul Gandhi's statement at Film and Television Institute of India about 'mediocrity on the top' also apply to the Congress."
The FTII stir has turned political in recent weeks after a rustication threat from the director failed to scuttle the protest.
The government has accused opposition parties of inciting the students and blamed FTII’s supposedly falling standards but the protesters have received support from a variety of political leaders and film personalities such as director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, actors Anupam Kher, Rishi Kapoor and Amol Palekar. The information and broadcasting ministry has already said it doesn’t intend to replace Chauhan.
The FTII controversy is the latest in a string of such rows involving the appointment of people with close ties to the BJP or its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, to premier bodies such as the censor board or the Indian Council of Historical Research, triggering allegations that the government is trying to influence academic and cultural institutions to peddle its agenda.
But Chauhan has been unfazed by criticism and has maintained he would like to continue as the head of the institute. He has said he was appointed on the merit of the 34 years he has spent in showbiz, but critics say many of his films such as Jungle Love, Khuli Khidki and Vasna are B-grade.
His supporters maintain Chauhan should be given a chance before making a judgment on his capabilities. They say students should focus on other problems faced by the FTII such as lack of technical infrastructure instead of raising a hue and cry over Chauhan’s appointment.
While the protest against Chauhan’s appointment has hogged the limelight, students are also opposing the appointment of four of the governing council’s eight members -- Dr Narendra Pathak, Anagha Ghaisas, Pranjal Saikia and Rahul Solapurkar -- under the ‘Persons of Eminence’ category. They say all four have strong pro-Hindu leanings.