On Wednesday, a Pune court granted bail to five Film and Television Institute of India students arrested in a midnight raid on charges of vandalism and unlawful assembly. The police action came in response to a complaint filed by the institute's newly-appointed director that students had detained him in his office for several hours on Monday to protest his decision to complete the assessment of projects by students of the 2008 batch, who are still waiting to graduate.

Several of these so-called long-term students have been at the forefront of the agitation that has brought the country's premier film school to a halt for 70 days now. Viewing director Prashant Pathrabe's decision on assessing their work as a tactic to ease their colleagues from the 2008 batch off the campus and break the strike, several students surrounded him in his office on Monday as he held discussions with six faculty members.

While videos of the sit-in show Pathrabe chatting congenially with the students, he claimed at a press conference later that he had been put under immense stress.

The court while granting bail to the students reportedly said that since they had come to discuss their academic work with the director in the presence of faculty members, their gathering could not be considered unlawful – unless the faculty was charged as well.

This is only the latest in a series of protests at the government-run institute since the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting appointed actor Gajendra Chauhan as its chairperson just over two months ago. The students say that he does not have the credibility or experience to head the institution.

As news of the midnight arrests spread, some people began to criticise students who have continued to stay on campus for longer than the three years that their diploma courses are supposed to run. These students were living in the hostel for free, and worse, they were doing this at the cost of Rs 12 lakh per head to the taxpayer. Some of the more snarky pointed out that several of the students in the protest seemed to be middle-aged.


Long-term students

Of course, much of this is exaggeration.

For one, there is no age limit for entry to the FTII. It is quite possible that students even in the newest batch might be much older than the average university student.

While several of these older students entered the institute in 2008, it isn't their fault that they're still around.

The problem for the 2008 batch started after the Supreme Court ordered government institutions to increase the number of seats for students from the scheduled castes and tribes and other reserved categories, even while it maintained the number of general seats. As a result, the FTII doubled the size of its student body – without having the infrastructure to handle them.

To graduate, students have to create a final diploma film with one team member from each discipline – editing, cinematography, sound and so on. With equipment, studios and professors unavailable, seven of the 14 groups from the 2008 batch have been unable to complete their films. Of these, two still need more camera work while the remaining five are stuck at various stages of editing.

The 2008 batch were particularly unfortunate. “At one point the institution, including the administration and the dean, realised that the backlog would spin out for all future batches,” said Jabeen Merchant, a former FTII student. “So they decided to contain the damage by giving priority to the batches after them. Students admitted later have finished their diploma films while the 2008 students continue to wait their turn.”

With each successive year, it becomes more difficult for students from the 2008 to complete their projects. With no classes to attend, they go out for part-time jobs, making it more difficult to coordinate with the rest of their group.

When Pathrabe was appointed as director last month, he decided that the 2008 batch would be eased out by assessing them on the basis of their first-year performance and whatever work they had completed on the film. This is impossible to do, since any film brings together several processes. If the shooting is incomplete, for instance, editors will not have enough to work to be evaluated on.

Pathrabe, as an administrator from the Indian Information Services cadre, may not have had experience with filmmaking to know this. The faculty, however, opposed this decision, saying they would not participate in incomplete evaluations. This, said Haaris Ahmad, a student present at the sit-in, was the subject of Monday’s meeting, and was the reason students had questioned the director so belligerently.

“The students from the previous batches are very close to completing their projects,” he said. “Once the strike is over, they are ready to submit and move on from the institution. They do not want to stay on forever.”

The arrest

The five students arrested are now out on bail at Rs 3,000 each. It is not yet clear if the others named in the FIR will be charged.

Most of the 15 named in the FIR are students who have been at the forefront of the protest, including those who have been talking to the media since the agitation began on June 12. Most are not from that 2008 batch. At least two of the students were not even on campus at the time of Monday’s protests, Ahmad claimed.

The arrests, students say, are a strategy to undermine their protest.

“These students are the most important faces of the protests,” said Ahmad. “The move was not about assessments, they just want to break the strike.”

Still, he did not believe that this would be enough to break the strike. “These might be the students who speak most often to the media, but all 200 of us on campus are in agreement," Ahmad said. "We have no leaders in our protest.”