Wednesday, November 07, 2007

[Telegraph] Raggers, beware

An official commission’s recommendations may help put an end to ragging. V. Kumara Swamy reports

Jagannath Misra (name changed), an engineering student in Bhubaneswar, was asked to pay a fine by his college when he led a “freshers’ protest” after he and some of his friends were ragged brutally. He was also slapped a notice that threatened rustication from college if he raised the issue any further.

“Although a few seniors were fined, the college’s action suggested that it was siding with the seniors,” he says. “First of all, freshers are a scared lot. If they don’t have any avenue to complain when they are ragged, it adds to their misery,” says Misra.

Misra’s college is not the only one to brush the matter under the carpet. Except for the ones that make the headlines, the majority of ragging cases goes unreported and the perpetrators get away scot-free. Even when the University Grants Commission (UGC) intervenes, college authorities either punish the guilty students lightly or sometimes simply refuse to acknowledge that ragging ever took place, as happened in a recent case in St Stephen’s College, Delhi, when a fresher was allegedly set on fire.

In fact, the UGC — in its submission to a Supreme Court-appointed committee headed by R.K. Raghavan, former director, Central Bureau of Investigation — said that the commission’s guidelines on punishments or preventive measures were not implemented and remained only on paper. It also admitted that college and university functionaries consider ragging a non-academic issue and therefore do not get involved either because of indifference or a lack of commitment. The UGC is responsible for co-ordinating, determining and maintaining education standards and releasing grants to universities.

There have been more than 50 cases of ragging, including six cases of suicide by students affected by ragging, ever since the Supreme Court order to implement the Raghavan Committee’s recommendations in May this year. Helpless, the UGC is asking the government to amend the UGC Act, 1956, so that it can teach a lesson to erring colleges and universities. The UGC now plays an advisory role and its guidelines on ragging are not mandatory.

“We shall be proposing some changes to the UGC Act so that the apex court’s directions on ragging can be incorporated and implemented more effectively,” says Tilak Raj Kem, secretary, UGC. The amendments are likely to take place when the HRD ministry makes changes to the act, including stringent measures against fake universities. “Though the UGC is very serious about ragging, we realise our limitations, which is why we see the need for changes,” says Kem.

Better late than never, say anti-ragging activists. “If the Raghavan committee recommendations are converted into law by amending the UGC Act, it will certainly serve the purpose. But it will have to be seen as to how many of its 50 recommendations are accepted and in what language,” says Shivam Vij, an anti-ragging activist and a consultant to the Raghavan Committee.

The committee’s recommendations include urging the courts to speedily try cases involving ragging, forming anti-ragging committees and squads at all the institutions, the introduction of a subject relating to ragging in school curricula and the involvement of the media and civil society in educating students on the harmful effects of ragging.

One of the closely watched amendments, as suggested by the Raghavan Committee, will be on the filing of a First Information Report (FIR) with the police by the principal of the institution if the victim or the parent is not satisfied with the institutional arrangement for action. But not many are in favour of this.

“Colleges are wary of going to the police even when students get violent, so it is a little far-fetched for either the UGC or the Raghavan Committee to believe that principals will go ahead and file an FIR. It is like inviting trouble along with some bad publicity for the college,” says a Calcutta-based professor on condition of anonymity.

“Principals are obviously wary as they value the ‘reputation’ of the college,” says Vij. “To get an FIR registered is the most difficult thing in India. The Supreme Court has taken note of this. As long as colleges and law enforcement agencies think that ragging is nothing but just a slightly exaggerated version of college fun, filing FIRs will never work. Ragging should be seen as a crime, which is yet to happen,” says Anant Kumar Asthana, a Delhi-based lawyer who runs an organisation that provides legal assistance to vulnerable victims.

Although the UGC is tight-lipped about its recommendations to the government, it is likely to tread a middle path on the issue. “Once the UGC acquires the power to withdraw grants or even withdraw affiliations, colleges will fall in line. The onus of filing an FIR shouldn’t be on college principals,” says an UGC official.

But some universities, which took strict action against ragging, say that there is no problem even if the recommendations of the Raghavan Committee are accepted and implemented by the UGC. “Unless a few examples are set, institutions will never take the issue of ragging seriously,” says Bhagirath Prasad, vice-chancellor, Devi Ahilyabai University, Indore. The university recently expelled 20 students, including two for life, for indulging in ragging.

But Prasad also calls for a ‘softer’ approach. “If the UGC can set aside a fund to run programmes against ragging in universities across the country, and if this provision is included even in the Act, I think that would go a long way,” says Prasad.

Anti-ragging activists are also calling on the UGC to take steps that take a holistic view of ragging as a menace. “Ragging is seen as a social norm and not an evil. This fact has to be accepted and steps taken to act against it accordingly,” says Harsh Agarwal of the Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education (CURE).

Since the UGC currently doesn’t have a dedicated cell to deal with the problem of ragging, activists are asking the commission to create one. “A central monitoring mechanism can improve the implementation of anti-ragging measures,” says Asthana. Victims of ragging could directly report to the central cell.

“Victims are usually so scared that they create a new e-mail ID even to mail an NGO like ours. Unless the students are sure that they can get justice, they will not approach the authorities,” says Agarwal.

“We had sent a questionnaire to universities across the country asking them about the safeguards against ragging, the steps proposed to stop ragging and other details. This would also help us in formulating a policy so that there are better safeguards,” says Kem.

Whatever the steps, action is what the students and activists demand to put an end to ragging forever.

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