October 9, 2007
Over the last few months, the Indian media has carried stories about incidents of ragging at Indian colleges, including at some of India's most prestigious and well-known institutions (1). The incidents, several of which involve acts of brutal violence perpetrated on helpless first year students by groups of senior students, raise many disturbing questions: why does this culture of violence exist among Indian students and Indian society? It is an article of faith among the Indian middle classes that only the Indian masses are capable of irrational violence. Yet the children of the middle classes, fed on a steady diet of ambition, trained in the best schools and coaching classes, deprived of very little compared to millions in India, are the ones, who, like characters in The Lord of the Flies, commit these acts of savagery. Why do these students think that they have the license to humiliate their fellow students? For that matter, why does an individual think that he or she has the birthright to denigrate or assault another individual?
Clearly a deep-rooted malaise in Indian educational system, ragging is simultaneously a symptom of a deeper sickness in Indian society. The website and blog No Ragging(2), bears testimony to the urgent response necessitated by the situation.
I had the unpleasant experience of being ragged on two occasions, when I joined Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, as a high school student in 1989: the first time when I started attending the school, and the second time, when I joined the boarding attached to the school a couple of months later. It was supposed to be something that all 'freshers' went through. In retrospect, it seems that my experience of ragging was not very severe, at least not compared to the incidents that I read about in the Indian press. That experience, which somewhat soured my years in the otherwise highly rated school and hostel, has given me some clear insights into the nature of ragging and the mechanisms by which it perpetuates itself.
First, the objective of ragging is humiliation. It allows an individual or group to express and savor a sense of power and control over another individual or group. It was not surprising that the most active participants in the ragging exercises in the DPS hostel were the two biggest thugs and bullies in the boarding school: one, from Bihar, was pathologically violent and the other, an international student from Bhutan, was a self-appointed dada type who saw it as his moral duty to regulate all behavior in the hostel. I do not mean to single out any community as especially guilty in this regard. Everyone in the hostel, including Jats, Biharis, Manipuris, Bengalis, and Punjabis, participated equally in the activity. If these two individuals had not been there, two or four others would have taken their place. In general, the most obnoxious individuals at the forefront of the ragging exercises were chronic bullies, who would boast about their wealth and their family and political connections, which, they believed and claimed made them immune from any punishment by the school authorities.
Second, in the absence of clear institutional rules about ragging, which are regularly and consistently enforced against offenders, individuals will violate the rights of other individuals. It is a myth that individuals will regulate themselves in accordance with the principles of non-violence, amity, and harmony. Human beings may not be innately violent. They are not necessarily intrinsically peace-loving either. A clear and consistent policy about punishing anyone who oppresses another person and well-defined mechanisms for accountability are an absolute must in Indian schools and colleges if ragging has to stop. I believe that Indian educational institutions have a lot to learn from the American educational system in this regard. It is not the case that there are no incidents of ragging--termed 'hazing' here-- in American educational institutions, but policies, response measures, campus safety provisions, and the threat of lawsuits ensure that such incidents are kept to a minimum and offenders are adequately prosecuted.
Third, and related, educational spaces in India have to be immunized from outside interference by powerful people, whether politicians, businesspersons, or criminals. In several of the conflicts that I witnessed as a resident of the DPS hostel, the parties involved—often students from different Indian states or regions— would threaten to bring in 'manpower' from Delhi University, or get the help of some politicians and their goons, to sort out the other side. A lot of this was bluster, but it was not clear how the school authorities negotiated the impact of such external influences on the everyday functioning of the school. Even if the school did possess autonomy from such external influence, it was not clearly communicated to all the students.
Fourth, the violence of ragging is structured to perpetuate itself. It is not uncommon to hear some college students say that they enjoyed being ragged and that it was a part of the college experience. Accordingly, these students say that they want to have the chance to rag others, to make them feel at home, if you please. This is sophistry. The desire to rag someone else is a desire to shake off the humiliation of having been ragged. That anger comes out on the next
innocent victim. The claim that one's experience of being ragged was fun, likewise, is a shallow pretence that the experience did not involve any sense of an abject inequality of power.
I am proud to say that when the 11th standard (1989) batch of the DPS Mathura Road hostel moved to the 12th standard, we decided by consensus that there would be no ragging from then on. At the same time, the school authorities were also whittling down the number of students admitted each year to the hostel, partly to renovate the hostel, but partly, I believe, to get an opportunity to change the culture of hostel life. Almost two decades have passed since then, and
I do not know what the situation is like now. And, while my experience of ragging was relatively mild, it has lingered in my memory at least to the extent that reading an article about ragging compelled me to write this piece. I should also add, I have only been back to DPS Mathura Road once since graduating in 1991.