Thursday, October 11, 2007

[Hindu] Ragging and its remedies

Valson Thampu

Ragging is an anti-academic pestilence. A recent incident at St. Stephen’s College was something else, an offence of a different kind that led to swift disciplinary action. Correction and reformation, rather than an indiscriminate, iron-fisted approach that advocates handing over college discipline to the police, will be the right answer to ragging — except where serious criminality is involved.

It is necessary to sketch the factual matrix of an event reported by the news media that is sought to be branded as a case of ‘ragging’ at St. Stephen’s College. Late in the night of September 27, 2007, a first year student went to a senior student seeking help in filling up a university form. Three others happened to be in his room and, regrettably, all but one had consumed alcohol. In this less than sober state, it occurred to them to ‘show a magi c’ to their junior. It involved spraying a deodorant on the palm and igniting it. The young man was told this would not hurt. It turned out to be otherwise and, most regrettably, he suffered minor burns on his palm and leg. By 4 a. m. on September 28, the Deputy Dean of Residence visited the affected student and duly informed me at 5.45 a.m. about what had happened. By 8.30 a.m., an inquiry was initiated. Disciplinary action commensurate with the seriousness of the offence was taken soon after.

The following aspects of the event need to be noted. The affected student did not complain to the administration; instead suo motu cognisance was taken of the event. Secondly, the alleged ‘victim’ did not feel ‘ragged.’ There are at least three reasons for it. (a) He went, on his own, to the room of the senior student and participated in the so-called ‘magic’ voluntarily; at no stage and in no manner was he forced or coerced. (b) The event was not pre-meditated whereas ‘ragging’ is always pre-meditated. (b) In ragging the initiative is with the ‘raggers’; in this event the initiative, up to the ‘magic’ stage, was wholly with the affected student. Thirdly, it was evident to the student that three of the four seniors in the room were not in a sober state. It would have been wiser for him to leave the room and report the matter to the block tutor or the Dean, as drinking is strictly prohibited in residence. Instead, he stayed on. Fourthly, it was past midnight and residence rules required him to be in his room by 10 p.m. Fifthly, a science student at the college level should have known that fire hurts, and not lapped up the canard that it doesn’t. The event would certainly have amounted to ragging if he was forced against his will to participate in the ‘magic.’ Insisting that an event that issues from voluntary choice and participation is ‘ragging’ amounts to semantic inexactitude. The foregoing assessment is in sync with the Supreme Court’s definition of ‘ragging’ cited in the Raghavan Committee Report.

Ragging, undeniably, is an anti-academic pestilence. St. Stephen’s stands in full solidarity with the University and the University Grants Commission on this issue. But we are concerned about, indeed deeply disturbed by, the overall approach and the prescription in the Raghavan Committee Report. The recent case of alleged ragging makes it necessary, and opportune, to place on the table some of these concerns. It is done to ensure that the remedy we embrace does not become, in course of time, worse than the malady we seek to eradicate.
Indiscriminate overkill

The real problem with the Raghavan Committee Report is that it prescribes a heavy-handed, bureaucratic approach to the menace of ragging. Admittedly, ragging in its extreme and barbaric form moves into the zone of criminality and needs to be dealt with as such. But ragging varies in form and degree of severity quite dramatically. Also, not every case of indiscipline amounts to ragging. The indiscriminate overkill implied in the Raghavan Committee’s approach is a cause for alarm. According to its Report, the “time has come to treat every single incident of ragging, however isolated or ‘mild’ or ‘positive’ it may appear, with the heaviest hand possible” (emphasis added).The consequences of such an indiscriminate, iron-fisted approach are bound to be highly damaging in practice.

It will alienate students from teachers; erode institutional authority; infect the life of institutions with hostility and distrust; and ruin the very spirit of living and learning together. The harm this can do may vary from institution to institution. Colleges like Stephen’s that are strongly residential stand to suffer the worst. We believe that a caring culture, marked by mutual trust, concern for each other’s well-being, a profound sense of belonging together, and an abiding sense of institutional solidarity, collegiality, and shared responsibility, comprises the essence of life in Stephen’s. Our college is not a carry-home knowledge outlet. It is an academic family. Seen from its ethos, the obligation to file First Information Reports (FIRs) against students each time a prank is played or an act of indiscipline is committed is like forcing a father to call in the police each time his children quarrel with, or hurt, one another. The very idea is hopelessly out of place. In fact, it is out of place in every educational institution that values the student-teacher relationship as the hub of education.

In point of fact, this is not what the Raghavan Committee Report envisages, although this is the notion that most people, including some who ought to know better, seem to entertain. What the Report says is: “Where the victim or his/her parent/guardian is not satisfied with the action taken by the Head of the institution or by other institutional authorities, or where the Head of the institution is of the opinion that the incident ought to be so reported, it must be mandatory for the institution to file a First Information Report with the local police authorities.” The Committee was also concerned, quite rightly, that dealing with ‘raggers’ should not result in ‘criminalising’ them. So it recommended that “rather than subjecting each incident of ragging to a different penal treatment under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, a new section should be added to the IPC, making ragging a punishable offence on the analogy of section 498A dealing with cruelty towards women [against dowry related incidents].” Until this is done, filing an FIR against ‘raggers’ will amount to an abdication of responsibility on the part of the heads of institutions. It is unthinkable that educators can be indifferent to the stigma and trauma inherent in criminalising students in this way, which will be all the more lamentable when the ragging in question is ‘mild’ or ‘positive.’ Filing an FIR is welcome, of course, in instances of brutal or excessive ragging.

Uncertainty prevails about where indiscipline ends and ragging begins. The Raghavan Committee presumes that the moral formation of teenagers should be complete and perfect by the time they enter the portals of higher education — so that there need be no margin for error or mischief for them. One wonders when and where such an ideal world existed. Surely, all of us have learned also through our mistakes. If at the first mischief perpetrated we were branded or blasted out of sight, not many of us would have survived to tell our hallmark stories. Of course, memory keeps poorly. If only we would recall our own teetering teenage steps, we would be less sanctimonious and more compassionate and argue for a humane and corrective approach.

The ‘deterrence’ approach rules out scope for correction and reformation. This, not less than ragging, is a serious hindrance to education. Perhaps there is a way (even though it may lack the attraction of being a short-cut) of dealing with the menace of ragging other than that of destroying the raggers. Shouldn’t we try, first, to reform the young men and women who indulge in ragging, except when serious criminality is involved? Are we sure that enough is being done in this regard?
Simplistic approach

Discipline, not destruction, building up, not bludgeoning, is germane to education. A college does not exist for eradicating ragging. It exists primarily to impart education. It is to preserve the academic culture of our educational institutions that ragging needs to be eradicated. The Raghavan Committee Report, arguably out of a laudable intention, appears at times to assume the contrary. Its approach to the problem of ragging is simplistic; structured operatively on the dogma of deterrence; insensitive to the nuances of the learning milieu; and blind to the enormous variations among educational institutions around the country. The cavalier abandon with which it advocates the handing over of college discipline to agencies extraneous to it, especially the police, is alarming.

Let it not be overlooked that in the first nine weeks of the first term, hardly any instance of ragging occurred at St. Stephen’s College. The facts of the case show that what happened at the end of the first term was not ragging by any stretch of the imagination. There has been a tremendous improvement in this respect in college life owing to the many imaginative measures and exercises undertaken. It is a pity that all the constructive measures undertaken through the term are brushed aside and the spotlight is put solely on a stray incident that is stretched and distorted to fit the bill of ragging. By doing so, a gross injustice is being done not only to the four young men involved, but also to an institution that has served this country with devotion and distinction for over a century and a quarter.

(The author is Principal [OSD], St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.)

1 comment:

Talha Abdul Rahman said...

Talha A Rahman

It took me some time to gather courage to write a rejoinder to an article written by a person as eminent as Mr. Valson Thampu. This was specifically because as a student in the final year of my undergraduate law course, in the interest of my career, I would not want to irk Mr. Thampu. More specifically, because I have been short listed for a scholarship whose quite a few recipients are from St. Stephen’s College. But as a lawyer in making, I am not ready to barter my freedom of speech and courage to speak. Conscious of the dynamics of power linked with the chair of Principal of St. Stephen’s College, and of the impacts it could have on me I have decided to write this article. (Though agreeing in principle with my assertions, my friends strongly advised that I must not write this piece.) In the same situation not all students would dare to express their disagreement with Mr. Thampu’s article. It is this kind of psychological and appraisal of power systems that precludes a student from resenting against ‘ragging’ or complaining to the warden. Actually, it was absence of discussion on power dynamics in the article that prompted me to write this piece.

At the outset I must put a caveat that this is not a comment on facts of the unfortunate incident of alleged ‘ragging’ that happened at St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. There are two reasons for this caveat. Firstly, that I have constructed my image of the incident based on television reports, which necessarily are opinionated. Secondly, apart from the version received from the victim himself all other stories would be a probable construction, distorted by numerous repetitive narrations of what actually had happened. I do not have the knowledge or the capability to comment what actually did happen that night and what did not happen. However, given the insightful article by Valson Thampu “Ragging and its remedies” (Op-Ed, October 11th October, 2007) carrying some facts of the case, I do have some comments to make on his narration of the facts.

Facts: Two Wrongs Do Not Make a Right
It is indeed praiseworthy that the college administration acted suo motu like a blitz to deal with the alleged act of ‘ragging’. Opposed to what has been pointed by Mr. Thampu, there is no requirement for the victim to feel ‘ragged’. However, the mere fact of a ragging like situation is sufficient to initiate enquiry. If this was the case, then in all incidents of physical abuse where the victim did not ‘feel’ abused be excluded from the ambit of a ‘public wrong’. Of course, if a student is interacting with his seniors in a playful, jovial mood and injures himself in some acrobatic experiment that might not be considered as ragging. It is the combination of an act with the position of being able to exercise power in an environment inseparable from education that constitutes ragging, and that is what differentiates ragging from ordinary acts of assault, battery and hurt.

It is too naive to be believed that a newly admitted student of meritocratic St. Stephen’s College where only the best brains of India study would voluntarily participate in performance of the ‘magic trick’. Only an idiot would voluntarily permit something to be lit on his palm, and I am sure with such intelligent students entering in St. Stephen’s that should never happen. Clearly then, there is a strong presumption that he was coerced into doing whatever happened that night. Coercion at colleges and hostels manifests itself in discrete ways – threats, ‘making your life hell’ etc. being only illustrative of the genre.

Premeditation of an act in the eyes of law only aggravate the culpability. If an act is not premeditated it does not cease to be act proscribed by law. Proscribed because it is in the interest of peace in the society and safety of the individual. Besides, the question of pre-meditation become irrelevant when one is inebriated. People do all sorts of things when they are drunk, and forget about it when they regain their consciousness; and probably laugh at it also. It in no way absolves them from acts that have been committed when drunk.

It is not the first time that a victim is being blamed for having been victims. With specific reference to Delhi – the rape capital, it has often been argued by insane fanatics that by wearing what they wear women invite rape.

The mere fact that victim in this case, because of whatever reason, went to his senior’s room, in violation of the 10 p.m. rule at St. Stephen’s does not entitle the seniors student to perform ‘magic tricks’ on him. Yes, it was possible for the victim to leave the room when he discovered that those seniors were not sober and were in fact drunk. But, given the power dynamics of a hostel, a junior may choose to enter a senior’s room by his choice. His exit will be on the mercy of senior students. Agreed that it may be ‘illegal’ for the victim to not report the matter of alcohol consumption to the warden and it was also ‘illegal’ for him to roam about in his hostel after 10 p.m. (he should have locked himself in his room by 10 p.m. instead!), but these two wrongs do not make a right.

A student may be unwilling to complain to the warden for the same reason for which I was hesitant to write this piece.

The question of ‘semantic inexactitude’ cannot be determined be looking at incidents in isolation. Since, the law on ragging just like the law on sexual harassment comes about in a social context – of exercise of power by misuse of positions of authority or seniority, the acts must be placed in the context of iniquitous power equilibrium between a junior and senior student.

I am in no way judging the honest efforts made by St. Stephen’s to deal with the situation. But, to the extent that the article did ignore the context in which the Raghavan Committee Report came about, I attempt to fill in that gap.
Truly, as Mr. Thampu wrote “the recent case of alleged ragging makes it necessary, and opportune, to place on the table some of these concerns. It is done to ensure that the remedy we embrace does not become, in course of time, worse than the malady we seek to eradicate.”
Systemic Invisibilisation
Admittedly, “ragging varies in form and degree of severity quite dramatically”. But, who has the right to determine whether the act in question is severe or not? Would the victim determine the same, who seeing with the blurred vision of his tearful eyes would want to avenge? Would the alleged perpetrators determine the same, for whose yeh bhi chalta hai attitude perhaps transgresses the limits and extends to realm of criminality? Or would it be head of the concerned institution who would determine the same, who would also be motivated to save the reputation of his institution? At this juncture, the perspective of reasonable man comes to our rescue. But the problem is who will apply this standard of a reasonable man. Involvement of police and courts could be detrimental to the healthy student life, a period when individuals learn from their mistakes. Involvement of the establishment is problematic especially in a system where there is no end to litigation. Thus, it is only fair that this issue be resolved through an independent body – probably an independent committee that is ready to apply laws and standards equally to all.
It may not be feasible as pointed by Raghavan Committee to “to treat every single incident of ragging, however isolated or ‘mild’ or ‘positive’ it may appear, with the heaviest hand possible”. Yet, it is also not acceptable that a regressive step be taken pushing ragging back into the realm of ‘a private conduct’. I remember, against the Domestic Violence Act also, similar arguments were being raised. It was being argued that it would be unnecessary intrusion in private domestic lives. Such an argument has no legs to stand, as having reached matured levels of civilization, violence whether in private life or public sphere is not acceptable.
I fail to understand as to how actions taken against students who indulge in ragging “will alienate students from teachers” or “erode institutional authority” or “infect the life of institutions with hostility and distrust” or “ruin the very spirit of living and learning together”. Contrary to this, enamored by narcissistic institutional authority that institutions are reluctant to see that problem of ‘ragging’ exists. Or even when they see it is rarely dealt with in accordance with principles of justice. It is given fact that some incidents of ‘ragging’ occur in all educational institutions in India – it is just that in some cases it would be too trivial to even report. Institutions where ‘ragging’ happens and it is not dealt with in equal measure are more likely to be cankered with “hostility and distrust” as the students, specifically the younger ones would lose faith in the administration. Besides what is the kind of education we are imparting, if we are not teaching our children to stand up and speak against what is wrong? We are doing great disservice to the country by educating kids who can rant immaculate English but do not have courage to oppose an incident of ragging and violence, the lowliest level of interaction. I am sure that students who are reading this would be able to relate to the support that administration, unknowingly, tenders by letting off those involved in ‘ragging’ or similar violent actions with mere reprimand. I agree that an educational institution is like a family and in a family we must to learn to care for each one of us. We must also be able to grow socially, professionally and personally. It is for this reason that like in a family, disputes must be resolved with an iron-hand first by the family. Admittedly, all cases may not be made a police case – but the administration must take a strong stand in such cases. I am completely in agreement with Mr. Thampu when he says that it is not in favour academic health of an institution to criminalize each and every act of ‘ragging’. However, viewing in the context in which ragging law has come about, it was disappointing to see defences of wrongfulness of the victim himself being raised a clarification on facts in Mr. Thampu’s article.
Before I conclude, I would like to bring on record and appreciate the efforts made by Mr. Thampu. Having been associated with student governance myself I understand it is one of the most thankless jobs. This is especially true for eminent colleges as the media would leave no opportunity to publicize if something goes wrong, but there will be almost no roses or praises for all that good done for the student community.
Mr. Thampu rightly pointed out that we must attempt to reform the young men and women who indulge in ragging, except when serious criminality is involved. However, in doing so the administration must not further harass the victim by labeling him or her as an accomplice; it must rather attempt to understand the trauma of being ‘ragged’. For once, the heads of institution must remove the hat of authority and look at the situation from the perspective of victim. Merely because a victim also committed a wrong by staying out of his room after 10 p.m., it in no way reduces the wrongfulness of ‘ragging’. Clearly, all such incidents must be understood in the context of power dynamics and not divorced from it. Two wrongs do not make a right.