Last year at the height of some very unpleasant ragging at my elite college in Delhi, I met a geriatric woman at an elite club, who began defending ragging. "Freshers and seniors get to know each other," she said. I wanted to tell her: “Ma'am, I want to know you better. Please take off your clothes.”
Since then, I have discovered how ragging is so politically correct in our society — despite all the horror stories everyone's heard about ragging in hostels; despite all the suicides you've read about in the papers; despite the landmark Supreme Court judgement against ragging; despite anti-ragging laws in several states. Despite all this, nine in ten people around you tend to lecture you on how good ragging can be. Why?
I see ragging simply as a systemised form of abuse and exploitation. The system is carefully drilled into the fresher's mind. He is told that he is to wear a certain uniform, address seniors as 'Sir', always bow down and wish them, and never, never ask questions. And the price of not obeying can range from ostracism, which is what I faced, to violent and/or sexual retribution.
You will be told, ad nauseum, that 'ragging can be healthy within limits'. All such cliched, facetious arguments in favour of ragging talk about the extent of ragging. I have met people who even justify sexual abuse with the excuse that it makes you uninhibited about sexuality. (Sir, I want to live with my inhibitions, what's your problem?) And I have also met counsellors who have counselled victims of male rape in the name of ragging. But most defenders will tell you that as long as it's not sexual, it's acceptable, thus ignoring that sexual abuse is precisely what ragging is all about. In a society where sexual repression has been the norm, this is not surprising, but disturbing nevertheless.
To me, the problem is not the extent but the idea of ragging: the idea that you must abuse and exploit me just because you joined this college a year or two before I did. I therefore have problems with even the mildest of ragging.
"Mild ragging" would consist of singing and dancing, verbal insults, doing odd jobs and cleaning rooms. This is not what I had come to this college for, all the way from my sleepy small town. At the very least ragging is time-consuming, at the most it is stressful and traumatic.
As such ragging cannot be explained in terms of incidents; hostel ragging aims at creating an environment of constant fear and intimidation for freshers, one in which every senior is his (or her) enemy. Mental rape would be an apt phrase to describe it. Even the harshest ragging begins with mildly, and often the ragger loses self-control, and does things that he never thought he could do. A fresher is ragged not once, and not by a single senior: he is ragged again and again, by the same senior and by other seniors and by their friends from outside college. He is ragged day and night, and more in the night, throughout the night. Just when he thinks the worst is over, comes another ragger whose name he does not know. This goes on for months with no respite.
Sexual abuse is an inextricable part of ragging. Last year, the famous case of a police complaint against ragging at IIT Delhi was frontpage news. (Much worse ragging in small towns never gets reported.) What was the fresher made to do that he developed a phobia against ragging?
According to the FIR, Prakash Rajpurohit was asked to strip, hold the genitals of other male students, enact a rape scene, and describe his parents conjugating.
Later, a rediff.com correspondent managed to talk to a 'senior' at IIT Delhi, despite the best efforts of the Institute to keep away journalists. This is what the senior' had to say in defence of ragging: "We get to know our seniors and learn a lot. We become bold and get exposed to the world."
What's happening here? Why does one have to see the body of a junior to get to 'know' him?
"Knowing" each other and such excuses are merely excuses for sadism. The ragger obviously has this great need to justify his acts, more to himself than to the outside world. And the "knowing" also means that your seniors will boycott you unless you allow them to abuse you, as I learnt the hard way.
If ragging has to go, it has to be replaced with a new system that brings freshers into the college mainstream. The system of responsible seniors being appointed student 'guides' or 'counsellors' for freshers is the only one I know. It is successfully followed by western universities, and in India, only by IIT Kanpur.
As part of an NGO's work against ragging, I am editing a website called stopragging.org, for which we have invited first-hand accounts of ragging. One heart-wrenching story about ragging in Motilal Nehru Regional Engineering College (MNREC), Allahabad (now called National Institute of Technology) in 1990, writes about how a session of "mass ragging" which involved beating freshers black and blue, prompted one fresher to escape by jumping from the window. He broke his neck and died subsequently, and the people responsible were merely expelled from the institution, without any punishment from law. The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, writes: "They must have joined some other college, finished graduation and must be working somewhere now. Maybe they are government officials, businessmen or private sector executives. The irony would be to find one of them in some police station as an SHO. I wonder if they still remember this... and if they will ever tell their wives and children about it."
I realised that society is full of raggers. The ragger who asked a fresher to undress will never admit this to the world; he will merely defend the idea of ragging. It is the ragger's propaganda to justify his crime, that was speaking through that intellectual-sounding lady Imet at the club.
Another great myth is that ragging leads to a closely knit hostel community. I found that ragging instead is a means of separating People Like Us from People Like Them. So you have ragging along the lines of caste and regionalism in several places. In Pune colleges, for instance, it is Mahrashtrians versus non-Mahrashtrians.
Then you are told that ragging makes freshers strong. I told someone that I could not see how harassment would make me strong. "You call this harassment?" he said "In my boarding school a hockey stick was shoved down my arse. That's harassment. But it has now made me bold enough to take in ragging here in this college." But my friend hasn't really become 'bold'; he has merely become insensitive and numb. He feels no pain, and does not think twice before inflicting it.
All these arguments become pointless when you realise that ragging is crime by law. And all I am asking the defenders of ragging is: Do you or do you not abide by the law of the land?
It is important to realise that the ragger is also a victim of ragging: not only was he ragged in his first year, he was later co-opted in a system of abuse and exploitation, one that legitimizes violence and oppression, drug abuse and alcoholism, all as 'student life'.
The ragger is not 'the other' for me. Now in my second year I could very well be a ragger. I have completely forgotten my trauma. My room is in a mess and it would be so convenient if I could get a first year to clean it. Free labour is always welcome. Those who enslave never feel guilty about it; they see it as their birthright. And besides I need some entertainment, I need someone to massage my ego. It would be so nice if I could have someone to whom I could do anything I want, without fear of retaliation, because I am a 'senior'. Instead I have taken to controlling ragging around me, and have thus made even more enemies, an even greater number of people have boycotted me. And I'm very proud of that.
I am told that ragging can be fun. Yes, it can be — for the ragger. Just like Abu Ghraib was fun for the American soldiers in those pictures you saw. And you never saw pictures of similar abuse in India's college hostels, because no one took those pictures. Ragging hasnot doubt been slowly declining all over India after the SC order in 2001, but a lot still needs to be done. There still are colleges whose faculties personally think ragging is an acceptable practise, and are thus not doing anough to eliminate it from their institutions.
But it is not enough that the law is after all catching up with ragging. We are looking at a sordid history of human rights abuse that has gone on for decades. Those who committed suicide are no longer there to tell their raggers how much fun ragging can be. We must fill that gap.