Behind NIFT’s Gag Order: Students Protest Classist, Authoritarian Diktats

National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) is the first college in India to grant its own degree in fashion education. It is renowned all across the world in academic and industry circles alike.

As a social giant, NIFT has maintained an unblemished reputation, often at the cost of student lives and freedom, say its students. With no seeming empathy for middle or lower class students, students have spoken of how the institution goes to the extent of terrorising them into submission in order to maintain an upper class autonomy in fashion.

“We just feel like every institution’s first concern should be the welfare of the students. However, you can clearly see that is not what is happening in NIFT right now,” says Mala*, a student.

Fee demand

On July 28, 2020, NIFT issued its annual fee statement. At a 10% increment per year, the fee for 2020-21 (semester seven and eight) stands at Rs 2,44,800 for domestic students and Rs 9,48,400 for NRIs. Apart from a massive tuition fee, it includes a huge library fee (Rs 7,500 for domestic, Rs 49,600 for NRI), a compulsory alumni fee (Rs 3,500), and a mediclaim fee (Rs 3,700).

The student body has demanded a fee reduction at 50%, or 30%, or even just the wavering of the annual 10% increment. Ever since June, hundreds of mails have been sent to the authorities, including the Minister of Textiles Smriti Irani. However, in complete disregard of the students’ movement, the authorities maintained complete silence on the issue, setting a strict deadline of September 7 for the fee submission.

As per the report by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 122 million Indians lost their jobs during the coronavirus lockdown.

In light of such circumstances, how can institutes, especially ones directly linked to the government, turn their faces away?

In June, when students approached NIFT Kolkata’s director, Col. Subroto Biswas, he was quoted as saying, “Toh college mai tala laga de (so, should we now shut the college)?

Is this the face of accountability in an allegedly premier institute, ask students.

When the students demanded a tuition fee breakdown, the institute refused to do so. “We have labs with around 40 industrial sewing machines that work at once, must consume a lot of electricity. Most of us work with equipments like that, which we don’t anymore. Still paying for it,” says Poulomi*.

“Our subscription to important fashion forecasting websites like WGSN, Promostyl had run out as it wouldn’t work without college wifi, which is something we aren’t using again,” says Soham*. “Rs 48,000 for library which we aren’t even accessing. I could make a personal library at home with that amount.”

Online system

The fee isn’t the only issue troubling the students. Their lives were put in danger for the final jury – end semester exam. A recent graduate said that the institute “tried making it easier” by allowing collections to be made via online softwares. Current students have responded to it, saying that all students do not have the means to afford laptops, a high-speed digital connection, or the softwares.

Students added that fashion education, being a practical subject primarily, had little to be done via online classes. “It was not at all feasible so we decided to have a meeting on this regard, however we were fooled as they told us to just give it a try and then will listen to our problems and make adjustments later. However as you have guessed none of that talk turned into reality, in fact we were told to use bed sheets and curtains for our submissions,” says Mala.

“We were asked to purchase stationaries and other materials from markets amidst of a pandemic,” says Sakshi*

Social media policy

On July 13, 2020, NIFT released its social media policy – a ‘gag order’. Fifteen days before the annual fee announcement, it came across like a premeditated measure to suppress the obvious, legitimate student protests that they could expect. The second point of the notice reads:

“Any content maligning NIFT, its policies and employees will be viewed adversely, inviting disciplinary action and inter alia, penalties, debarment from sitting the examination, campus placements, etc”

NIFT stands against any form of criticism, whether against itself or the government, under the garb of maintaining “harmony”. It is to be noted that, in the notice issued, the section denouncing student harassment and cyberbullying comes long after the points for the institution’s own glory are made. Sakshi* asks, “Protecting the image of college by jeopardising our mental health and financial situation is more important?”

“They keep trying to instigate a feeling of patriotism for college as this government does,” she adds.

‘Immature and criminal’

Upon reaching out to some NIFT alumni, one of them said that they were repeatedly asked to counsel deviant classmates. Another asked me to withhold her identity because, “NIFT has strong ties with the industry since most of the big names are NIFT alumni. They can pull some strings and ruin your career.”

A threat of this sort has been openly made in institute’s social media policy. In fact, such threats fall heavier on economically backward students, who rely on the college’s scholarship for their studies.

Susan Thomas, NIFT Bangalore’s director uploaded Instagram stories on August 4, rebuking students, with the hashtag #notdone for bringing in news channels.

She called the students’ council “immature and criminal”, and wasting quality education time because “someone wants to play king”.

It seems the social media harassment policy does not apply to the authorities themselves.

*Names of NIFT students changed on request.

Meghalee Mitra is a littérateur and hopes to change the world, one word at a time.

Featured image credit: NIFT official website