India/ 4. Current issues in cultural policy development and debate  

4.2.1 Conceptual issues of policies for the arts

Debates on arm’s length theory

Although implicit in the Haksar Committee Report of 1990, it was the 1992 Draft Approach Paper on National Cultural Policy that first explicitly mentions the arm’s length theory. The doctrine of arm’s length, which legal expert Paul Kearns (1998) calls the contradiction of ‘popular, or public art… (being) privately determined with the use of public money’, requires that specific restrictions be placed on how state agencies should manage cultural issues. In turn, this definition has clear implications for how independent agencies, which work with fewer encumbrances, can address the same field.

As mentioned earlier, from the Emergency on, and through the 1980s, the dubious role that the state could play on cultural matters had raised major concerns. The Draft Approach Paper, in response to these concerns, had explicitly stated that:

‘as far as possible the state should play only a catalytic role in the development and progress of culture, its role being what may be called ‘arm’s length intervention’ (sec 1.5)

and elsewhere,

‘Although the state has a very definite responsibility to foster and nurture the seminal values which manifest themselves in creative expression and endeavour in different ways, the direct state intervention needs to be avoided. The state must provide funds and facilities for such activities, on a scale commensurate with perceived needs in the context of the integral link between them and the plans to improve the quality of life. However, the state must not be involved in any direct grant giving activities. Such avoidance would also eliminate various forms of intervention such as bureaucratic and political’ (sec 3.1).

It was, however, also the case that the state’s response had been to introduce complex bureaucratic procedures by which to set in place programming autonomy while retaining financial control, as well as to generally resolve all matters of arbitrating on artistic ability through compromise procedures such as cumbersome ‘expert committees’. The Haksar Committee Report was vocal in its criticism of this entire procedure in its simulation of democratic systems (see sections 3.20, 5.63 and 5.64), and which noted, inter alia,

‘One wonders how a serious and meaningful discussion can take place amongst the members… There is a legitimate expectation that General Councils should be thinking bodies, searching bodies, and ought not to be reduced to rubber stamp organisations merely reflecting the federal nature of our polity’ (Sec. 3.20).

The general perception that independent funding was free from such restrictions inevitably made it a preferable option for support even among grantees who would ordinarily have appeared to be obvious candidates for state support. Such options were therefore preferred because they were perceived as less bureaucratic, more enlightened, and perhaps most significantly, capable of interventionist support.

This widespread perception, however, introduced the urgent need to discuss independent funding of the arts on grounds that are quite different from the standard Arts & Culture categories that governmental agencies have conventionally deployed in India for their support.

As indicated in Section 5, to a great extent the cultural policy of India arises from Articles 29 and 30, and has dealt with the protection of minority cultures. To this extent, the cultural debates are also around what constitutes a minority, and what makes for minority rights, as practical issues.

Minority Definitions

One such important position has been outlined by philosopher Rajeev Bhargava in his landmark essay ‘The Majority–Minority Syndrome and Muslim Personal Law in India’ (2004). Bhargava chronicles the role of cultural policy as one that allows a definition between, and then a shift into, a category from identity-dependent formations, where an individual’s very existence depends on nothing but his/her ability to culturally produce him/herself as a member of a community (commonly of ethnic origins), and is incapable therefore of individuated identity, and towards the relatively new successor category of the preference-based group, a seemingly freer entity with more articulate citizenship rights that apparently presented its members with a choice of belonging (or not belonging) to community structures. Bhargava defines both categories, ‘preference-based’ and ‘identity-dependent’ majority–minority, as a way by which individuals ‘define themselves and others not in terms of preferences (i.e. the desires that people choose to have), but rather by their more or less permanent attributes (such as colour, ethnicity, religion and language), widely believed to constitute the very identity of individuals’.

Such approaches to culture have given pause to direct governmental involvement in culture, enhancing the arm’s length approach – evidenced in the way, for example, that state support at present to all institutions outside the ones directly controlled is mainly through extending some infrastructure support (e.g. for rehearsal or performance spaces) or conference/meetings support.


Most state institutions have some preferences defined by state-governmental politics on reservations, along both caste lines (the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/Other Backward Classes) and other minorities, as well as provide some economic weightage. But this is not a uniform policy, and varies from state to state.

Priorities given to institutions

Priorities are given to educational institutions along both linguistic and religious minorities. See Section 4.2.4 below and Section 5.1.

To a very great extent, default priorities often emerge that tend to work with earlier notions of culture for development, or nation-building: often biased against new forms (e.g. support for traditional dance, as against contemporary), or to regional language theatre and film as against to say English theatre, or the standard biases against new media art in e.g. acquisition policies. This has also affected the credibility of various awards that India gives out in different arts disciplines.

Organisational issues

Section 2.3 has outlined the organisational transformation in cultural institutions as they moved through three broad periods: (1) that of ‘Development’, (2) the period of ‘Autonomy’ beginning with the Emergency, when cultural rights took centre stage; and (3) the period of Globalisation or economic neoliberalism. Also see sections 4.1, and 4.2.3.

Monitoring reports

The Planning Commission has mid- and end-term monitoring and evaluation surveys, which are mostly concerned with financial audits and the successful reaching of plan expenditure targets. Qualitative monitoring in the Government is rare. 

Chapter published: 22-04-2014