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Merit hona mangta: An essay on the FTII strike

Merit hona mangta: An essay on the FTII strike

n shobhana


Nidhin Shobhana

n shobhanaThis essay is a response to the on-going strike in FTII against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of the said Institute. I would contextualize the strike on a larger canvas called Brahmanism (not read as Hindutva1). In the essay I would make a modest effort to understand the term Brahmanism in the context of privatization of fruits of labour, culture and place. Subsequently, I would examine the Brahmani features of FTII and its strike.

FTII strike has captured the imagination of many, for different reasons. Some, like Anil Sadgopal2, think that the strike is part of global struggles against capitalism. He also compares the strikers with M.K. Gandhi and the latter’s attempts at ‘National Reconstruction’. Some others like Ram Puniyani3 think of it as a movement against Hindutva politics. While a majority of its supporters ranging from Pallavi Joshi4 to my friends think of it as a crusade for excellence, merit, performance and civilization!

It is interesting that nobody described this strike as ‘anti-caste’. Nobody wrote anything to ally this strike with what is happening in IIT Roorkee (or several other colleges, universities and Premier Institutions) where more than 60 students from Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan backgrounds were expelled5 for lack of ‘excellence’, ‘merit’, ‘performance’ and (civilization)! Nobody wrote anything to ally this strike with the total lack of ‘numbers’ on how many women and men from Dalit-Bahujan backgrounds are literate or own land or work as daily wage laborers! All because the state fears a ‘social upheaval’ if the numbers of the caste census are made public6.

Why wasn’t such a description or such solidarities attempted? The answer is simple. The practice, protocol and place of the strike do not inspire such linkages. However, Anil Sadgopal did make an attempt to connect it with the struggle against privatization of school education. In a short while I would argue why such a connection is a total misnomer.

Understanding Brahmanism

Taking a cue from Anil Sadgopal’s argument on how ‘privatization is privatization’ whether it is school education or FTII, I feel inspired to take a look at a longer history of ‘privatization’ in our geography. This look is in no way complete or encyclopedic. It is not even original! However, it is palpable to any reader of anti-caste histories.

India has a very long history of ‘Privatization’ of knowledge, material and culture. During Rigvedic times, hymns were chanted to the accompaniment of elaborate ritual performances. In the Vedic system, it was believed that the verbal utterance of the verse had the power to influence Gods! Thus hymns were perfectly committed to memory. Brahmans went through various monotonous exercises to become ‘word perfect’7. Perfection in reciting hymns and ‘mugging it up’ was considered a ‘meritorious’ feat. This ‘merit’ determined their social and economic standing. In order to protect their ‘merit’ and maintain status quo they made these texts inaccessible for others. They privatized and colonized these texts.

Historically, this process of privatization of knowledge (or what was valued as knowledge) was/is intrinsically linked with privatization of material and cultural resources. Starting from mundane items such as fresh vegetables, ghee and milk to clothing, silk and gold to spring-wheeled bullock carts, umbrella, handicrafts and sandalwood to land and water… everything the Brahman fancied was ‘prohibited’ in varying degrees for others . Due to his ‘ritual merit’ he always had caste groups which embraced his fancies. This process alienated Bahujans from their own labour and ‘products’.

As an example, let me quote the experience of the Vishwakarma castes. Traditionally they sculpted Gods and Goddesses in stones, wood and clay. The sculptor uses his knowledge to produce the sculpture, works on it day and night with complete awe and devotion. His family supports him in gathering raw materials and processing them. Once the sculpture is done, he carries it on his shoulders, enters the temple and places it carefully. The moment he places his ‘product’, the Brahman priest chases him away and purifies the premises with cow-dung. The sculptor would never see the product of his labour again. It is now the property of the temple, an institution fully controlled by the Brahmans. One may quote several such examples, of how the Pulayas were denied food and agricultural land (which they produced), how Ahirs were denied milk (which they produced); how Wadaars were denied homes and access to roads (which they produced); how jhulahas were denied silk clothing (which they produced); how thattans were denied access to gold ornaments (which they produced) so on and so forth. These denials did not always operate as ‘prohibitions’. They operated through a caste-ridden economic system which made it impossible for the Bahujans to access their own labour and products completely. Brahmans along with their bhakts encroached and privatized places which were made ‘place perfect’ by Bahujans. As Bahujans themselves did not enjoy the labour of their produce, they never internalized its value and merit. Labour was not seen as a process of ‘self-satisfaction’ or ‘self- expression’8. It was a process ridden by bondage, monotony, violence and estrangement.

K.K. Kochu9 in his article titled ‘Language and People’ gives a vivid account of how Malayalam as a language and a culture was brahmanized by the ruling castes. He quotes the examples of the Travancore dynasty. After being politically disenfranchised by the colonial powers, the dynasty and its allied castes focused on ‘codifying’ Malayalam with elaborate grammar and figures of speech. They ruled the cultural realm so completely that they delegitimized the common tongue of the laboring castes.

This notion of Dalit-Bahujan cultural illegitimacy runs so deep that we will find its followers among the progressive ‘Brahmans’. For instance, E.M.S. Namboothiripad makes the following observation about culture and civilization in a 1977 essay in Social Scientist10 – ‘Upper class elements from (these) non-Hindu religious communities together with the upper classes of Hindu Society, became creators of a genuinely Indian civilization which could flower into its perfect form only in modern times’ (Italics mine)

This view was vehemently opposed by Marx-Phule-Ambedkarite thinker Sharad Patil, among others. He points out that Namboothiripad is of the opinion that samskriti or intellectual production is made in leisure and leisure is available only to the upper classes. Patil points out that this line of argument was first propounded by Aristotle, the philosopher of Greek slave society. Aristotle also upheld that women and slaves were intellectually inferior. According to Patil, culture is produced through processes of labour. The artist and the craftsman cannot be distinguished from each other. However, this is exactly what Brahmanism did! It separated the ‘artist’ and the ‘craftsman’.

By calling the upper castes ‘genuine’ creators of culture, Namboothiripad preserves the merit of the ‘Brahman’ and his allies. It privatizes the collective material and cultural productions of the laboring castes. It completely invisiblizes their contributions, presenting an ahistorical account of culture and civilization.

Many of our FTII strike supporters seem to agree with the ‘Namboothiripad line’. We will get back to it in a short while.

In short, ‘Brahmanism’ is an ideology and a socio-economic system which has always appropriated, alienated and privatized the labour, culture and places of Bahujans. It is not a system of binary (Brahmin v/s Bahujan). It is a graded ideology and system of inequality, where every caste accepts the merit of the ‘top-most caste’ as natural and simultaneously looks down upon itself and its immediate neighbors. It is not a system of ritual purity and pollution alone. Brahmanism is not an issue of individual values and attitudes alone. To equate Brahmanism with the individual practice of ritual purity and pollution (untouchability) is like equating patriarchy with the use of colour pink for girls and blue for boys! Brahmanism has shaped and influenced the protocols and practices of our state institutions; land ownership; aesthetics, labour and inter-community/inter-personal relationships. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar11 underlines the following ‘techniques of suppression’ as central to Brahmanism (1) graded inequality between the different classes; (2) Complete disarmament of the Shudras and the Untouchables; (3) Complete ban on the education of the Shudras and the Untouchables; (4) Total exclusion of the Shudras and the Untouchables from places of power and authority; (5) Complete prohibition against the Shudras and the Untouchables acquiring property, and (6) Complete subjugation and suppression of women. Inequality is the official doctrine of Brahmanism and the suppression of the lower classes aspiring to equality has been looked upon by them and carried out by them, without remorse, as their bounded duty. Thus, Brahmanism is understood as a system of privatization, denial, indignity and inequality. It is as evident as the ground under our feet.

Is FTII Fighting Global Capitalism?

From the preceding paragraphs one may conclude that no discussion on privatization in Indian can escape Brahmanism. However, Anil Sadgopal illustrates how we can do it! As mentioned earlier, he equates the FTII fight with the struggles against privatization in school education and the global fight against Capitalism, Neo-liberal imperialism. One also feels tempted to note that his story of privatization of education begins only after 1991.

Let me decipher the ‘merit’ of his argument by listing a few very important points. (a) School Education is a fundamental right. Every child till the age of 14 is entitled to free and compulsory education. On the other hand, higher education is not a fundamental right. Only the ‘better off’ in every group can ideally access higher education. Specialized courses, like the ones offered in FTII are even more inaccessible. Thus, higher education has always remained the preserve of the established Brahminical elite. (b) The social composition of students and teachers in government schools and the social composition of students and professors in higher education is a clear reflection of who forms the ‘elite’ of this country and who are accessing Institutes of ‘National’ importance. (c) The actors, film-makers, technicians produced by FTII are well integrated with the global market. They screen their films in multiplexes, endorse and advertise products of transnational corporations, dance, sing, host events funded by global capitalism, market, distribute and make a fortune out of the neo-liberal infrastructure. The students of FTII who are ‘fighting’ neo-liberal imperialism are the present and future beneficiaries of the economy.

Thus, qualifying FTII struggle as a fight against Neo-liberal imperialism is a disservice to genuine fights in other parts of the globe. It also undermines the real fights put up by Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis against Neo-liberalism and Brahmanism in one’s own country. By dating struggles against privatization of school education only post-1991, Anil Sadgopal has also done a major disservice to anti-caste histories of modern school education in India12. In short, in terms of scales, actors, their social composition, access and history the proposal of equating these two struggles is conflicting and futile.

Would FTII’s destruction end ‘progressive/excellent/meritorious’ cinema?

 The above question may seem too drastic. However, it would help me explain a few important errors in the strikers understanding of (a) what constitutes progressiveness? (b) Where does one ‘look’ for it? and (c) how does one understand cultural productions? Finally, I will attempt to answer the initial question.

I will not scale the philosophical dimensions of these questions. However, I would argue that progressive thought is not a banyan shoot that germinated in the drains of FTII Men’s Hostel! In other words, FTII or no educational Institution ‘owns’ or ‘gives birth’ to emancipatory, progressive thought/s. It emerges from people’s responses to collective suffering and conflict. It emerges from people’s movements, their cultural productions and art forms. For example, Sanal Mohan narrates a very interesting story in one of his Mathrubhumi essays. The story strongly captures the meanings of Dalit cultural productions. The story goes something like this – In 19th century, the agrarian slave castes of Kerala who newly converted to Christianity had organized their own Churches. These churches were called ‘Adima Pallikal’ (Slave Churches). In one such slave church, two groups fought each other quite often. Over the years, the fight got so intense that the eldest member of the church had to intervene. He came up to the altar, took the sole musical instrument of the church in his hand and declared ‘If you continue to fight, I will break this musical instrument… and your church will be destroyed forever!’ In the story, Music was equivalent to the Church. Church was equivalent to liberation. Thus, music was liberation! Music was self-expression. It theorized atrocities, labour, aesthetics, culture, modernity and place. Cultural productions were a lifeline. It held promises for a better future. It was not a passion one would indulge in leisure. It was knowledge produced among people for dissemination and awareness. One could quote several such examples. The point being, knowledge production is a dispersed process and emerges from people’s lived crisis. Thus, to articulate their lived crisis and to identify the structures which cause this crisis; people evolve their own cultural productions. These productions may include cinema. They will evolve these cultural productions with or without FTII.

FTII nidhin

Thus, if an FTII graduate makes an ‘anti-caste’ film, it does not mean that he is the ‘kartadharta’ of anti-caste thought. However, going back to the ‘Namboothiripad line’, many of us, valorize the merit of those who have a lot of leisure time. We think of them as genuine creators of civilization! Take a look at the FTII prospectus, one will find similar tendencies, I quote –

 ‘Considered the cultural capital of Maharashtra, Pune has a strong tradition in Hindustani classical music and Marathi theatre. It has been home to several musical maestros, Late Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Uday Bhawalkar, Prabha Atre, Dr. Veena Sahasrebuddhe, Pandit Suresh Talwalkar among others. The Sawai Gandharva Music Festival celebrating Indian classical music ( both Hindustani and Carnatic), held in December is a high point in the cultural calendar’ (p.5, FTII Prospectus, 2015)

 It is not an accident that the prospectus would name only Brahmins as the cultural mukhiyas of Pune. It is also not a coincidence that only Sawai Gandharva Music Festival is ‘named’ as the ‘high point’ of the cultural calendar. As explained earlier, the answer lies in the ‘Namboothiripad line’ which legitimizes only Brahmins and their allies as the cultural doers of this society. Thus, Bhima Koregoan or Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Jayanti Mahotsav will not be named the cultural ‘high points’ of Pune.

Culture seems to be at the disposal of those who have systematically outsourced all their reproductive labour onto women and Dalit-Bahujans. They would watch films for hours together, write reviews and benchmark excellence, as the ‘cultural non-actors’ will wash their clothes, cook their food, look after their kids, nursery their gardens, nurse their fathers and clean their toilets. Since there is a consensus that merit emerges out of specialized ‘intellect’ (which stands on someone else’s labour) in 100 acre campuses where we mug up how to own, author and edit knowledges (produced elsewhere), such an arrangement seems convenient and legitimate.

Thus, going back to the question -‘Would FTII’s destruction end ‘progressive/excellent/meritorious’ cinema?’ The answer is a categorical ‘no’. It will not stop people in conflict with systems to evolve new cultural productions, including cinema. These productions may take shape in kitchens and backyards, in fields and factories or in forests and slums!

Does a ‘100 acre’ campus on Law College Road qualify as ‘Nation’?

FTII is located in the erstwhile Prabhat Studio Campus. Among many other websites, one would find the biographical sketch of Prabhat studio in Maharashtra Navnirman Sena website13. It tells us about how the studio was the pride of Maharashtra and India. If you go through the productions of the studio, you would find that most of them were based on Brahminical Hindu Mythology. Prabhat studio became FTII in the 1960s. As all of us know that Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru was very keen on ‘manufacturing’ a national elite, he supported every such island of supposed excellence.

To be precise, FTII is located on Law College Road, Pune. Why is this location special? Well, Law College Road connects Karve Road and Senapati Bapat Road. It also acts as a by-pass to reach Gokhale Institute and Fergusson College, Pune. On Karve Road we have the famous ‘Savarkar’ monument and in Gokhale Institute we have Gokhale’s residence. Apart from these monuments, Law College Road, Senapati Bapat Road, Prabhat Road, Apte Road etc… (all within a radius of 1.5 kms) are heartlands of Pune ‘Brahmins’. The real estate and property in the area along with its cultural arrogance (didn’t we mention Sawai Gandharva earlier?) is all managed and owned by these Brahmins. This place has been ‘high point’ in the Indian Brahminical calendar.

The Brahmin heartland in which FTII is situated distinguishes itself from the Old city (peths) which is also dominated by Brahmins (its profile is changing due to economic and commercial activities, Brahmin migration overseas etc). The former calls itself ‘progressive’ while the latter remain ‘regressive’. They seem to be present in every ‘progressive’ meeting (well, as speakers) and practice an austerity which is easily identifiable – kurta, paper/cloth bags, no ornaments (ask one of them for a better description). FTII, NFAI are the regular wrestling grounds of these Brahmins.

FTII and its 100 acre campus, is situated on the ‘right’ side of the Mula river. ‘Nadichya alikade’ and ‘nadichya palikade’14 have different caste connotations in Pune. For example, all my life I have lived on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, in Pimpri-Chinchwad and later Sangvi-Dapodi. These areas are pre-dominantly non-Brahman, Dalit and migrant in its social profile. The entire cultural and educational infrastructure in terms of auditoriums, museums, drama theatres, colleges, universities etc., is situated on the ‘right’ side. The reason is quite simple. By now all of us know who are the cultural doers, ‘right’? Yes, Pune as a place is organized in the mirror image of its Brahmans. They are physically closer to what is valued as culture and civilization, while the ‘wrong’ side of Pune is an industrial workforce which has no sense of culture or civilization.

It is in this skewed geography that FTII claims to be a ‘National’ Institute. Neither in its geography nor its social composition does it ‘represent’ the nation as a whole. We often seem to reduce the nation to a few ‘Brahminical castes’. In fact, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar pointed out the impossibility of forming a nation in a caste-ridden society. So, when Anil Sadgopal calls FTII strikers, ‘National reconstructors’ one is taken aback.

What I see in the FTII strike is a strong sense of territory, which is a feature of caste.

Castes have their territories. The academic caste in FTII has a territory too. They do not allow any trespassers. Interestingly, the territory by itself is a part of larger territories. For example, Pune has a ‘right’ wing MP, FTII students do not seem to stop him from entering Pune! That does not bother them, as castes have fixed territories with no entrance or exit. One of the posters read ‘Do not pollute our campus’. This poster unravels the Brahminical-sense of territory. It also tells us, how we have organized ‘Institutes’ of ‘National’ importance. More about it in the next section.

Merit hona mangta!

‘FTII is a beautiful place to be in, you are welcome but be ready for a change in genetic codes after sometimes, as they say, FTII changes your chemical composition of physical and spiritual existence’ ~ DJ Narain, Director FTII (from the 2015 prospectus)

Well, I do not know about the changes in chemical composition! However, I would try to understand whether meritocracy is a part of this chemical composition?

The FTII strike immediately reminded me of the 1791 riot between Vaishnavite Sadhus and Shaivate Sadhus in Kumbh Mela Nashik. The fight was about who would take the ‘first’ dip in the Shahi snan ritual. The first dip should go to the most ‘meritorious’. There was no resolution. This led to a riot which perished 12,000 sadhu babas. Later, Peshwa regime had to intervene and resolve the issue. Similarly, as Anoop Kumar15 has already pointed out the fight in FTII is between two Brahmanical groups, fighting for superiority. What underlies is a ‘smoothly camouflaged’ discourse of meritocracy.

The FTII group claims its ‘merit’ on the basis of a handful of ‘socially relevant/ culturally significant/aesthetically Indian’ movies it produced (remember the discussion on cultural production in the earlier sections), which mostly serve a niche audience. The RSS-BJP group will also claim its ‘merit’ from its socially relevant/culturally significant/ aesthetically Indian ideology and myth. In this competition, majority of this nation are on-lookers. As per Brahmanism, they do not have any real stake in FTII or Indian culture or civilization.

This reminds me of a scene from a Malayalam movie directed by Satyan Anthikaad16. Two Bahujan women are discussing the possibilities of an airport in their village, as they graze their cattle. One of them said, ‘Yediye, if there is an airport in the village, life will become so easy. For instance, if guests arrive at your place and you have run out of sugar, you can immediately board a plane to the market, purchase sugar and take a return flight’. While, Satyan Anthikaad denies Bahujan women any intelligible conversation in the above scene, I would read it as Bahujan sarcasm on the irrelevance of an airport to their village.

Similarly, most of the ‘nation’ is not bothered about FTII. In other words, FTII is like the airport, thoroughly incapable of building solidarities with people or their struggles in real life. It is bothered about its sectarian, territorial demands entrenched in a Brahmanical notion of merit. In doing so, it emerges as a ‘chuddi brother’ of the forces it intends to fight.

For example, Brahmanical nationalism talks about the golden Vedic age. On similar lines, FTII talks about the golden ages of the 70s and 80s. This is not new. In any academic discipline the Pre-Mandal age is held as the golden age (Sociology is an example to point out17). Any sensible person, with a minimum sense of history can understand how this argument prosecutes Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis. Another specific example of Brahmanical meritocracy is Adoor Gopalakrishnan, an Ex-Chairman of FTII. Last year during the International Film Festival of Kerala, he was one of the eminent committee members who insisted that we need to maintain the ‘quality’ of the viewership. The committee had brought out an application form which demanded one to prove one’s ‘commitment’ to films. How is ‘commitment’ measured? Well, you should either be an academic, a film critic or a film student or minimum a technician to be a part of this ‘meritocracy’.

So, what are these ‘National’ Institutes? Historically, they have simply acted as employment reserves for the Brahman and his allies18. Whenever, others have tried to enter these ranks, there have been vehement oppositions.

 Concluding Thought

Bhojpuri Dalit-Bahujan women sing songs all the time. They sing mostly in the absence of written alphabets. If given an opportunity in universities they might write down their songs and even explain to us its theory19. But Brahmanism has delegitimized their presence in the cultural and educational map. This is the case with a whooping majority of Dalit-Bahujan women across the country. So when my friend, Ajinkya Chandanshive poses the question – ‘Why is it that no Dalit-Bahujan women appeared on the list of possible Chairpersons of FTII?’ it is an invitation to a grounded, original struggle. FTII or any National institute can be relevant to people’s struggles only if it dismantles the Brahman infrastructure, by making such questions their central concerns.



[1]. I understand Hindu Nationalism and Hindutvaas moments in the long history of Brahmanism. Replacing Brahmanism with Hindutva is like replacing Patriarchy with Domestic Violence. Hindu Nationalism is just an example of ‘organized violence and propaganda’ under the umbrella called Brahmanism.

[2]. See link :

[3]. From a public talk titled ‘Politics and Higher Education’ at TISS, dated July 12, 2015

 [4]. See link :

 [5]. See link:

 [6]. See link :

[7]. Ratnagar, S. (2006).Agro-pastoralism and the Migrations of the Indo-Iranians.India: Historical Beginnings and the Concept of the Aryan: Essays by Romila Thapar, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, Madhav M. Deshpande, Shereen Ratnagar.

 [8]. Mohan, S. (2011).Narrativising the History of Slave Suffering.No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India, edited by K. Satyanarayana and Susie Tharu, 535-55.

[9]. Satyanarayana, K., & Tharu, S. (2011). No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India–Dossier 1, Tamil and Malayalam.

 [10]. See Patil Sharad (2006 ). Caste -Feudal Servitude, Mavlai Prakashan: Dhule. 

[11]. See link:

[12]. Mahatma Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Appopan Ayyankali, Swami Sahajananda, Kumara Gurudevan and many others fought Brahminical privatization of school education and gave us universal visions of Modern Education in 19th and 20th centuries.

[13]. See link :

[14]. Nadichyaalikade or NadichyaPalikade literary means ‘ This side of the river’ or ‘that side of the river’. The subject position in such an enquiry is the Brahman who stays in ‘this side of the river’.

[15]. Anoop Kumar’s FB updates on the FTII controversy.

[16]. The name of the movie is ‘Narendran Makan Jayakanthan Vaka’ (2001)

[17]. The resignation of Andre Beteille from the Knowledge Commission in 2006 to oppose OBC reservation in Central universities, calling it antithetical to ‘merit’ is just one of the many examples to point out. M.N. Srinivas went to the extent of saying that only OBCs practicing traditional hierarchal occupations are eligible for OBC certificates.

[18]. Satish Deshpande in his 2001 book titled ‘Contemporary India’ calls the over-representation of upper-castes in national institutions – the historical luck of upper castes.

[19]. Observations are based on Asha Singh’s Sociological Bulletin, 64(2), (May-August 2015) article titled ‘ Of Women By Men: First Person Feminine in Bhojpuri Folksongs’.



Nidhin Shobhana works as a Programme Associate in NCDHR – National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

Cartoon by Nidhin Shobhana.