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Ragging as human rights abuse?

“Ragging” is not a rite of passage or a bit of fun and games. It is a serious crime and should be regarded and dealt with as such by students, teachers, parents and law enforcement agencies, says Kalpana Kannabiran

Aman KachrooThe murder of 19-year-old medical student Aman Kachroo is deeply saddening. Aman  Kachroo died after being severely beaten up by fellow students in a "ragging" incident  at the Dr Rajendra Prasad Medical College in Tanda, Himachal Pradesh on March 8, 2009.  Four senior students have been arrested in the case which has caused public outrage.

Ragging has been rampant in the country, especially in colleges of professional education for at least four decades now. As a child, I remember my teenaged uncle discontinuing his studies in engineering in Bhopal in the mid-1970s unable to bear the humiliation of ragging. We have no count of the number of young students, mostly young men, who have lost their lives, taken their lives or made a choice between a professional education and staying alive and sane. It is certainly not a recent phenomenon. While we have a law in place now, it is hardly surprising that the law only comes into operation when there is a serious violation – like this one -- where the gravity of the offence puts it within the purview of criminal law.

The term “ragging” itself is problematic because it masks the fact that the acts it refers to are harassment and battery aimed at diminishing the dignity of those who enter the institution at a time when they are powerless and vulnerable. Fresh out of school, several moving out of the secure confines of home for the first time, groping to find their feet in the world after gaining entry into institutions that will transport them to their dreams, these youngsters are rudely awakened to the fact that violation of dignity and person is a defining trait of the world of their dreams.

The “sporting” way of dealing with it, we are told, is to grin and bear it. There are several who do. But does that mean they do not experience humiliation? How does that experience condition their behaviour and personality in their lives ahead? It is impossible that targeted violence will not leave scars. How many have actually been able to tell their stories? When they have, how many of us have heard them carefully and acted diligently – as parents, teachers and peers?

There are others, like Aman Kachroo, who refuse to submit themselves to such humiliation. And they, the human rights defenders in institutions of higher learning, face the hostility of a negligent, callous and thereby complicit administration on the one side, an indifferent faculty on the other, and a murderous mob closing in on them. This mob, of course, needs no reason to be murderous. It is not violence that needs any justification or rationalisation. While all freshers are vulnerable, those who come from vulnerable social backgrounds are doubly targeted. In Aman’s case, he came in through a quota, and yet he dared to stand up and speak. A little understood dimension of campus violence is that it reproduces the exclusions and silencing outside. And because campuses are closed spaces, insulated from the world outside, the normal protections that may be claimed and that might operate outside, are rejected in favour of non transparent conciliatory processes within that are simply incapable of tackling the gravity of these situations.

The use of the term “ragging” to describe these attacks that range from verbal to physical abuse and murder, aggravates the problem by detracting attention from its seriousness – teachers, parents, friends, in general all those in touch with victims, generally share the view that this is a rite of passage that will pass. The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is, even if it is a rite of passage, even if we are certain it will pass, why must we tolerate or condone intentional humiliation and battery?

This is scarcely the time for us to distance ourselves from the problem by saying it does not happen in our institutions. We need now to take responsibility for a systemic failure that has had tragic consequences, for which we are, as teachers especially, collectively responsible. I have personally heard the head of an institution tell freshers that while ragging is prohibited, before they lodge a formal complaint they must also remember that it is the seniors who will eventually guide them through their academic work. It is not true either that it is only the “lumpen” elements among students who indulge in this behaviour. The brightest, most high performing students figure as kingpins in the lynch mob, providing intellectual grist to the “ragging” mill.

There are those who participate actively and others who buy their peace and inclusion by being passive participant-spectators in these orgies. The participation in violence dehumanises both equally. Can it be argued that having participated in an orgy of this kind, these students will be able to just move on and get their star grades, make it in life, be good teachers, friends and parents, and make peace with themselves? It is not my intention here to essentialise negative character traits or behavioural patterns as never-changing and evil. Rather, what I wish to suggest is that participation in willful violence against a group perceived as powerless has a far-reaching impact on the perpetrators. We have not even begun to grapple with this because we have defined murderous violence down to flippant “teasing” that does not penetrate the surface of consciousness. Perhaps we need to think of how this bearing of witness as violators will influence their response to similar violence against those in their care a generation later.

If it is possible for students in an academic environment to use the fact of belonging to the institution to inflict harm and suffering on an unimaginable scale on younger colleagues, it is time for us to reflect critically on the kind of education we impart and the students we are turning out. What does it tell us about the character of the institutions we have built?

Most urgent of all, it is time for students who are troubled by this violence to come together and form a national coalition against campus violence, making it known and clear to all parties on campuses across the country that there will henceforth be zero tolerance for any infringement of the right to dignity and education in an environment of freedom. It is only this exercise of associational freedom that will call into account all parties responsible for providing and safeguarding fundamental rights of students in vulnerable situations in educational institutions.

(Kalpana Kannabiran is a professor at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad)

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009