It’s been three months since students opposed the imposition of an unsuitable chairperson on India’s premier film institute. As the government digs in its heels and refuses to acknowledge it erred, the students have now started a hunger strike
Recent developments at the Film and Television Institute of India – coming close on the heels of the successful protest of ex-servicemen for ‘One Rank, One Pension’ – raise a very important question: Are hunger strikes the only way citizens under the current administration’s rule can hope to be granted their rights?
Over 90 days have passed since the students from the Film and Television Institute of India went on strike to protest the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as head of the institute and four other sangh parivar nominees as members of the FTII society. The students had taken their protest to campuses across the country and even to Parliament Street in Delhi in the hope that their voice would be heard. Various artists, former students, current faculty members and a large number of eminent filmmakers came out in their support. In fact, just a couple of days ago, several members from the film fraternity sent the President a letter urging him to end the strife that the students at the institute are going through.
Following the long wait that included threats, wrongful arrests and harsh allegations being hurled at them, the students at the institute finally met with a three-member delegation from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on August 21. What seemed like a glimmer of hope has unfortunately dissolved, leaving the students in a state of continued agitation, only this time, they have decided to starve themselves. It has been over 20 days since the delegation met students and faculty at the FTII, but the report that came as a result of the meeting is yet to be made public. Students are in the dark about what the I&B ministry delegation reported back. Furthermore, the minutes of the meeting that have been recorded and are in the possession of Institute director Prashant Pathrabe have also not been shared with the students.
What’s the status now?
After the meeting, reports quoted Minister of State for I&B Rajyavardhan Rathore saying that the delegation’s mandate was solely to discuss the evaluation of the projects of the 2008 batch and not the controversy surrounding the appointment of Chauhan and others. A student from the institute, Ranjit Nair who spoke to The Wire begs to differ: “The delegation that was headed by Mr SM Khan gave us a patient hearing and they listened to all the issues we raised. We are unaware of what took place after the delegation returned to Delhi and presented the ministry with the report.” The lack of response has been disheartening for the students. Now that the ministry is sitting on a report that should have been released shortly after the meeting, the students say they have been forced to take an extreme measure and go on a hunger strike.
A faculty member Abhijit Das, had joined the hunger strike to show his solidarity with the protesting students. He was forced to withdraw due to health concerns. The students have now decided to adopt a rotational strike strategy. The three students currently on strike are Alok Arora, Himanshu Shekhar and Hilal Sawad (who got hospitalised today and will be replaced by a fellow student). “The student body has taken a unanimous decision to go on a hunger strike. We have waited for a long time, but we are continually being ignored, it has become clear that the government is just waiting for the strike to end so that they can carry on without answering any of our questions”, said Ranjit.
As if the fact that classes are not going on weren’t bad enough, the students have now felt compelled to shut down the parallel lectures that they were conducting in the wake of the strike. When asked how long the strike would go on, Ranjit said, “We were honestly hoping that we would not have to strike for so long to begin with, but if all our demands and questions are ignored, we will be left with no choice but to stay in a state of strike. We hope that the ministry responds. All of us want to get back to class as well.”
Something that has been raised time and again during the strike is the allegation that the students are ‘pampered’ and ‘lazy’ and that this is the reason the FTII has a backlog of students waiting to graduate. Words like “middle aged freeloaders” have been repeatedly thrown the students’ way. Anagha Ghaisas – one of the FTII Society members whose appointment the students are protesting – made nasty comments about the student body on a television program. This allegation is unfortunate considering the fact that the students have repeatedly made an effort to clarify the reasons for the delay in project submissions. “We have written to the ministry time and again regarding this issue. The syllabus of the college needs restructuring, as it is impossible for 12 students to finish all their final projects in one year. We have explained this to the ministry and the public in several press conferences that we held. The ministry has not given us any tentative date or anything of the kind. We are hoping that we would be able to communicate with Mr Rathore directly because there has been so much miscommunication”, Ranjit added.
Battle of nerves, and justice
The support that the FTII students have received from the film fraternity with their latest letter to the President was an encouraging sign, but the students remain sceptical. “90 days is a very long time to wait. We have been in direct communication and have made attempts through back channels. We have urged the director and the registrar to address our grievances but nothing is happening at all. We appreciate the support we are receiving, but genuinely feel that a hunger strike is the only option we had left” said Ranjit expressing the student body’s desire to continue the strike.
The government has remained unmoved by days and days of protest. Parents have come out in support of the students but have repeatedly said that each day that goes by is a growing financial liability for them. The fact that the pace of developments in this case has been so glacial and that the five controversial appointees remain firmly in place is a clear reflection of the ministry’s lack of interest in the demands the students have been raising all this time.