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An imported malaise that refuses to die

Ragging, hazing, fagging, bullying, pledging, horse-playing — whatever you call it, they all signify the same old practice of welcoming the fresher in a barbaric manner.

india Updated: Mar 21, 2009 23:34 IST

Ragging, hazing, fagging, bullying, pledging, horse-playing — whatever you call it, they all signify the same old practice of welcoming the fresher in a barbaric manner.

The phenomenon can be traced back to the 7th or 8th century A.D. In Greek culture, new entrants to the sporting community were subjected to humiliations and teasing to ‘inculcate a team spirit’ in them. Gradually, this technique was subjected to modifications and was later adopted by the military forces, from there it finally entered the education system.

Since its inception in the educational arena, ragging has undergone several modifications before morphing into an organised form of campus violence. Forming college student organisations was very much in vogue in the 18th century, particularly in Europe. The concept was later adopted by the US universities too. During 1828-1845, several student organisations popped up on US campuses. These were named after Greek letters —alpha, phi, beta, kappa etc. — and were called ‘Greek letter organisations’ or fraternities. The new entrants to these fraternities, called pledges, had to undergo an initiation process. It was, at that time, merely a ritual to test the courage of the pledge. Then, in 1873, the first ragging related death occurred. A freshman from Cornell University fell into a gorge. Things had already started to change.

Ragging underwent a massive transformation after World War I. It acquired a brutal form. Soldiers returning from the war re-entered college and brought with them the technique of hazing (as its mostly referred to in the West) that they learnt in the military. The techniques were essentially used to make an individual fail as an individual and succeed as a team.

Eventually, when fewer military students entered college, these techniques were passed onto others who did not understand
their purpose, and ragging became a hazardous exercise. The violence of the technique started to escalate.

In India, the tradition was imported lock-and-stock with English education. Though it existed in the army and English public schools much before the country’s independence, it became conspicuous only after 1947.

Till the late 60s, ragging was never a serious problem in India — it was in a much milder form primarily because higher education was mostly confined to some sections of the society. As higher education became more and more accessible to different communities, ragging became a weapon to settle animosities between students of different castes, communities, religions and regions.

During the early 90s, the sprouting of many new private engineering and medical colleges led to several disastrous experiments with this old practice. It made south India a hub of such activity. During the decade, ragging related suicides began to increase rapidly.

In 1997, Tamil Nadu became the first state to legislate against ragging. In 2001, the Supreme Court banned ragging throughout the country.

We tend to forget that ragging is a Western culture and is deleterious in a multi-ethnic society such as India’s. The myth that it makes the fresher bold has continued, leading to a passive social approbation. As long as this exists, ragging will never see its demise.

(Harsh Agarwal is co-founder of the Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education (noragging.com) and was a consultant to the Raghavan Committee)

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