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Questions Under the Wisdom Tree: Inside the FTII strike 

Aritra Bhattacharya takes you inside the current protest at FTII against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan.

Updated
India
6 min read
No ambiguities here at FTII. (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)
Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree
Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”

And so, the installation (pictured above) at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) gate centre-stages the question mark. The negative-man seated beside the question mark keeps count of the number of days the strike has been on. On a chair on the other side is a boulder. Dead weight.

That’s essentially the point around which the month-and-a-half-long strike at the country’s premier film and television institute is built: the credentials of those who occupy the kursi.

The students at FTII contend that Gajendra Chauhan, recently named Chairman of the institute by the NDA government at the Centre, does not have the qualifications to occupy the chair. Neither do Anagha Ghasias, Narendra Pathak, Rahul Solapurkar, Pranchal Saikia, who have all been made part of FTII Society.

In public statements and communiques to the press, the FTII Students’ Association has clarified that they do not have an issue with the political background of the appointees. Student spokespersons have instead given primacy to questions about credentials and autonomy of the institute.

The focus of the strike is aptly captured on the ‘FTII Wisdom Tree’ Facebook page, where the cover photo states “It is not the answer that enlightens but the question.”

The campaign by the students on social media focuses on ‘No Fear’ and all social media accounts bear a logo that says “No fear: FTII Wisdom Tree”.

Under the wisdom tree on campus lies the nerve centre of the strike. Discussions, protests, performances and content branch out from here, into and beyond the city of Pune, spanning the digital and physical worlds.

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Students gather to sing protest songs inside the campus against Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)
Students gather to sing protest songs inside the campus against Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)

Outreach: Fundamental Connect

“We are going to various colleges across Pune and encouraging students to ask questions,” says Neel Manikant, a final year (direction) student at FTII who is also part of the team strategizing performances across the city.

We perform a street play and tell students of the issues we are facing in our institute, and then we ask them what they think. For instance, students in Fergusson College raised questions regarding gender discrimination, especially around the disparity in hostel fees for boys and girls. Almost in every college, students speak about the lack of quality education and institutional autonomy.
– Neel Manikant, FTII Student

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FTII students performing a street play. (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)
FTII students performing a street play. (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)

There is a fundamental connect among students that we are tapping into,” Neel says, before being interrupted by the beats of jembe.

The Pune police commissioner has come to meet the FTII Director Prashant Pathrabe, and the students are on alert. There have been a few police visits to the campus since the strike began, but of late, various government functionaries have spoken of the need for disciplinary action. A member of the staff has also filed a complaint against some students, so the strikers on campus now apprehend arrest in the event of a police visit.

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Pune police entering the FTII campus. (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)
Pune police entering the FTII campus. (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)

Discourse of the Agitation

But who actually are the striking students? Especially since Radio FTII manager Sanjay Chandekar, following his recent complaint to the police, alleged that not all students are involved in the strike?

As with any long-duration agitation, the organisation of strike-related activities is handled by a core group of around ten students. Responsibilities are divided among four teams that work on outreach; yearn to learn; engaging with the media; and coordinating with educational institutes across the country.

An informal meeting in session in one of the corridors of the FTII building. (Photo:Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)
An informal meeting in session in one of the corridors of the FTII building. (Photo:Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)

General Body Meetings (GBM) take place daily under the Wisdom Tree, where the various aspects of the agitation, the turns it is taking, the responses or lack thereof from government officials and the ministry, the plans for agitations by and with colleges in other cities et al, they are all discussed.

The core group works on day-to-day strategy, while policy level decisions — like what will be our stand in talks with the I&B ministry— are taken during GBMs.
– Ajayan Adat, Final Year Student

For most of the day, the wisdom tree hosts a floating population. Among the ones who rest under it are students in transit within and outside the campus, faculty members and staffers who support the students but have not made official statements, and a trickle of journalists.

On occasions when there is an event or a performance, students stream in and gather around the strike chhavni. This happens every time there is a threat of police action too.

For instance, when the Pune police commissioner arrived with three SUVs to meet the FTII Director, the chhavni was infused with new energy. Students already present there began playing the jembe and violin, singing, while other students from various streams poured in from the hostels.

Students’ Association President Harishankar says there have been several attempts to create a rift between students in order to weaken the strike. The media has played a big role in this: various people within and outside FTII have levelled allegations of backlog, ex-students staying on campus on taxpayers’ money, and ‘anarchy’ on campus through media outlets.

FTII students at a make-shift social media control room pushing the battle online. (Photo:Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)
FTII students at a make-shift social media control room pushing the battle online. (Photo:Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)

Since the beginning of the strike, the Students Association has been stressing that their problem isn’t with the ideology of the five members in FTII society, but with their lack of credentials. Social media channels handled by the students point this out repeatedly.

Ideology is one thing, stature another. Stars like Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna have long been associated with the BJP, yet no one sees them as saffron elements — they are too tall as actors to be dwarfed by a particular ideology. They add colour to the party, the party doesn’t colour their personality.
– FTII Wisdom Tree page on Facebook

Social media channels have been crucial in setting the terms of discourse of the agitation.

“A segment of the media has been presenting a very partial picture,” says Shini JK, television editing student and part of the media cell. “It is only via social media that we have been able to counter these allegations, and share developments with all kinds of people.”

The media team that Shini is part of runs a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, a Soundcloud account and a Twitter handle. The FTII Wisdom Tree Facebook page has around 7,000 followers. Through the page, the media team mainly shares support letters, articles, responses to allegations in media, and quotes from eminent personalities in support of the strike.

FTII students addressing the media (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)
FTII students addressing the media (Photo: Facebook/FTIIWisdomTree)

The last aspect has often required persuasion of the coordination team. Students have often travelled to Mumbai to engage with people from the film industry. “A few people have had issues in coming out openly in support of us. But they all see the point in the questions we are raising,” says Ajayan, who is also part of the coordinating team. “Gradually, they are coming out. Student bodies in several educational institutes like SRFTI, JNU and Jadavpur University have also extended their support to us.”

The biggest worry for us is the attempt to break our morale via various means including the media. Some people are trying to arm-twist the agitation and break our unity. Disciplinary action, like expulsion, we can deal with only if we are together.
– Harishankar, FTII Students’ Association President

Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya
Photo: Aritra Bhattacharya

The threat of such action looms large, but the students say unless the key questions in the matter are addressed, they will not back out. Graffiti outside the main theatre states:

“No puppet theatre here.”

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Questions Under the Wisdom Tree: Inside the FTII strike 

Meanwhile, the question mark at the gate, already vandalised thrice by ‘unknown persons’, counts the days.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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