Protests against alleged caste discrimination rage at film institute in Kerala named after first Dalit President

For the past 10 days, students at the K.R. Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts at Thekkumthala in Kottayam have been on an indefinite strike demanding the resignation of Shankar Mohan, the institute’s director, for alleged caste discrimination and other charges

Updated - December 14, 2022 07:51 pm IST

Published - December 14, 2022 07:33 pm IST - KOTTAYAM

Students of the K.R. Narayanan Institute of Visual Science and Arts, Thekkumthala, Kottayam, staging a protest on Wednesday.

Students of the K.R. Narayanan Institute of Visual Science and Arts, Thekkumthala, Kottayam, staging a protest on Wednesday. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The ongoing 27th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in the capital has become a new nerve centre of a raging battle within the only film institute run by the State government.

For the past 10 days, students at the K.R. Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts (KRNNIVSA) at Thekkumthala in Kottayam have been on an indefinite strike demanding the resignation of Shankar Mohan, the institute’s director, for alleged caste discrimination and other charges.

The IFFK could not escape the pull of the protest which has struck a chord with filmmakers, film students as well as cinephiles. However, even as the protests continue to rage across the IFFK venues, the atmosphere on the institute campus remains rather tranquil. That, however, belies the frustration and the anger seething inside. Aside from the students, a section of the workforce at the institute too has been protesting against Mr. Mohan for alleged harassment based on caste.

The director, meanwhile, has been staying away from the campus since the strike began, while Higher Education Minister R. Bindu has constituted a three-member committee to look into the issue.

The troubles at the institute originally began during the lockdown period, according to Sreedev Suprakash, chairman of the institute’s students’ council. “This was the time when the director initiated a restructuring of our three-year post-graduate diploma courses by cutting short the duration by one year. This was also when he began openly discriminating against Dalit students as well as the staff,” he said.

The granting of autonomy status to the institute last year coincided with a weakening of the students’ council which was first disbanded under pressure from the director and lost representation in the academic and executive councils of the institute. “The restructuring of study programmes to two years, an experiment that once tried out at the Film and Television Institute of India(FTII), Pune, without success, was carried out by keeping the students in the dark. The laxity in ensuring grants and fellowships in a time-bound manner even forced one student to drop out,” added Mr. Suprakash.

In fact, this was not the first time that the institute’s student community entered into a collision course with the director. Earlier this year, they had forced the management to reverse unauthorised expulsion of four students through similar protests.

While a semblance of normality had sustained for months afterwards, the situation took yet another turn for the worse with a section of employees raising complaints of caste discrimination against Mr. Mohan. Nikhil K.S, a clerical staff, has already moved the SC/ST Commission and the Chief Minister’s Office against the director for allegedly barring Mr. Nikhil from even entering the official residence.

The allegations levelled by the women cleaning staff, employed on daily wages system, are even more shocking. They accuse Mr. Mohan of forcing them to clean the official residence, including the toilets, regularly.

“Before entering the house, he would enquire about my caste and insist on taking a bath and changing my clothes before entry. The practice continued for almost a year. We then raised the issue with the office on several occasions but to no avail,” said a cleaning staff.

While support has been pouring in for the protesters from various quarters, including the film fraternity, no concrete efforts appear to be forthcoming from the authorities concerned in addressing the issue. A meeting of the KRNNIVSA executive committee held in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday failed to arrive at a resolution.

Official sources, meanwhile, maintained that the lack of transparency and discrimination against communities with reservation are evident during the admission of students. “A student in the SC/ST category was denied admission to the editing course purportedly for ‘lacking quality’ despite four seats lying vacant. As to how they determine the quality of candidates is beyond one’s comprehension’’, they said.

When contacted, KRNNIVSA chairman and renowned filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan said the issues at the film institute had indeed come to his notice. “The matter has been under the consideration of the State government. It will be improper for me to comment on the same at this point of time,” he said.

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