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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stop Ragging

IIT Kanpur has just opened its portals for a new batch. These are young men and women (well, mostly men), most of whom are going to stay outside the comfort of their home for the first time in their lives. When you meet them, you immediately see the advantage of Kota. Those who have lived in hostel for their preparations are the confident ones. Others are shy, and a bit scared. Excited about the new journey, but worried about the first couple of weeks.

Most of them have heard of ragging. How could they not. They all have signed a declaration that they will not indulge in ragging of their batchmates. The declaration has been signed by all students of the Institute. It has been counter-signed by the parents. They all agree to accept any disciplinary action that the Institute might take, if they are caught ragging. The Institute has these posters all over the place asking students not to indulge in ragging. They have all been assigned a student guide and a faculty counsellor. They have been given mobile numbers of these people and others to report any ragging. There will be surprise checks in the night in the hostels by anti-ragging squads. Wardens will be on alert. But these freshers know that that is not enough. They have already been told infinite number of times that they will not be treated as equals for some time. They will have to follow orders, which they do not wish to follow. They will be embarrassed, laughed at, and warned not to complain. A complaint will only make sure that the fun activity (fun for whom?) is changed to physical ragging. Worse, they are told that if they resist ragging, no senior will ever help them in the next 4 years. The poor fresher does not realize what a blessing it will be to not interact with most seniors in the next 4 years. And, by the way, we call it "introduction", since "ragging" has been banned by Supreme Court. Will SC ban "introduction" next.

To be fair, there is none of those physical harm, or discomfort, generally no abuses on IITK campus. But this does not mean that there is no ragging.

Simply defined, ragging is any form of abuse of new students (“freshers”) by existing students (“seniors”). It could be an act by seniors which could cause annoyance or harm (psychological or physical) to the freshers. Ragging could also include seniors forcing the freshers to carry out an act which could be embarrassing.

Ragging is, no doubt, a menace in our institutions of higher learning, which in its extreme form has even resulted in deaths. University Grants Commission (UGC) has framed rules that every higher education institute is required to follow in order to curb ragging. Besides the obvious sort of measures, which I mentioned above in respect to IITK campus, there are some extreme measures too, which include a compulsory FIR within 24 hours of a ragging case coming to the notice of the institution. It is suggested that as per the Supreme Court guidelines on curb of ragging, the police will treat the senior students accused of ragging humanely and not as a criminal. There are supposed to be district level committees, with representation from police and district officials.

While the ragging appears to have reduced in the last few years, its prevalence is still unacceptably high. One of the serious problems in curbing ragging is the “zero tolerance” policy that everyone is recommending today. In my discussion with a Dean of Students’ Affairs at a reputed institute, it turned out that they feel helpless. If a minor case is reported, they would like to give a small punishment commensurate with the act, which would act as a deterrent to others from repeating the act. Now, they do nothing, and would simply destroy the complaint and give an oral warning at most. If they were to punish the senior student, there would have to be a record of complaint and punishment. If the record says that it was a ragging case, someone could ask them why they did not report the matter to police as per the rules. It would be difficult to argue for an Institute that they did not file an FIR because they did not trust that police will handle such cases with sensitivity.

But when the institute trashes ragging complaints and give only oral warnings, the message to the student community is loud and clear. That the institute will tolerate ragging till it reaches a level where they feel it is justified to involve police. No academic institute wants to involve police and district administration for small matters. By insisting that they do, UGC and others have actually tied the hands of the institutes in their efforts to curb ragging.

If an institute wants to curb ragging, it is extremely important that first small steps be recognized by the administration and prevented. The first step in ragging is identification of freshers. Different institutes have different ways to identify freshers, but invariably this will involve seniors controlling what juniors wear. Sometimes it could be that they wear proper pants and shirts along with dress shoes all the time (while seniors would wear T-shirts, or shorts, or slippers to distinguish themselves from freshers). At other times, it could be a specific hair cut that is imposed. Or it could be a specific colour of the uniform. Academic administrators ignore this as they don’t want to interfere in a “good” tradition of the campus which teaches the freshers how to present themselves. They don’t understand or do not wish to understand that such differentiation will lead to discrimination. If at all the freshers need to know how to present themselves, then the best way is for the seniors to demonstrate that. And in any case, this sort of teaching is not necessary in the first week of their stay on a campus. (This happens on IITK campus also, I am told by some first year students.)

There are other “traditions” on some campuses, which lead to hardships to some students and therefore come under the ambit of ragging. The freshers are forced to contribute a small amount for a party. The amount is small enough (like Rs. 200) that it is difficult for only a few students to afford. The seniors would organize a party outside the campus where the anti-ragging committee members are not likely to make a surprise visit. And it really is free-for-all ragging. While many institutes forbid seniors to go to the hostel rooms of freshers and vice versa in the first month, but they will refuse to take responsibility of anything that happens outside the campus. The institutes need to make sure that anything done against the will of the freshers, including a small financial contribution, or a party outside the campus, has to be stopped.

One of the reasons why it is difficult to stop ragging is that the first year students do not know anyone on campus. They do not know how serious the Institute is about stopping of ragging. They cannot trust the anti ragging committee, or simply feel shy of approaching them. When seniors know that no complaints will be made, they are not afraid of rules. So the focus in the first few days should be to make freshers comfortable on campus. Also, there should be so much interaction between faculty and freshers that not just the shyness goes away, but seniors also notice the close interactions. They know that during such interaction, some fresher may actually complain about ragging.

When I was at LNMIIT Jaipur, we would ask the freshers to join the Institute a week before the seniors would come. In this one week, there would be an orientation program, where there would be several lectures on general topics – not about their course, but on campus life, time management, stress management, values, and so on. Since these are more interesting topics in the beginning than Physics and Chemistry, it brought a lot more interaction between students and faculty, and that too at a time when the only seniors on campus are those who have been carefully chosen as volunteers to help the freshers in settling down. We also organized several matches between faculty and freshers in different sports – cricket, badminton, table tennis, etc. - further cementing the ties. The nature of interaction would vary from one institute to the other. But there must be some interaction, if ragging has to be curbed. In IIT Kanpur, one faculty member is assigned responsibility of talking to 5-6 students. He would meet them, invite them to have a meal at home, and interact with them so that they feel comfortable to discuss any problems, including ragging, if the need arises.

A place where discrimination usually starts is the mess. The fresher can be easily identified there, because he would not be aware of the culture of the place, and would be asking simple questions. Invariably, the seniors would either ask freshers to sit with them where they can carry out verbal ragging, or they will ask the freshers to stand last in the queue, just to discriminate against them. Our solution at LNMIIT was to make sure that at least one faculty member is eating in the mess during every meal in the first couple of weeks.

Another strategy adopted was to find any news item where a student had been punished for ragging in any university in the country, and forward that news item on email to all students. This is sending a strong message to students that if such an incident happens on our campus, we will not shy away from taking a similar action.

Yet another strategy is to involve parents. Students do not want their parents to get any negative news about their behaviour on campus. So when there was a suspicion that someone may have indulged in some ragging, we would call up his parents, and tell them that if their son is caught later on with some proof, the punishment will be serious. Parents will ensure that he does not do anything silly again.

We also adopted community punishment. We told all students that if there is ragging in any hostel wing, and if we are not able to identify specific individuals who were involved, then the whole wing will be fined. This ensured that if there is even one student in the wing who is opposed to ragging, will make that ragging does not take place in his wing. And one will find such students in every wing. And once you have ensured that there will be no ragging in the hostels, you have already won the war.

It is possible to eradicate ragging from our institutes and universities. If there is a will, there is a way.


Saurabh Nanda said...

I don't know why people are opposed to the "ragging" that takes place in IITK. It's extremely benign and mostly fun.

Here's what I had written about ragging at IITK in 2005, as a reaction to an article on --

L said...

Calling the freshers few days before the seniors is a good idea. But I don't think if one or two students are opposed to ragging in each hostel wing, they will be effective in stopping the ragging or even notifying the warden.It will stop only when it become socially unacceptable to be a ragger and a large majority oppose it.

Khalil Sawant said...

We had a small arrangement at IIT-Roodkee, which I do not know, but I think must have been helpful in controlling ragging, specially since the worse ragging happens in the hostel, outside of study hours

All first year students were in separate single hostel and mess, in which non-first-year students were strictly dis-allowed.

Harsh Agarwal said...

Really liked all the suggestions in the article. Simple and doable.

Harsh Agarwal
Co-founder, Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education (CURE)

jayajha said...

@Nanda - Well the problem is who decides what is "fun" and what is "insult". Not everyone can or has to subscribe to the senior's idea of fun. For them it is ragging and is mentally tortorous.

And in today's world entertainment is not so rare that senior students have to use freshers to entertain themselves!