Four-and-a-half months after they went on strike, students of the Film and Television Institute of India have decided to call off their agitation and return to class.

“Since the government was not concerned about the welfare of the students, we had to think about it,” said Yashasvi Mishra, a spokesperson of the students. “That is why we are resuming classes. We will go back and we will learn our craft as filmmakers, but this is just the beginning of our larger battle against the forces of fascism.”

At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, students announced that they would return to classes but would no longer engage with the government until the controversy about new appointments to key positions in the institute could be resolved. While asserting that their protests would continue, they called on others in film community to take on the struggle outside the campus.

On Wednesday evening, members of the film community did just that as several filmmakers across the country, including Dibakar Banerjee, Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma, announced that they would return their national awards.

Students and the film community have been raising questions about the controversial appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan as the chairperson of the FTII. They said he lacked the stature to head the country’s premier film school.

Several tactics

In their standoff with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which runs the institute, students had stopped attending classes, gone on an 18-day hunger strike and had even been arrested as they protested Chauhan’s appointment.

The government at first attempted to ignore the furore, but later sent representatives to speak with the students. However, students have not been satisfied with the negotiations.

“In 139 days, this past month was the first where there were five rounds of discussion with the government,” Mishra said. “Everyone from the Secretary to the Minister of State Rathore came and spoke to us, but we realised that the government has no intention to resolve this.”

Instead of addressing the question of Chauhan’s appointment, the officials offered other concessions, such as better infrastructure and equipment and a one-member committee to be delegated exclusively for FTII.

“The strike was not for that but for the process of appointment and the government was not willing to address that,” Mishra said.

Awards returned

Hours after the student press conference, filmmakers announced that they too would begin to return awards they had received from the government.

Individual filmmakers have begun to return their national awards to the government – and their gesture is not just for FTII but the larger atmosphere of communalisation in the country. They include Dibakar Banerjee, Anand Patwardhan, Rakesh Sharma, Paresh Kamdar, Nishtha Jain, Hari Nair, Kirti Nakhwa, Harshvardhan Kulkarni, Indraneel Lahiri and Lipika Singh Darai. In Pune, two recent FTII graduates, Pratik Vats and Vikrant Pawar also returned their awards.

“Our cinema represents a rich diversity of political opinions and aesthetic expression,” the filmmakers said in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee. “It was a matter of great pride for us that the government of India had awarded this plurality. If we do not stand up and register our protest now we are in the danger of being a part of the process that is flattening out our beautiful landscape of diversity.”

Rakesh Sharma, a documentary filmmaker whose 2004 film Final Solution was on the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat and won a National Award, said that every Indian needs to speak out against “the current reign of bigotry, intolerance, fear and intimidation that now threatens the very idea of India”. He added: “We, as film-makers, need to register our strongest protests against the prevailing climate of fear and intimidation that threatens not just our constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, but the very fabric of plurality, diversity and Indian democracy itself.”

Anand Patwardhan, another filmmaker who has consistently documented human rights violations through his films, will return the National Award he received for his 1985 film Humara Sheher, about housing in Mumbai.

“For me, a National Award is higher than awards from international festivals and privately run ones in India,” he said. “A government award represents to me a moment when the government of India was actually upholding the sipirt of the Constitution.”

While he acknowledged that the present government was not the one that had given him this award, he said, “We do not have any other ammunition to protest for those of who us believe in non-violent struggles.”

Paresh Kamdar, another artist who returned his award on Wednesday, is a graduate of the 1986 batch of FTII. He has won a National Award for Rasayatra.

“[This] is a gesture of solidarity with the students,” Kamdar said. “Saving the film institute and film culture in general is not only the responsibility of the students, it is also the responsibility of the larger film fraternity, especially the alumni. This also a gesture of protesting against the government’s apathy towards the FTII in particular and what is happening in society in particular. What is happening at the institute is not separate from what is happening to writers and minorities.”