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‘Campus Rising’ documentary captures the anger of students across Indian universities

Director Yousuf Saeed was guided by the belief that ‘through politics, students are asking the right questions’.

The students of India’s university campuses are angry and not going to take it anymore – this is the upshot of Yousuf Saeed’s documentary Campus Rising. The 74-minute film looks at student agitations in colleges and universities across India over the past few years. The documentary features interviews with several students voicing their grievances against administrative bodies, parochial attitudes, institutionalised casteism, and all-round intolerance towards the freedom of expression. Kanhaiya Kumar and historians Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib make appearances in the film, among others.

Saeed, who has been making documentaries since 1990, was inspired by the furore at Jawaharlal Nehru University in February last year. Following clashes between rival student groups, Kanhaiya Kumar and others were arrested on trumped-up charges of sedition. That and the suicide of Hyderabad Central University PhD scholar Rohith Vemula in the previous month set the ball rolling for Campus Rising.

“The starting point of my film was the JNU incident last year,” Saeed said. “I shot the film in January and February this year, which is when the Ramjas incident happened.”

Vemula’s suicide generated protests across campuses in India. This was followed by the JNU incident, which was in turn followed by clashes between students and authorities at the Banaras Hindu University in May over the issue of timings allotted for cyber libraries to be open. In February this year, students of Delhi University’s Ramjas College clashed with right-wing student groups. In September, BHU students protested against the administration’s inability to address molestation.

Saeed wondered about the reason behind these repeated agitations at university campuses. “I realised that there is hardly any opposition now,” he Saeed. “The opposition parties are inactive. Then I saw that the students are active and kind of trying to do something. So I started to go to universities and began exploring the subject.”

Campus Rising.

Campus Rising is structured as a series of interviews with students from JNU, BHU, HCU, Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. The message is the same across campuses: student rights are being curbed by the system. While a JNU student argues for his right to debate without violence, a BHU student asks why his caste is a matter of interest to his peers. One student points out that for 70 upper caste teachers, there are only two or three teachers from marginalised communities. A female student speaks about the way women are being repressed with gender-biased hostel rules.

The students featured in Campus Rising are resentful towards their university administrations. The rare right-wing student appears for a few seconds to perhaps provide a semblance of balance, but by and large, Campus Rising is far from being a well-rounded look at India’s students. In one scene, riled up by public accounts of marginalisation by his lower caste peers, an upper caste student asks, “So, should we people leave the country?” He is greeted with claps and whistles but the mic is taken away from him by the organisers.

Apart from students of the leftist and the liberal persuasions, the film does not explore students from suburban universities, and does not feature enough interviews with teachers and administrative members. For some viewers, Campus Rising may come off as one note. Saeed has some answers for the criticism.

Yogendra Yadav in a still from Campus Rising. Photo credit: Yousuf Saeed.
Yogendra Yadav in a still from Campus Rising. Photo credit: Yousuf Saeed.

“Most teachers were not open to talk in front of the camera,” Saeed explained. “They were concerned about their jobs. Plus the right-wing students I interviewed had mostly one thing to say: this and this is against the country. There was hardly any new opinion. They were speaking on the same anti-JNU, why-do-they-support-Kashmir lines. That approach has no depth. So, if I put more of their stuff in, it would seem like I am ridiculing them.”

Saeed also cited the strict regulations under which he had to shoot as a reason for the film’s incompleteness. Either the on-campus staff would not cooperate, or the security people would intervene. At Jamia Milia Islamia and BHU, he had to shoot clandestinely.

“And besides me, a bunch of filmmakers are making documentaries on this subject right now, Anand Patwardhan, for example,” Saeed said. “I have spoken to them and we have decided that let us document it and put it out in the public view. So, I am focusing on one aspect, someone else will focus on another.”

Prior to filming, Saeed did not have an optimistic view of student politics. For as long as he could remember he wondered, “If they [students] do politics all the time, when do they study?” He was a student of biology at the Aligarh Muslim University in the 1980s. He stayed far away from politics as an undergraduate and observed student unions from a distance. It was when he studied mass communication at Jamia Milia Islamia that he came in touch with the social sciences, which influenced his decision to become a filmmaker.

“While making the film, I realised that the issues the students are raising are important and if students don’t raise them, who will?” Saeed said. “Some amount of student politics is important because through politics, they are asking the right questions.”

There is a tendency among science students to move away from the socio-political discourse because of their focus on career-oriented matters. He hopes for that to change.

“Politics makes one aware,” Saeed said. “The students in JNU are the way they are because their teachers inculcate in them values of social justice which the students try and implement them on the ground through activism. Politics can help change the country and not just make one a corrupt neta.”

A still from Campus Rising. Photo credit: Yousuf Saeed.
A still from Campus Rising. Photo credit: Yousuf Saeed.

Saeed wishes to screen Campus Rising across colleges and universities, but he has a problem. He needs his documentary to be cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification, and he is not sure he will be given a censor certificate. He is also wary of shows being cancelled because of complaints. So far, the documentary has had just one public screening, at a film festival in Nagpur. In November, it will be screened at Film Southasia in Kathmandu.

“Earlier, if you raised your voice, nobody bothered, because most of the time, it did not spread,” Saeed explained. “Now, the media, the internet and related platforms are in the control of the corporates which are in alliance with the present government and their control is being pushed on us. Now we are being watched all the time. Anything we do is immediately reported online. The problem is that there is a culture of fear around right now. If we raise our voice, something may or may not happen. We don’t know. But the fear exists because we know that they are watching.”

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