Thursday, October 18, 2007

[IE] A very modern rage

We need a reformative rather than a sledgehammer approach to ragging

Ragging needs to be seen, primarily, as an academic issue; although, prima facie, it may seem a ‘law and order’ problem. It involves, besides, the question of one’s upbringing and cultural ambience. The emotional deficit in which children grow up has a direct bearing on this social illness. It was as part of my effort to ensure that St Stephen’s remained free of ragging that I sought to implement the time-tested residence rule that every resident student should be in his room by 10 pm. The events of September 27, the focal point of the media storm, prove the relevance of this rule. To my utter surprise, however, this provoked a media outcry. I was accused of ‘dictatorial inclinations’ and condemned for bringing St Stephen’s under ‘curfew’!

The foremost question on my mind, on returning to St Stephen’s after a lapse of four years, was, ‘How can a sober academic culture be nurtured without dampening the exuberance of Stephanians?’ The main stumbling block in achieving this was, I believe, the re-invention of St Stephen’s as a ‘brand name’. The college was not a brand name when I was a student there in the early seventies or for the greater part of my 30-year-tenure as a member of the faculty. Its evolution as a coveted academic object of desire (not an object of ‘academic desire’) is somewhat a recent invention.

The more affluence spreads and the less students’ physical and intellectual energies are engaged in academic pursuits, the margin for mischief will increase. More stringent legislation and sledgehammer punishments may not be the most appropriate response. Even those who victimise others are victims: victims of a spurious culture.

Ragging is also a mirror to the level of violence in our society. The ‘most ragged person’ in India today is, possibly, the hon’ble Speaker of the Lok Sabha! The culture of robust parliamentary debate is being displaced, increasingly, by violent forms of protest which help to reassure oneself (and one’s party). A similar psychology seems to be at work when ragging takes place. This is not to justify brutal violence. But to assume that educational institutions, and teenagers studying in them, will remain insulated from the cultural climate is na├»ve. Stringent punitive measures are required, but they are inadequate in themselves to eradicate the malady.

A strategy to contain ragging cannot sidestep the issue of parenting. Increasingly, parental affection gets expressed not through quality time spent with children. Money and what it buys are its preferred expressions. As parents we mistake indulgence for caring and bribing children into compliance for obedience. We care for them, but do not train them to feel and care for others — not even ourselves.

It is not my call to defend ‘raggers’. Nor is it an option for me to abandon my students to stigma and life-long trauma merely because it pleases some to insist that what is nothing more than a reprehensible act of indiscipline is an instance of ragging. I have studied the various aspects of the event that occurred in St Stephen’s College on the night of September 27. I have no doubt at all that it is not ragging.

I am as keen as anyone else to eradicate the menace of ragging. But I do not believe that stern policing and destructive, rather than reformative, punishment are the only solutions.

The writer is officiating as principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi

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