Malayalam film director Adoor Gopalakrishnan appeared to be upset at a media conference he called on January 31, in which he announced that he had resigned from the post of chairman of the K.R. Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts (KRNNIVSA). He had submitted his resignation to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan over the treatment of Shankar Mohan, who had quit as KRNNIVSA director on January 21. Gopalakrishnan had brought him in as the institution’s director in 2019.
The legendary filmmaker and academic seemingly got schooled by students of the Kottayam-based institute, who went on a strike demanding the resignation of the institute director over caste discrimination allegations. The strike, which began on December 5, got widespread support from prominent industry voices, including filmmakers Aashiq Abu, Mahesh Narayanan, Kamal and Jeo Baby; musicians Bijibal and Shahabaz Aman; actors Parvathy, Sajitha Madathil and Akshay Radhakrishnan; and activist organisations like the Vanaja Collective, which termed it a “historic protest”. With the resignation of the director, classes resumed after 50 days and opened with a festival of Malayalam films that were showcased at the International Film Festival of Kerala in early December.
At the media conference and in previous media interactions, Adoor had praised Mohan’s four decades of experience as the head of various film festivals and film institutes, and refuted the students’ allegations. He also lambasted the inquiry committee report submitted to the government in mid-January, which had apparently found merit in the complaints. The inquiry committee consisted of two members: K Jayakumar, former Chief Secretary of the Kerala Government, and N. K. Jayakumar, former Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Advanced Legal Studies. They submitted their report to the government on January 13.
Speaking to Frontline, Shankar Mohan said that he had initially turned down the position when it was offered to him because he had heard about people’s tendency to raise caste harassment issues at institutes in Kerala. He explained that a clerk in the office of the institute’s Public Relations Officer (PRO) had raised the discrimination allegations against him and filed a complaint with the SC/ST Commission. Mohan alleged that the clerk had done so because he had been pulled up for tardiness with files.
He said: “I had issued a memo because he was not moving files that were under him for five months and called him into my office when another staff member said that he [the clerk] had abused him,” So, he probably felt that his contract would not be extended after December 2022. And because I am a disciplinarian, there were people who were not happy. So, they goaded him to use the SC/ST Commission as a tool. This is how the caste issue began. The commission has not yet given its report, so how can people, including the media who did not get in touch with me to ask my side of the story, make a declaration that the director is casteist before this is out?”
Student council chairman Sreedev Suprakash, however, said that they had provided evidence to the government-appointed commission to show that Mohan had manipulated guidelines to deny admission to students in reservation categories. During the strike, Suprakash said they had also taken up the issue of sweepers being made to work at the director’s house.
The LBS Centre for Science and Technology, a government agency, has been conducting entrance exams and allotting seats—10 in six branches—according to the general and the mandatory reservation criteria since courses at the institute started in 2014. However, in 2022, unlike in previous years, the institute prepared the question paper rather than providing the question bank and pattern to LBS. The institute did the evaluation, set a cut-off mark—different ones for different departments—and sent the mark list to LBS.
While each department usually shortlists 30 students for an orientation and interview round after the first-round test, some departments had only around 15 students after the first round this time. After the second round, LBS, as usual, prepared the allotted seats in the various categories and handed the list to the director and dean.
A source at the institute, on condition of anonymity, told Frontline, “The director said that all the students could not be accommodated because the institute had fixed a cut-off mark after the second round. The LBS representative pointed out that it was against the rules and would not have legal standing but the director said that he had discussed this with the chairman and, as an autonomous institute, it would be okay. So, only one Scheduled Caste student and two OBC students got admission under reservation in 2022.”
Editing department aspirant Sarath S., who scored 42.5 per cent, won a case in the Kerala High Court that gave him admission to KRNNIVSA but he chose to go to the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Kolkata instead. LBS also made a submission in court and sent a letter to the director on September 9, 2022, when the chairman and director apparently said in court that LBS had prepared the allotment sheet. The submission said, “Kindly note that our representative has objected about the cut-off mark since it is not included in the prospectus. Also, it may create complaints from candidates at a later stage.”
The student protests also raised the issue of Anandapadmanabhan, a cinematography student who faced obstacles in completing his final project as a “punishment” for protesting against the delay in the allotment of the e-grantz scholarship, which is meant for backward communities. He had taken the institute to court over the issue.
Mohan told Frontline that Anandapadmanabhan did not want to shoot in the Chitranjali premises where the shoot was scheduled, which was why his project was pending. However, Jeo Baby, director of The Great Indian Kitchen who directed the diploma film of the acting students, said that there was more to the story and that he was a witness in the case Anandapadmanabhan filed against the institute.
Baby explained: “He [Anandapadmanabhan] sent a request letter to the institute director seeking permission to do the camera on my film, but while it was clear in my contract with the institute that I could not decide the crew, they lied to him that it would be my decision whether he could work with me. They are working against the students at the institute, and particularly this one because he protested about the delay in e-grantz. In denying reservation seats, they have behaved against the Constitution and have now easily got themselves out of possible legal scrutiny by resigning.” Baby added that he had learnt that institutions across the State faced the e-grantz disbursal problem.
Mohan blamed the clerk in the PRO’s office for holding on to the e-grantz files but the institute source disagreed. “A report had been submitted to the director that the e-grantz money had come into the institute account, as per the government account, and that the amount should be disbursed to the students at the earliest,” the source told Frontline. “The director did not act on this. The students then took the issue to the Minister, and though the director said the clerk had delayed the files, the record of the report on the e-grantz funds having come in was submitted to a three-member committee set up to inquire into the funds issue and this report was also shown to the students. The director announced that someone was not moving files for months, but the fact is that the institute files are no longer physical files under a desk for months. All the files are digitised and he can access them from anywhere at any time. And it is also easy to verify pendency reports.”
The source also told Frontline that during the annual audit in 2019-2020, fund misappropriation was reported and a government-appointed financial officer had given a report to the director, which said that a detailed inquiry was needed. “The director put cinematography HOD Fowzia Fathima in charge of the inquiry, though it is not clear what her competency is for conducting a financial misappropriation inquiry,” the source said.
The caste discrimination allegations that got widespread attention were that Mohan and his wife made sweepers from the institute clean his toilets. Adoor, at his media conference, had defended the couple, saying, among other things, that the cleaners were not Dalits and that they were cleaning the house grounds only once a week. Student leader Suprakash refuted this, saying, “Each sweeper chechi (sister) would be asked what caste they were by the director’s wife when they went to the house. And they would tell us that they were treated as if untouchability was still being practised.”
Mohan said that a security guard, whom he had removed for supplying cheap liquor to the campus, was behind inciting the sweepers to make the casteist allegations. “The security guards had been here for seven years, so I called the agency and asked them to change them every two years, because if they are here for too long, they have their own network,” he said.
Suprakash disagreed. He said that four students went on strike over being expelled for a lack of attendance in January 2022. “This was reversed after they explained their position to the Higher Education Minister,” he said. “A week after this, six security guards were sacked. The liquor [17 sacks of liquor bottles] was found during the early days of the lockdown when the institute was made a COVID care centre. But the security guards were sacked two years later, in 2022. Besides, if one person was responsible for this, why were six of them asked to go?”
Government silence criticised
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has faced criticism for its silence on the issue and various people have pointed out that the lack of reservation allotment is unconstitutional. Minister for Higher Education R. Bindu, meanwhile, spoke to Frontline and said, “It is true there have been issues with allotting the reservation list. The commission has not been overly critical but has mentioned that the students have lost trust and has suggested that there should be a forum to address student grievances and there should be a student representative in every institute body. The commission report has been passed on to the Principal Secretary and we have to wait for it to be processed in the official channel. While we invited him to the post, Adoor is now accusing us of slandering Shankar Mohan and making him resign. Mohan is a Malayali but he has been based in the north and is someone who seems to be in an ivory tower. In my interactions with students, they said they felt that both the chairman and director were not approachable. I had told Adoor several times to listen to what the students have to say but he was not willing to do that.”
The Minister criticised the so-called attempt to portray Kerala as having casteist tendencies. “It is wrong to depict Kerala in this manner,” she said. “We have so many fewer cases compared to other States, even neighbouring ones. Here, SC/ST students have really come forward and our institutions are democratic, with students having a strong voice. We should not hold up the case of this institute and make it seem like caste issues are rampant in Kerala.”
Anna Mathews is a Kochi-based journalist.
- Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan seemingly got schooled by students of the K.R. Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts, who went on a strike demanding the resignation of the institute director over caste discrimination allegations.
- Shankar Mohan explained that a clerk in the office of the institute’s Public Relations Officer had raised discrimination allegations against him and filed a complaint with the SC/ST Commission after he was pulled up for tardiness with files.
- Student council chairman Sreedev Suprakash said that they had provided evidence to the government-appointed commission to show that Mohan had manipulated guidelines to deny admission to students in reservation categories.
- While each department usually shortlists 30 students for an orientation and interview round after the first-round test, this time some departments had only around 15 students after the first round.
- The student protests also raised the issue of Anandapadmanabhan, a cinematography student who faced obstacles in completing his final project as a “punishment” for protesting against the delay in the allotment of the e-grantz scholarship, which is meant for backward communities.