NEW DELHI, Jun 16 (IPS) - As the annual scrimmage for coveted seats in India’s engineering and medical colleges gets underway, what many students dread is the sadistic ritual of ragging - or hazing - that they expect to undergo at the hands of their seniors.
"I know that the Supreme Court has passed directions ordering the government to take steps to curb ragging but I doubt they can be enforced," says prospective engineering student Prahlad Goyal, who hopes to enter one of the several Indian Institutes of Technology.
On May 7 - moved by the death of Aman Satya Kachroo, a first-year student at a medical college in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh state following a brutal beating by his seniors - the apex court issued orders to all provincial governments to ensure that ragging gets stamped out. Under India’s federal system, health and education are subject to state oversight.
But that was not the first time that the Supreme Court has tried to intervene. In 2006, the court issued directions to the state governments to monitor ragging on college campuses, and to set up a formal committee to study the practice and come up with ways to curb it.
Kachroo's death triggered a nationwide furor. Yet, a week later, a young female engineering student in southern Andhra Pradesh attempted suicide after being put through a ragging ordeal by her seniors that involved ‘strip dancing.’
Goyal’s businessman father told IPS that he would rather fork out money to have Prahlad educated abroad rather than put his son’s life and limb at risk. "Like Aman, Prahlad is an only son," he explained.
"This is open sadism," says Sanjay Pai of the Columbia Asia Referral Hospital in Bangalore. In an interview with IPS, Pai said notions of inferiority or superiority were often involved in cases of ragging.
"I suspect that caste and ethnicity also play a role, but we do not have the data to prove it," Pai said. "If you are to extrapolate from what happens in India - caste-based killings taking place from time to time - and there are numerous examples of this - I think this is one cause, but also, if all castes were the same, ragging would still take place."
In an editorial for the April-June issue of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, written jointly with Prabha S. Chandra of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, Pai notes that, "alienation based on caste and language may play a role in the higher frequency of ragging in certain situations."
Pai and Chandra admit, in their editorial, that they do not have real answers to why "normal, reasonably intelligent youngsters - often from middle class backgrounds with appropriate upbringing - indulge in senseless and sadistic acts."
In 2001 the Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education (CURE) was created. According to CURE’s website, the group was set up as a "non-profit organisation dedicated solely towards the elimination of ragging and promotion of more positive ways of interaction among seniors and ‘freshers’ in Indian universities."
CURE’s documentation of ragging in India presents a gruesome picture. There were 28 deaths and 23 attempted suicides attributed to ragging between 2003 and 2008. Severe ragging continues to be widely prevalent in most college hostels and, in the face of court rulings, university management has only acted to hush up incidents.
According to CURE, ragging - said to have been introduced as part of the public school system set up during British colonial rule - is too often seen by college administrations as a rite of initiation and a necessary evil, rather than a gross violation of human rights.
Apart from maintaining a website, CURE produces an annual periodical on ragging that is widely distributed by mail and e-mail. It also provides online counselling for victims of ragging - which the non-governmental organisation considers to be the biggest fear of any student entering college.
CURE’s studies, published on its website, draw parallels between ragging and what was practiced at the Iraqi prison camp of Abu Ghraib. "Forced sexual acts in public, including stripping in front of same or opposite sex classmates, passing urine in public, forced public masturbation, forced sexual activity," have been recorded, according to the website.
The biggest hurdle CURE faces in carrying out its avowed mission of building up public opinion against ragging is plain denial. College managements deny the existence of ragging to protect their good reputation as well as retain a convenient handle with which to break up legitimate strikes and protests over campus issues.
"We have not seen the regulatory bodies taking punitive action against institutions. We want to see punitive action against institutions which have not implemented anti-ragging provisions," said R.K. Raghavan who heads the committee appointed by the apex court.
Punitive action, said Raghavan, a former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, could range from cuts in grants for erring institutes to withdrawal of recognition.
"To the onlookers of some of the horrific consequences of ragging, what is startling is that teachers and administrators turn a blind eye towards the issue," Pai and Chandra noted in their editorial.
They have demanded strong action against ragging because "there are far too many indications that violence and bigotry - racial, religious, caste or others - have been on the rise in India over the past two decades or so."
"Violent practices are learned, and passed on from one generation to the next. What we need is a model for terminating ragging, terminating the very idea of deriving pleasure from humiliating another human being," Pai and Chandra opine.
Hank Nuwer, author of several books devoted to hazing, believes that India’s attempts to impose a lifetime ban on those caught ragging are doomed to failure and also likely to have educators mired in appeals and litigation.
"Hazing used to be practiced out in the open in the U.S., but when perpetrators faced expulsion from school and fraternity, plus misdemeanour or felony hazing charges, they took the practice underground," Nuwer wrote in an article published in the Times of India newspaper on Mar. 29.
Nuwer, who recently retired from the Indiana University School of Journalism, wrote that it would take a paradigm shift - where young people themselves begin to universally condemn hazing - before true reform can be expected to become the reality.
"And even if a decrease in ragging/hazing does occur due to toughened national laws in India and the U.S. and elsewhere, I have no doubt hazing will crop up again among students sometime in the future," the author of ‘Wrongs of Passage’ and the ‘Hazing Reader’ noted in his article.
According to Nuwer, hazing and ragging are "true scourges that allow us to see in our young people the kind of viciousness that erupted in the Americans’ holding pens for prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib."
Regulations under consideration and expected to be introduced this month include expulsions, heavy fines, imprisonment and the permanent blacklisting of offenders. Heads of educational institutions who fail to act against the accused could also find themselves subjected to penal action.