The Art of Protest: Kerala Students' fight against caste discrimination grab national attention

Kerala, one of the most progressive states in India is under fire since December, for caste discrimination. Kerala is the land of origin of Adi Shankar's Advaitavad, It is also the land of Sree Narayana Guru Swami who preached the theory of "One caste, one religion, one God for all the people of the world"
We need change,' a poster held by a student while a couple of others sat with pictures of Dr. BR Ambedkar
We need change,' a poster held by a student while a couple of others sat with pictures of Dr. BR Ambedkar

Kerala— While the teachings of Sree Narayana Guru are appreciated all over the world, his own people seem to have forgotten his ideals. The outcry of students and sanitation workers over the discriminatory approach of director Shankar Mohan at the KR Narayanan National Institute of Visual Sciences and Arts in the Kottayam district has grabbed quite a large amount of attention from across the nation. Ironically, the institute is named after Dr K R Narayanan, India’s former president from the Dalit community, who became the first citizen with his talent and determination. Even the resignation of Shankar Mohan , on Saturday hasn't much helped in calming down the enraged students who believe that the state government delayed wilfully in taking action against the institute management and was waiting for the resignation move to avoid any unpleasantry.

KRNNIVSA is an autonomous institute established by the Kerala government
KRNNIVSA is an autonomous institute established by the Kerala government

The Background

The students’ council of the institute on December 5, announced an indefinite strike accusing the Institute Director Shankar Mohan of caste discrimination against the students and staff from marginalised communities.Though an enquiry committee was constituted to look into the issues raised by the students of Kerala film institute, no action was taken in the direction of resolving the problems.Rather the district administration under left government issued an order to shut down the institute.The students also launched a campaign – ‘Art of Protest' – to resume academic activities on their own even while continuing their strike. Media reports suggests that the inquiry report has found Mohan's involvement in discrepancies in the allotment of seats based on the reservation policy, but the caste discrimination charges have yet to be validated.

Student with Baba Saheb's sketch at the dharna site
Student with Baba Saheb's sketch at the dharna site

Departments of discrimination

The students claim, there is discrimination everywhere. Each department has 10 students, but the number of students from marginalised communities is very less. In the ‘Direction’ department, all 10 students are from the general category. According to Sreedev Suprakash, chairman of the Students‘ Council, the students had been opposing Shankar Mohan since he joined in 2018 as grants and fellowships for eligible students were affected because of his actions. The admission process in the institute became disadvantageous for a section of students after Shankar Mohan assumed power.

Not one but many cases of unfairness

  1. Sarath, a Direction & Screenwriting aspirant from a Dalit community, was denied admission at the institute even as several seats were left vacant.Later, he moved the court to challenge the institute’s decision, demanding proper conduct of the admission process and reservation policy and received a favourable interim order.

  2. Four students were expelled from the institute without any valid reasons and the students went on a strike that led Kerala’s Higher Education Ministry to intervene and overturn the arbitrary decision by the institute.

  3. A cinematography student left the course as he was denied the SC/ST grants that are provided to pay the hostel and mess fees.

  4. Sanitation workers allege that even though they were hired to work at the institute – a 10-acre campus that includes 55 rooms and 36 bathrooms – they were forced to go to the director's house to clean the toilet and carry out other domestic chores. They were asked to take a shower before entering the house.

  5. The director's wife made the workers clean the toilet with handheld scrubbers instead of long brushes.

Mollywood support to the movement

Filmmakers Mahesh Narayanan, Pratap Joseph, Vidhu Vincent, Krishanth and Kamal K M, music composers Bijibal and Shahbaz Aman , Ashique Abu, Jeo Baby were among those who offered solidarity to the protesting students at the IFFK venue.

Mass support from far & wide

Philosopher and associate professor of IIT Delhi, Divya Dwivedi said "The nature of these casteist acts is dehumanising and paralysing; it includes episodes of forcing scavenging upon the lower caste employees by the upper caste director's family while telling the victims that Savarna excretions are quite special," .

Bhim Army Chief Adv. Chandrashekar Azad declared solidarity with the students protest at the film institute. Kerala Bhim Army is committed to provide all necessary support to the students, he said.

Dr Rehna Raveendran , Assistant Prof at JNU said, " Communists are at the forefront to defend the casteist perpetrators in Kerala film institute. SitaramYechury & Pinarayi Vijayan are no less than the right wing in protecting casteists.Deepa P. Mohanan fought against them & won.This too shall overcome."

Azad Samaj Party extended support to the student. A tweet from the party's official handle read, " Kerala govt failure to address the on going caste discrimination at KR Narayanan Film Institute, despite the demand of students for the past 48 days. Immediate action needed against culprits. Failure to do so may result in nationwide protests."

Suraj Kumar Bauddh of Mission Ambedkar , a forum to spread Ambedkarism tweeted , "The Kerala govt is supporting the director & the head of the film institute KRNNIVSA, who discriminated against students and staff based on caste.The students have been protesting against them for the last 47 days. Sack them and do justice to the students."

About the Institute:

KRNNIVSA is an autonomous institute established by the Kerala government at Thekkumthala, Pallikkathode, in Kottayam district. It falls under the Higher Education Department of the state.The institute was inaugurated by Hamid Ansari, the former vice-president of India, on 11 January, 2016.

About Shankar Mohan

A postgraduate in ‘Screenplay writing & Film Direction’ from FTII, Pune, Shankar Mohan has worked in the Malayalam film industry as writer, actor, director and distributor for over a decade. He has also served as director at the Directorate of Film Festivals.

We need change,' a poster held by a student while a couple of others sat with pictures of Dr. BR Ambedkar
55-yr old tribal man helping villagers cross river on a handmade bamboo raft with tyres-tubes

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