The Students are Alright!

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Speaking truth to power On 3 August, 80-odd students from FTII, Pune, took out a protest march in the heart of the national capital. Photo: Vijay Pandey
Speaking truth to power On 3 August, 80-odd students from FTII, Pune, took out a protest march in the heart of the national capital. Photo: Vijay Pandey

On 25 August, more than 7,000 people across the country watched Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (‘Muzaffarnagar Eventually’) on how the Sangh Parivar’s campaign against the bogey of “love jihad” eventually led to the 2013 massacres of Muslims in western Uttar Pradesh, in which thousands were driven away from home and hearth and were forced to battle for survival in makeshift refugee camps, and how the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah allegedly reaped the harvest of polarised votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

“From universities to open mohallas. From middle-class neighbourhoods to lower income group colonies. From open air screenings to hired auditoriums and from people’s houses to innovative make-shift screening venues. Audiences ranging from 15 people to 500. From Uttarakhand to Kerala, Assam to Gujarat, North to South and East to West. From hot and humid venues to audience braving thunderstorms. From perfectly peaceful screenings to those where organisers and audience battled police repression. Yesterday was overwhelming. Yesterday marked resistance. Yesterday announced our resolve to fight for and protect democracy,” Sawhney wrote in a Facebook post after a successful day of protest screenings.

The “India-wide protest screenings” were organised under the banner of ‘Cinema of Resistance’ after activists of the BJP’s students wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) disrupted a screening of Sawhney’s film at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University (DU).

So, are the battlelines drawn and the two sides finally ready to clash, after months of apparent wait-and-watch? A year after Modi’s coronation in New Delhi, there are intimations of a wave of resistance engulfing cultural-intellectual spaces such as campuses and the world of film-making, taking on the RSS-led Sangh Parivar’s agenda in the spheres of education and culture. And, interestingly, the epicentre of the unrest is FTII, Pune, the premier educational institution for aspiring filmmakers.

On 1 August, the day ABVP activists barged into the auditorium at the Delhi college to stop the screening of Sawhney’s film, in faraway Pune, students of his alma mater, FTII, had been on strike for 50 days, protesting against the Modi regime’s decision to appoint known acolytes of the Sangh Parivar as the chairman of the governing council and members of the FTII society, disregarding all the doubts raised by students and faculty over their credentials and alleged lack of “merit”. Since 12 June, three days after the government announced the appointment of bjp politician Gajendra Chauhan, better known as the man who played Yudhisthira in BR Chopra’s TV series Mahabharat, as the chairman of the institute, the students had been demanding his removal. They are also demanding the suspension of the 12-member society, alleging that five of the members were nominated by the Modi regime solely because of their close connections with the Sangh. In fact, in the wake of these controversial appointments, three of the other members of the society resigned — National Award-winning Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Barua, popular cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan and actor Pallavi Joshi.

The day after the ABVP attack in Kirori Mal College, 80-odd FTII students reached the national capital and took out a protest march on 2 August from Jantar Mantar to Parliament Street, where they faced the police baton and detention. When they returned to the guest house where they had hired rooms, the caretaker asked them to find another place to stay. The caretaker had apparently heard them talk and figured out that they were “protesting against the government”.

The protesting students managed to stay in Delhi for nearly a week with their friends and supporters among students in the city. They met Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley and other top ministry officials, but that did not end the stalemate and the students returned to Pune. They were not disheartened, though, for they had already seen how the State deals with opposition from citizens at close quarters in Pune and so making a headway through talks with representatives of the government was perhaps not uppermost on their agenda. They managed to reach out to a wide cross-section of students across various campuses in the capital and earn their solidarity, and that, say the protesters, was far more significant for their struggle than getting the government to heed their demands.

“The protest by the FTII  students revived memories of the upsurge that followed the 16 December 2012 gangrape in Delhi,” says a student of Delhi University. “It had as electrifying an effect on many of us with its choice of slogans and other creative expressions of opposition. It was clearly a refreshing break from the routine protests carried out by the mainstream students outfits on campus.”

Indeed, the strike has fired the imagination of a whole generation of students and lovers of cinema across the country. Interacting with students in more than 150 campuses, the FTII protesters put their finger on a simmering rage against the attempts of the Modi regime to impose the Sangh’s vision on institutions of learning and culture. “We are getting overwhelming support not just from students but also others who are disturbed by the Modi regime’s actions,” says Shini JK, a student of TV editing at FTII . “We are all part of the resistance to the Sangh’s plans to dominate the way our institutions are run.” In the crosshairs of the resistance are appointments made by the government not just to the FTII society but also in several other institutions and bodies of cultural governance, including the Indian Institute of Technology- Bombay, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Indian Council of Historical Research, the National Book Trust, the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology- Nagpur, the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies-Shimla, the Banaras Hindu University, Nalanda University, the National Council of Educational Research and Technology, the Central Board of Film Certification, and Prasar Bharati.

The groundswell of the protest goes much beyond the FTII campus, covering several central and state universities where students have been agitating on their own issues. It is from these places that the FTII  students have found its most dedicated supporters, who, in turn, have discovered in the sustained resistance in Pune all the inspiration they need to push ahead with their own struggles on demands to do with academic freedom, curricula design, infrastructure and so on.

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