Student protests have engulfed the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata since the administration on Monday expelled 14 female students for failing to move out of what was previously a co-educational hostel and into one that is for women alone. Eighteen male students have also had their hostel allotments cancelled allegedly for forcibly occupying the yet-to-be-vacated rooms. Since Tuesday, students have barred administration officials, including director Debamitra Mitra, from their offices.
Working out of the campus guest house on Friday, Mitra said the decision to divide student residences on the basis of gender was taken in 2009 but had been implemented now because of the “many instances of sexual harassment on campus”.
In the past two years, several women students have complained of being sexually harassed and assaulted by male students and faculty members, and accused the administration of treating such complaints with hostility. In 2015, three professors were suspended on charges of sexually harassing their students.
Earlier this year, the administration’s decision to dissolve the complaints committee that investigates harassment complaints drew protests from students.
The Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute is one of two Central government-funded film colleges in the country, the other being the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.
The latest trouble at the Kolkata institute comes less than a month after women students of the Banaras Hindu University were baton-charged by police during a peaceful protest against the molestation of a student on campus. The police action had sparked widespread outrage.
Akshay Gouri, president of the students’ association at the film institute, said the order to segregate hostels came in “late July or early August”, despite student representatives in the academic council – one of the two top administrative bodies in the college – opposing the plan at a meeting in June. “We have been principally and ideologically opposed to the plan,” he said.
Gouri is sceptical about whether segregation is the answer to the institute’s problems. “Segregation and imprisoning a section of students cannot solve anything,” he said. “This is absolutely regressive and takes the place back a 100 years.”
‘They did this to defy the administration’
Institute director Debamitra Mitra said the segregation plan has been around since 2009, when a decision in favour of it was taken by the governing council, the other top administrative body. “But at that time, there was only one building,” she said. “Girls and boys occupied separate wings and although there was some discussion about dividing them, structurally it was not possible.”
In 2013, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting cleared funds for a new hostel. Its construction was completed by 2015. However, male and female students continued to share the new building as well.
In June, the governing and academic councils took a final decision to separate student residences within the year. It earmarked the old hostel for men and the new building for women. “By October, segregation was complete except for the 14 girls occupying 11 rooms in the old hostel,” said Mitra. “We tried to persuade them through emails, SMSes and even invited their parents but they did not vacate. Four of them are not even in Kolkata but have locked their rooms.”
On October 11, the 14 students were given 48 hours to vacate their rooms. After that deadline had passed, Mitra said that “a few boys barged into the girls’ hostel, broke into 10 rooms and occupied them” on October 14. This was followed by break-ins at the men’s hostel too.
“They did this just to defy the administration,” she said. “On October 16, an emergency meeting of the governing council was convened and the decision to expel the 14 girls and cancel the allotments for the boys who had barged in was taken.”
The director added, “It was also reconfirmed that segregation is a must. We have had so many cases of sexual harassment, of boys coming from outside and harassing and beating girls up, something had to be done.”
Segregation not the only problem
But student leader Gouri is not convinced with this reasoning. “The establishment invariably says it is for security but the problem cannot be sorted by this,” he said. “The students’ association has attempted to hold gender sensitisation programmes with the faculty and some organisations active in Kolkata but there was some backlash from the administration over that. They do not care at all about harassment.”
Gouri also pointed out that while the expulsions were the immediate provocation for the protests, there are other reasons why students are angry. “Segregation was just one of the problems but the administration has blown it up because general public support for a protest against segregation is low,” he said.
On Wednesday, the students issued a statement listing some of their other complaints – poor quality of food, damp rooms and corridors, dirty washrooms, “malfunctioning electrical equipment”, fee hike, “academic projects being cut and modified”, and a shortage of funds for projects.
Gouri said some of these problems were far more pressing than the hostel segregation and directly affected the quality of education in the institute. “The playback project on song picturisation, important for mainstream film-making, was scrapped,” he said. “The budget for academic projects has not increased in six years although costs have doubled. As a result, our film projects are substandard now. Our studios are in bad shape and infrastructure, in general, is in shambles.”
The film school offers a three-year programme but students seldom complete the course work within that period because of missing infrastructure, he alleged. Consequently, there is now an “unofficial fourth year” batch of around 50 students who are still completing their projects.
Mitra admitted the delays were a problem, but blamed it on students “taking their own sweet time” on projects. She also said each 26-week course has been compressed into a 20-week programme but denied that this has diluted the syllabus, as the students allege. Rejecting the charge that the playback project has been scrapped, she explained, “The training for playback has been incorporated into the rest of the syllabus.”
She added, “The students do not understand that this is a government institution and proper processes have to be followed and that takes time.”