Thursday, October 11, 2007
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.
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?
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.)