After a number of well-publicised incidents, even Bollywood is tackling the issue of institutionalised bullying at Indian universities. So, Margot Cohen asks, why are the authorities not doing more to stamp out the controversial practice of "ragging"?
Shoban Babu grew up in Kootturavu Patti, a village stuck on a scrubby, infertile patch of land 40 kilometres outside Madurai. The slender young man with a straggly moustache excelled in mathematics and managed to gain admission to a coveted engineering school in Coimbatore, a largely industrial city in Tamil Nadu, south India.
At home, as the eldest of three sons, he exuded an air of gentle confidence. Within a week of moving into his hostel, however, Babu began to worry about a shadow cast over student life. Assigned to a sixth-floor room along with seven other male first-year students, Babu recalls a furtive discussion about "ragging", a form of systematic bullying which is endemic in Indian universities.
Ragging was not a hazing ritual leading to entry into an exclusive fraternity or secret society, as in the United States. It was simply a matter of survival. "We didn't feel afraid at the college or in the classroom," Babu said. "We only felt fear when we went to the hostel. It's not safe. The seniors roam here and there."
As it turned out, Babu never completed his first year at the Hindusthan College of Engineering and Technology. Today, he is back in his village, where his tearful mother hovers over him. For the past 13 months Babu, now 20 years old, has spent most of his time lying in bed in a dim room, recovering from traumatic paraplegia. Just before 1am on October 23, 2009 he was found prone on the ground below his hostel, with both legs paralysed, his lower back fractured, and a lung punctured.
The principal of the engineering college, V Duraisamy, said that senior faculty members from the college conducted an inquiry and concluded it was a case of attempted suicide. Babu denies this. "I would never have that thought," he said with a grimace.
His version of the story begins with dinner at the student mess, after a day of attending classes. Four seniors allegedly approached him and demanded money to throw a party. He said he had no cash but would ask his parents to send funds. "What are you doing in college, if you don't have any money?" he recalls one senior retorting.
They slapped and shoved him, then left. It was relatively light roughhousing, but Babu began sobbing. On the way back to the sixth floor, he said he bumped into the warden of the hostel, who allegedly asked him what had happened. He said that some seniors had pressured him for money, but he didn't know their names. According to Babu, the warden said that he would settle the matter with the seniors the following day.
Babu went upstairs to his room, tried to study for a while, then got into bed. Shortly after midnight, he heard a knock at the door. As his roommates slept, he opened the door and found the same group of seniors, who demanded that he follow them. They seemed to be drunk. At first he followed meekly to the fifth floor. But when they grabbed him and brought him to the fourth floor, accusing him of informing on them. He became terrified and shouted.
Finally, he said, two of them grabbed his arms, the other two grabbed his legs, and they tossed him out of a fourth-floor window.
Students and hostel staff rushed Babu to a local hospital. His grandfather, T Jeyaram, arrived at 8am, followed by his parents. At 4.30pm on the same day, the police filed a report noting that Babu tried to kill himself, attaching an alleged statement from the patient. Yet Babu's grandfather and other relatives say that Babu did not speak to anyone on that first day at the hospital, including them. It was only in January this year - after convalescing in a different hospital in Madurai - that Babu finally told his family that he had been ragged.
Babu's ordeal is not unique. On November 11, to choose a more harrowing example, an Indian court ruled that four senior students at the Rajendra Prasad Government Medical College in Tanda, Himachal Pradesh were guilty of culpable homicide. The victim was a 19-year-old junior medical student named Aman Kachroo. He suffered a brain haemorrhage after the four students drunkenly attacked him on March 7, 2009, the culmination of a series of abusive episodes reinforcing his subordinate status.
India has a long history of "ragging," a grab-bag term for various forms of hazing inflicted on younger students. Hostels serving medical schools and engineering colleges remain prime venues for ragging. Initially a British colonial import, its current forms range from whimsical to brutal. The benign view is that it forges big-brother relationships that offer guidance and friendship. (Big sisters also do their own share of ragging, as media reports attest.) Opponents take a darker view, pointing to complaints of violent bullying resulting in serious injury and suicide.
Both sides agree that ragging happens most frequently in student hostels, where seniors acting under minimal supervision seek to exert their dominance. This taste of power can be exhilarating. "The kids enjoy this," observed Rajendra Kachroo, father of the student who died. "They get the opportunity, for the first time, to control somebody."
A proof of the issue's increasing prominence is that it has caught the attention of Bollywood. In a new film titled Hostel, slated for release in 150 theatres across India in early January, a young hero faces jeering mobs of students and finds himself beaten, trampled, and tied down with a red dog collar. The film's writer and director Manish Gupta said that he intends the film to be a "wake-up call for all of us."
In real life, however, it is Kachroo who has done most to ring alarm bells. Since his son's death he has been a force behind India's recent public efforts to stop ragging - enlisting everyone from president Pratibha Patil to state governors and court justices to denounce the practice. New campus rules have also been created to safeguard against it. Some college principals have even dispatched "anti-ragging squads" to conduct night raids and take complaints on special mobile-phone numbers. Other volunteer groups, including Stop Violence in Education (SAVE), have stepped up signature campaigns and campus discussions. Such efforts - along with flashes of media coverage - appear to have minimised ragging in such major cities as New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.
And yet, according to activists, the anti-ragging message has not penetrated the bulk of colleges in smaller cities and towns. Much remains to be done to convince students in India's heartland that ragging is a criminal act, not merely harmless pranks or a method of preparation to thrive within the hierarchies of the Indian workplace. The impact of Hostel on this debate remains to be seen.
Some analysts predict that ragging will be difficult to root out, however. It enjoys support "at many levels", noted Shobna Sonpar, a New Delhi-based psychologist appointed to a Supreme Court committee to explore the phenomenon. "The biggest hurdle to addressing the problems associated with ragging is the fact that there is ambivalence toward it, even among college authorities and policy makers," she said. In the case of Aman Kachroo, college authorities failed to respond to the student's written complaints of abuse. The court sentenced the seniors responsible for his death to a comparatively lenient four years in prison each.
At campuses across India, experiences of ragging vary widely. Sometimes fresh arrivals are called to recite nursery rhymes, dance a few steps, wear funny costumes, or shave their heads. "Eventually you realise what these seniors want, most of the time, is entertainment," recalled a young architect in Bangalore. In some hostels, however, ragging has escalated to year-long demands for money to buy alcohol, repeated beatings, erotic confessions, public masturbation, or other forms of sexual humiliation.
"One needs to understand the relationship between masculinity, sexuality, and power," said Shekhar Seshadri, an adolescent psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bangalore. "Sexual humiliation is a metaphor for emasculation. Essentially, it is a remnant of the power dynamics within a feudal system."
Are those power dynamics shifting? Some analysts are looking for clues in the weakening of India's traditional extended-family system. Kachroo argues that within an extended family, a particularly controlling patriarch might be reined in by other male relatives. But as India makes a transition to more nuclear families - largely due to internal migration in search of better economic opportunities - the male authority figure can become even more dominant, his powers untrammelled by faraway relatives.
Having escaped from this authority figure, the youth can then display even more eagerness to compel obedience when placed in new surroundings. "Disintegration of the joint family system is a major problem," agreed Janet Sankar, who coordinates a suicide counselling centre in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. "They want to freak out, once they come out of their homes. There is no one there to supervise [them]."
The prevalence of binge drinking at student hostels also raises the likelihood of bad judgment, according to other mental-health professionals. Vivek Benegal, a Bangalore-based psychiatrist who specialises in alcohol addiction, pointed to a major shift. "Young people in India are drinking much earlier than they used to," he said. "The pattern is drinking to intoxication, and drinking without eating, leading to disinhibition and violence." Youths who indulge in high-risk activities, including ragging, "really don't take into account the consequences that might follow," he notes.
Meanwhile the expanding reach of technology heightens the shame of victims. "Videos are adding more trauma to the situation," reports Kushal Banerjee, a co-founder of SAVE. "Stripping someone and uploading it on the internet is terrible. Everyone can see his torment."
For female students, ragging can often overlap with "eve-teasing," a local term for anything from aggressive flirtation to cyber-exposure and sexual assault. "They are very scared to inform their parents," says Sankar. "Once informed, the parents will take action, and then those people will take revenge."
But not every student chooses to remain silent. Babu went to the courts. A relative got in touch with a lawyer, who pleaded for interim relief of 500,000 rupees in a case pending before the High Court of Madras.
"The student has come forward with a false claim," insists V Duraisamy, the college principal. "There is no possibility of ragging inside the campus or outside." Duraisamy said that the college has already spent 375,000 rupees on Babu's medical treatment, but speculated that the family was angling for more. "Clearly the parents are keen to get more monetary benefits from the institution," he said.
Back in his village, Babu began to experience some feeling in his left leg in October. That has put him in a better mood. He can now hoist himself upright on a heavy blue metal walker, and drag himself forward a few steps, as long as two people are around to steady him. He hopes that physiotherapy sessions will help him resume his engineering studies one day - but not at Hindusthan College. "I wouldn't go back," he says. "This happened a year ago, but nobody from the college has come to visit me."
Starting over is a big challenge for many students who see themselves as victims of ragging. India's system of higher education does not allow for easy transfer between institutions. Rather than forfeit fees or give up a slot won in a highly competitive exam, some students opt to stay put, despite the lingering trauma.
"I'm going to stay in the same programme. I feel scared, but I'm going to keep silent," said Akhil Dileep, a 19-year-old applied electronics student from Ernakulum, Kerala. He describes his college as very protective toward first-year students, leaving seniors inclined to pick on second-year students like himself. Dileep told me that he was thrashed by a dozen seniors after tensions at a campus party, and ended up in hospital for three days last month. Luckily, he escaped without serious head injuries. But when he told the doctor that he was ragged, the incident was reported to local authorities, as mandated under Kerala's anti-ragging laws. This, in turn, triggered a flurry of pleas from students, and their parents, not to reveal names.
Dileep declined offers to appear on TV news. "That would be bad for my career," he explained. "If I gave a bad report about the college, they would also feel bad about me." After watching some of his attackers return to class following a brief suspension, he is resigned to an inevitable cycle of abuse among students. "If they get ragged, they always feel they have to do the same to their juniors. This will go on and on. I don't think it will ever end," he said.
For others, the feeling of being trapped on a dangerous campus can create tremendous psychological pressure. Harsh Agarwal, a co-founder of the volunteer group Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education [CURE], said that students from low-income groups who can't afford to change schools "feel suffocated from both sides". He noted the October 12 case of a West Bengal farmer's son who was rescued after drinking pesticide following a ragging episode. In the last academic year, CURE counted 19 ragging-related deaths and four attempted suicides. In an additional case reported last month in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, the father of a 20-year-old student alleged that seniors killed his son and made it look like a suicide. Still, activists agree that the vast majority of ragging episodes go unreported.
With the support of their parents, wealthier students have the means to transfer to new educational environments. Yet that doesn't erase their bitterness. Take Akhil Dev, a 21-year-old student now enrolled at Amrita College in Karunagapally, Kerala. At his former college in Coimbatore, he says he was harassed for money last year by seniors who knew his father had a lucrative job in the movie business. "Three times I had given them Rs3,000 or Rs4,000," Dev said. "When they asked me the fourth time, and I said that I don't have cash with me, their tone changed. I don't know what I did to make them so aggressive." After bending down to "lick their boots", Dev says that the students beat him so viciously that he required two operations to restore his eyesight and four months confined to his bed. He still complains of lingering headaches, backaches, and late-night panic attacks.
"What happened to me is going to last a long, long time," he says. "What happened to them? They just went to Goa for a couple of months, and then came back. The college authorities wanted to compromise."
Such dramas also play out against the broader backdrop of regional and local politics. A 2007 report prepared by India's former intelligence chief, RK Raghavan, noted that the offspring of politically powerful parents "indulged in the most shameful acts of ragging and got away scot free". This is apparently particularly prevalent in remote areas.
With various parties courting educational institutions and their wards, it often doesn't pay to make a fuss, either. "The students are a vote bank. They have a lot of influence. The government doesn't want to lose their support," said A Kathir, the executive director of Evidence, a human-rights organisation based in Madurai. "It would affect them during election time."
Mental-health experts have noted a persistent hierarchy among the raggers. "There is a leader and there are these timid followers. They themselves are scared that if they are not on the side of the perpetrator, they will become objects of ridicule," observed the Bangalore-based counsellor Ali Khwaja.
The trick, then, lies in changing the perspective of students who would otherwise be mute spectators. "Once the leaders lose their followers, they will be left isolated," said Agarwal.
In the southern city of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, the deputy police commissioner Akun Sabharwal thinks this can be accomplished by warning ambitious students that they will lose their chance to get a passport for work or study abroad if they are caught ragging. "You are hitting at their raw spot," said Sabharwal, who also counted himself as a ragging victim in his college days in Calicut, Kerala. "The student is just looking forward to something in life."
Others are investing hope in the Right to Information Act, one of the most important egalitarian tools to emerge in modern India. Villagers have used the act to obtain social welfare benefits; environmentalists have used it to force urban politicians to reveal plans to cut down trees. In the drive to prevent ragging, it can come in handy, too.
Kachroo has already used RTI this year to obtain evidence that the government's vaunted 24-hour anti-ragging hotline, established by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in May 2009, had largely failed to follow up on student complaints. (The UGC did not respond to my requests for information about the hotline.)
In theory, the UGC requires each student and his parent to submit a legal affidavit stating that he or she will not engage in ragging, and shall be subject to expulsion in case of any such behaviour. In practice, few colleges have collected these affidavits. But with the help of RTI, Indian students across the country can check whether their colleges are complying with this mandate - which forces each student to take personal responsibility, instead of just following the leader.
This could be a potent deterrent, said Gaurav Singhal, a former engineering student who joined SAVE after being shaken by Kachroo's death. "We can make every student a soldier in this fight," he said.
Margot Cohen is a writer based in Bangalore.