The Students are Alright!

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Creative chaos The premier film institute in India has become a site where art and protest meet
Creative chaos The premier film institute in India has become a site where art and protest meet.

“The FTII strike is an inspiring example for students across the country who are fighting to save their institutions from political high-handedness and also for their right to easy and equal access to affordable and good quality education,” says Akhil Kumar, former senior editor with online portal Youth Ki Awaaz. “The FTII students have been seeking solidarity from students elsewhere by explaining how what they are up against is just a symptom of a systemic malaise that denies students their basic rights and erodes the autonomy of institutions by handing them over to vested interests. They are trying to link student movements across campuses on issues that are common to all. This could snowball into a major uprising if it is strategically planned and organised under an able leadership. Earlier movements such as Hokkolorob in Jadavpur University and Kiss of Love in Kochi had succeeded in forging a culture of dissent among students, which the FTII  strike could build upon. I see this as part of a larger movement for campus democracy and educational reforms, and it would only grow more intense in the days ahead. Students everywhere are getting increasingly impatient with what they see as unfair treatment and every new protest has a powerful symbolic value for protesters in other places. This will be a big challenge for the Modi regime, which will try to crush it by any means possible.”

Take Pondicherry University, for instance, where students were agitating for months over several demands, including removal of Vice-Chancellor Chandra Krishnamurthy who was accused of forging her CV. The protesting students and faculty had to face attacks from the police and goons before the Union human resource development ministry issued a show-cause notice to Krishnamurthy and asked her to go on leave. “She was ruling the university with an iron hand and no transparency. She threw the rule book to the wind and tried to suppress the agitation by sending goons to attack the protesters,” says N Dastegiri Reddy of the Pondicherry University Teachers’ Association. “In their struggle against the administration, the students of Pondicherry University have found common cause with the protesters at FTII.”

Cut to the University of Hyderabad, which has witnessed a number of agitations over the past one year in which the protesting students found themselves ranged against the university authorities, the police and right-wing groups. “Our movement began with the Kiss of Love protest and survived constant surveillance and other means employed by the authorities to break us,” says Vaikhari Aryat, a research-student in the political science department. “We see the FTII strike, too, as part of the larger students’ movement against growing authoritarian ism on campuses.”

The sentiment is echoed by Ria De, a researcher in the film studies department of the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, who, however, also sounds a note of caution. “The FTII students have been able to draw a lot of attention from the mainstream media in terms of how they have persistently and over a prolonged period stuck to their demands. This visibility has allowed them to garner widespread support and bring to the fore how the BJP government is colluding with the RSS  in systematically saffronising educational institutions across the country,” she says. “But a lot of the media attention is not positive, replete as it is with the typical kinds of responses to protests: that only a ‘handful’ of students are creating trouble and that they are ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘anti-national’.”

De points out that similar protests by students in other campuses, both before the FTII  strike began and ever since, have failed to get that kind of “mainstream” visibility. “What made the FTII strike relatively more visible was the institute’s proximity to the film industry and the national intellectual circuit,” she says.

During the early days of the protest at FTII , Ajayan Adat, a sound recording and sound engineering student of the 2008 batch, told Tehelka that over the past several years, right-wing groups had been trying to enter the campus and had also attacked the students more than once. “In fact, one of the new appointees in the FTII  society, Narendra Pathak, had led an assault on students in 2013,” alleges Adat, whose batchmates are being targeted by the government for being the key “troublemakers”.

Vikas Urs, spokesperson of the FTII students’ body, says that it is their duty as students to question the appointment of people such as Pathak. “The government is clearly in a tight spot,” he says. “If it bows down to our genuine demands, that would put at risk its entire plan to impose its agenda on educational institutions.”

The stand-off between the Modi regime and the FTII students entered a new phase on the night of 18-19 August when police cases were slapped on 15 students and five were arrested.

Perhaps the first confrontation between students and the BJP regime at the Centre took place in May, exactly a year after Modi came to power. That fight was over the banning of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in IIT-Madras. “The government’s action exposed its intention to promote the Sangh’s ideology in the campuses and suppress all dissenting voices,” says Arumita Mitra, a philosophy student at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. “At the same time, the BJP regime is also taking forward some of the controversial projects of the previous Congress- led government such as the Four- Year Undergraduate Programme, which has now been imposed in Delhi University in a slightly tweaked form called the Choice-Based Credit System. Students and teachers there have been relentlessly opposing it.”

In the backdrop of protests in campuses across the country, the FTII protest has become a symbol of students’ resistance to the Modi regime. “The FTII strike has managed to articulate the shared fears and concerns of all those who believe in democracy and freedom of speech,” says Vani Mecheril, a researcher at the School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “It could well become the harbinger of more intense struggles.”

In a country where half the population is less than 25 years old, discontent in the campuses is bad news for any government. And when the discontent brews dissent, opposition and resistance, it can seriously threaten the well-being of those in power. A popular quote from Albert Camus scribbled on a wall in the FTII campus — “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion” — could well be the writing on the wall for the BJP regime. It indicates, after all, that by the simple fact of existing despite the odds stacked against it, the FTII protest is a challenge much bigger than the Pune campus where it originated.

ashok@tehelka.com

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