As college campuses across the country erupt in protest against the citizenship law, one prominent institution is conspicuous by its absence – the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.
What makes the absence of protests at the FTII particularly stark is that in 2015, the campus was shut for around 140 days as the students agitated against actor Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment as the institute’s chairman. The protest, which attracted national attention, saw the students lathicharged by the police and many of them booked.
After the 2015 protest, the FTII put in place a regime of restrictions to curb student unrest, and this is the key reason why the campus, home to less than 250 students, is quiet now. The restrictions mean that attending something as harmless as a birthday celebration can invite a “proctor’s notice”, which would bar the student from getting scholarships, foreign exchange programmes, and even certificates. To ensure compliance, security guards are tasked with videographing students’ meetings, and even birthday and festival celebrations.
In spite of the restrictions, the students have been protesting against a hike in fees since December 16. They, however, expect to get proctor’s notices for it, as also for organising meetings to express solidarity with students of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University who were brutalised by the police after protesting against the citizenship law. The FTII students say the proctor’s notice is a “draconian system to suppress their voices”. And it is what is keeping them from joining protests against the citizenship law.
“The proctor system started in 2016, a few months after the strike ended in October 2015,” said Sharath Warrier, a student of editing who joined the FTII in 2017. “The administration created this post out of nowhere and now any student who raises concerns about irregularities in administration or academics is served with the proctor’s notice. Students have been served notices for birthday and festival celebrations. Once the notice is served, students cannot avail of scholarships, foreign exchange programmes and even bonafide certificates.”
Warrier has received proctor’s notices for participating in a Christmas celebration and for protesting against the removal of heads of department from the academic council.
The academic council, set up in 1974 in keeping with the GD Khosla Committee’s recommendations, comprised the FTII’s chairperson, director, registrar, an external academic expert, all HODs, two student representatives, and four alumni. In 2017, Warrier said, the students were deprived of having a say in the council’s decisions. In September 2019, the HODs were removed. Now, he pointed out, the council is “completely in the hands of bureaucrats, in violation of the Khosla committee”.
Warrier said the proctor’s notices are sent for “the smallest of things”. But even after furnishing a “proper explanation”, the student is told that disciplinary action will be taken. “The administration just accuse us of anything, they don’t even do a proper inquiry based on facts. Many a time people who were not even present at a gathering or a protest on the campus were served the notices. Of the nearly 250 students at the FTII, nearly a hundred have got the notices.”
The FTII students went on strike for nearly 140 days four years ago.
Akshay Mohite, who studies cinematography, got a proctor’s notice, dated November 28, 2018, alleging he had consumed alcohol in FTII Residential Colony in September and disturbed the neighbourhood by shouting. He continued to do so even after being warned by security guards, added the notice, a copy of which is with Newslaundry.
Mohite was told to reply to the notice by December 5, failing which it would be assumed he had no explanation to offer and the administration would take disciplinary action against him without further reference.
“I responded to the proctor immediately and said I was not involved in any such activity. I was on the campus that night but I was in my room. I also wrote to the authorities and asked them to show me CCTV footage to prove the accusation they had made against me or any proof that I had indulged in any such act,” Mohite said. “I also questioned all the authorities, including director and registrar, on what basis they had made such accusations. But till date they haven’t responded. The sole purpose of such factless notices is to threaten students who are raising questions about the administration.”
He added, “Students are served notices for the smallest of things. Last year, I and some others were given notices for taking part in a Christmas celebration. They asked for our replies and when we responded, the authorities said our replies were unsatisfactory. I do not understand why we should get notices for celebrating a festival. They are oppressing the students and putting fear in our minds through these proctor’s notices. Students who get the notices, their scholarships and foreign exchange visits are cancelled. They are unable to get the facilities and perks meant for an FTII student.”
Shikha Bisht, who studies art direction and production design, has been a topper all through her time at the FTII, yet she was denied a scholarship as well as an exchange visit to France because of proctor’s notices served to her. She had received the notices, Bisht said, for “raising concerns about administrative and academic irregularities”, and for celebrating, along with around 30 other students, near the Wisdom Tree, where the FTII students gather for music, discussions, casual conversations, and meetings.
“I joined the FTII in 2016 after the strike got over. We were made to sign an affidavit without which we would not be given admissions. A year later, we discovered that the affidavit was meant to keep us from taking part in protests,” Bisht said. “I got my first proctor’s notice in 2017. The administration was forcing us to shoot an assignment in two days despite there being the option of doing it in three days. It was not possible to shoot the film in two days. We wrote many letters to the administration citing our reasons but they didn’t respond. Finally, we organised a march, playing drums and shouting slogans on the campus. So, two of us students received proctor’s notices.”
In 2018, Bisht received another notice, this time for allegedly putting up a poster that contained “derogatory remarks” against the FTII officials. She was also served a notice for celebrating her birthday. “I received the notice for celebrating my birthday before my birthday.”
The notices meant that Bisht stopped getting her scholarship money. “I have repeatedly requested them to release my scholarship money which was given to me on the basis of merit, but the authorities haven’t released it. Despite being the topper in every semester and fulfilling the eligibility criteria to go on a foreign exchange visit, I was not sent because I took part in protests and was served proctor’s notices. Students here have received notices even for celebrating Holi, Diwali and Christmas. These tactics are meant to make students fearful so they don’t raise their voice against any irregularities.”
FTII campus during the 2015 strike.
Samadrita Ghosh, a film editing student, got a proctor’s notice for attending a birthday celebration. “We celebrate birthdays, and Diwali, Christmas and other festivals near the Wisdom Tree. I got a proctor’s notice stating that I had been dancing in front of the FTII logo outside the director’s office and consuming alcohol. Some other day maybe I did it. But that particular day, I was not doing anything. I told them as much. I also asked them to show me CCTV footage or some proof of what I had allegedly done. They had nothing.”
According to the notice served to Ghosh and accessed by Newslaundry, the FTII security had complained to the proctor that Ghosh and a few other students were dancing near the production building on July 14, playing playing loud music and drinking. “This is an act of blatant violation of the signed undertaking given by you at the time of taking admission to FTII,” the notice reads, adding that if she failed to offer an explanation within the prescribed time, it would be considered that she had nothing to say and the FTII would proceed against her without further reference.
Ghosh responded to the notice as instructed, only to receive a letter from the assistant proctor that her reply was “evasive and unsatisfactory”. She was also informed through the letter, a copy of which was accessed by Newslaundry, that “any violation renders a student ineligible for scholarships, international exchange programmes, attendance at film festivals, and other benefits”.
“Filming of students by security guards is harassment,” Ghosh complained. “Even if three-four people are just sitting and talking, security guards make videos of us. They constantly film us, whether it’s at some celebration or the general body meeting. As a woman, I feel uncomfortable when somebody is filming us on their personal phones. We don’t have any problem with CCTV cameras but guards making videos of us on their phones is harassment. I mentioned this in my reply to the notice as well but they found it unsatisfactory.”
FTII campus during the 2015 strike.
Adheep Das, who studies film direction, joined the FTII last year. He has received three notices so far, two for participating in protests and one for attending a Christmas party.
“I received the first notice in my first semester when students were protesting against administrative and academic irregularities at the FTII. It was for putting up posters, supposedly at a time when I was watching a film at a general screening,” he recalled. “I was served another notice for attending a Christmas celebration on the campus and then, recently, for protesting against the removal of HODs from the academic council. There’s a trend with proctor’s notices that every explanation offered by the student is considered invalid after which students don’t receive any further communication from the authorities. They don’t provide proof or conduct any inquiry. And once a notice is served a student is devoid of his rights as an FTII student. Students who are served with notices cannot even attend international film festivals.”
The FTII has made it mandatory for students to sign an affidavit at the time of admission affirming that they won’t take part in protests. This year, it formed a WhatsApp group of the parents of new students to keep a check on them.
“Students were sent a mail by the authorities asking them for the numbers and addresses of their parents because the administration wanted to congratulate them,” said a student of the 2019 batch who would only speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Then, a parents’ meeting was called in order to discourage newly admitted students from taking part in any protests during their stay at the FTII. They also told our parents that some students in the past had become alcoholics to ensure they keep tabs on us.”
The student added: “In the meeting, it was decided to form a WhatsApp group of the parents. Some parents said the consent of students should be taken before forming the group. Disregarding that, a WhatsApp group was formed. Two months ago, when the protest against the removal of HODs from the academic council began, the director posted in that group that some students were being forced to join the protest. It was totally false because every student there was participating voluntarily. The director also asked the parents to come to the institute to resolve the issue.”
An FTII official privy to the system of proctor’s notices confirmed the concerns raised by the students. “It’s done on the orders of the administration. Proctors have to follow the orders of the administration,” said the official, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals. “Filming of students on personal phones is wrong, it is harassment, especially to girls. The administration has been informed about this but they have not stopped it. They say CCTV cameras are not there at many places and filming is required to know what is happening.”
He also confirmed that new students were made to sign an affidavit swearing that they would not indulge “in any activity against the FTII”. “They have made the system too strict of students,” the official added.
Asked why so many students were being served proctor’s notices and whether this was meant to suppress their voices, BP Singh, chairman of the FTII, said, “I don’t want to comment on this issue. Simple reason is that it might aggravate the situation and soon we are going to have a meeting in Delhi. So, I don’t want to say anything.”
Newslaundry also contacted Bhupendra Kainthola, director of the FTII, but he didn’t respond.