Sunday, May 20, 2007

[ET] Fun & games or life & death?


Has the SC gone overboard in calling ragging a crime and asking for ‘exemplary and justifiably harsh’ action against those found guilty of indulging in it? The answer is an emphatic no. Ask the parents of Amit Gangwar, a first year student at BR Ambedkar National Institute of Technology, Jalandhar, who unable to bear the torment any more, threw himself in front of a train in 2005 or of Parmeshwar, a student at Birla Institute of Technology, Ranchi, who ended his life for the same reason in 2003.

Ask Sujit Saraf, who studied at the prestigious IIT Delhi from 1987 to 1992 and has had the courage to write about his experiences during the first few days there in Tehelka. No punishment can ever be severe enough as far as they are concerned.

It’s not only those who have lost their children so wantonly who will applaud the apex court. So will thousands of parents who send their children to colleges, including some of the most sought-after professional colleges in the country, and are then compelled to wait out an agonizing two months, fearing the worst.

To them the SC’s interim directions directing educational institutions to register criminal cases against those indulging in ragging activities are a long overdue and much needed step to end the menace of ragging on our campuses.

Inevitably the apex court’s directions have set off a fierce debate. Those who regard raging as harmless fun, as high jinks, a rite of passage to membership of a group argue that the ruling is excessively harsh. Apart from mandatory filing of an FIR, the court has shifted the onus of proof to the accused rather than the victim. It has also warned of more stringent measures in September when it gives its final directions, presumably based on the experience of working with these interim directions.

Diehard supporters of ragging are not the only ones unhappy with the SC’s directions. Heads of some educational institutions have criticised it on the grounds that not all instances of ragging are violent or abusive and hence lodging an FIR might be going too far. Agreed, not all cases of ragging are perverted or dangerous but it is not so difficult to distinguish between those that are plain fun and those that are not.

US-based website, StopHazing.Org, a websites against ragging (known as hazing) in the US, where it is a problem especially in the Greek-letter fraternity and sorority groups on campuses, has a very simple test to determine where to draw the line between plain fun and hazing.

It lists a few questions: Will active/current members of the group refuse to participate with the new members and do exactly what they’re being asked to do? Does the activity risk emotional or physical abuse?

Is there risk of injury or a question of safety? Do you have any reservation describing the activity to your parents, to a professor or University official? Would you object to the activity being photographed for the school newspaper or filmed by the local TV news crew? If the answer to any of these is yes, the answer is unambiguous. It is hazing.

We could adopt a similar test here as well. To be sure there will be stray cases of mis-carriage of justice just as with any other law. But since earlier efforts at milder punishment and leaving it to college authorities have not delivered, it is time to try more stringent measures. It’s much the same realisation that has led as many as 44 states in the US to pass laws against hazing, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment.

Will stiff punishment end ragging? No. Just as anti-dowry laws have not ended dowry deaths, law alone can never provide a complete answer. Especially since few victims ever speak out against their tormentors for fear of subsequent ostracism. But it will deter potential offenders. And if it is backed by determined efforts to educate and train students and teachers, it could save many young precious lives.

In the US, MASH, Mothers Against School Hazing, has been a powerful force in educating youngsters and spreading awareness about the tragic consequences that could result when what starts as fun and games becomes a matter of life and death. It’s time we formed a similar body in India.

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