On the grounds that you’ve had politics coming out of your ears this week, I’m not going to write about the election or the campaign. Instead, I’m going to focus on something that will still remain a problem long after this campaign is over, the government has been formed and even after that government has fallen.
And that is ragging.
Contrary to what you will read in articles written by ragging apologists, it is not an international practice. Yes, there is something called hazing at military schools and colleges in the US but it is increasingly rare and strict action is taken when it comes to light. It is completely unknown in Britain or in the rest of Europe. The old public school concept of ragging, which is often used to justify the Indian version, was never anything like our kind of ragging and even that has disappeared from English public schools.
In India, on the other hand, ragging is about sadism, brutality, power and often has a sexual component. Most of us would have read about the sad case of Aman Kachroo who was murdered by students at a medical college in Himachal Pradesh under the pretext of ragging. Aman died of a brain haemorrhage as a consequence of a brutal assault, the last of several attacks that continued till there was no life in his body.
The incident made the headlines and on the week of March 8, a survey showed that Aman was the most talked about person in India on the internet. The usual pious editorials were written. And many of us shed tears over the needless death of a brilliant 19-year-old boy.
But the true tragedy is not that Aman died. There have been other deaths before, many of them even more tragic. Each has been followed by the same editorials and the same internet chatter.
The real tragedy is that other boys will continue to die. And each time we will shed the same tears, ask the police to take action — and then sit back and wait till it happens again. And again. And again.
A month ago I met Prof Raj Kachroo, Aman’s father. He teaches in Tanzania and had been unaware of the kind of trouble his son was in. Aman had complained about the ragging but Prof Kachroo, like many of us, believed that this was just part of the settling in process at college. He regrets deeply that he did not take Aman’s complaints more seriously and pull him out of that murderous medical college.
But unlike many other parents in similar situations, Prof Kachroo is cerebral enough to go beyond emotion. Of course he grieves for his son. And of course he wants justice.
But he knows that the real answer lies in fighting the practice of ragging itself, not in seeking justice only for his son. The way to avenge Aman’s death is not just to punish those who killed him but to protect all the other potential Amans who cower in fear in our colleges and hostels.
As Prof Kachroo says, “Everybody wakes up when a tragedy occurs. And then everybody wants to punish the perpetrators of the crime as harshly as possible. This is what we call justice. But it is not real justice. The real justice is in prevention and monitoring and not in punishing… More students will stop ragging if there are effective preventive and monitoring measures in place.”
He is right. There are a number of Supreme Court judgements that say that ragging is illegal and that heads of institutions are liable for ragging that occurs in their colleges and will personally be charged under the law should any incidents of ragging be reported. But these judgements might as well not exist. Few principals even seem aware that they could go to jail. And the regulatory bodies that are supposed to monitor behaviour in universities neither communicate these judgements nor — truthfully — do they really give a damn about ragging. They are too busy with academic politics to care about the lives of students.
So, is there a way out?
I think there is. First of all, we need to follow a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to ragging. I’m aware of all those tedious arguments about how ragging helps freshers get to know their seniors better. But frankly, if the only way a senior can get to know a new student is by pushing him or her around or making the student do something silly (sing a song outside the girls’ hostel in your underwear etc) then that’s a pretty pathetic comment on the mentality of that educational institution. Surely, there are other ways of getting to know each other that do not involve demonstrations of power.
Secondly, we need to accept that the worst cases of ragging do not occur in big city colleges but crop up in faraway medical colleges and technical institutions. Many of these places are not on the media radar and often the nearest police stations are miles away. Students feel isolated and trapped and, therefore, unable to register any kind of protest against ragging.
In such cases, the onus is on the heads of those institutions to ensure the safety of their students. This sounds fine in theory but the truth is that small town principals rarely bother to do anything. To make sure that they act, we need to make examples of some of them. I would be quite happy to see a few principals thrown into jail when cases of ragging are reported. It’s not enough to punish the perpetrators of ragging: they will pass out of college but the principals will remain.
And finally, I think we should look closely at the suggestion that Prof Kachroo has come up with. He says that there should be an anti-ragging website where every student who is registered at an Indian university should be directed. The site will have a film about ragging and it will be mandatory for all students to register on the site, after which they should sign an affidavit and get a unique identification number like an airline PNR. That way the moment a complaint comes in we will be able to identify both perpetrator and victim.
It should be possible for anyone who is ragged to either complain on the site or to call an anti-ragging helpline. The organisation (a mix of civil society and government) should be able to call the college within minutes of receiving the complaint and demand that action is taken against the perpetrators. If the college principal does not act, he should be sacked or jailed.
The advantage of Prof Kachroo’s suggestions is that they do not require too much government intervention. They use communications technology and involve civil society, not just the babus. They seem to me to be a good starting point for action.
And nobody can doubt that action is needed. Ragging has now become a microcosm of the nastiest aspects of Indian society: sexual humiliation, caste-based bullying, naked sadism and demonstrations of power against the weak and the helpless.
What kind of society are we creating if this is how we allow our children to be treated?