I went to IIT Delhi
in 1987. I was a small-town boy from Bihar, intimidated by tall buildings
and the steady stream of traffic. Even now, after the Internet and all
that, I meet people in my town who, when told about my college, respond:
iti? Ek hamaare yahaan bhi hai.
When I arrived
at my hostel on the IIT campus, I found a notice posted in the lobby,
saying: ‘Ragging is banned in the Institute’. I had come
with horrible stories of ragging in mind, told by friends, relatives
and well-wishers. My father, whose knowledge of college life was 30
years out of date, wrote me to say that I was to ‘take care to
avoid rigging in IIT’. I remember he misspelt the word, and he
seemed to think my participation was voluntary.
I entered my hostel
and was given my room. Ten minutes later, I was on my knees with a leash
around my neck, reciting the hostel pledge, which granted every senior
the right to f*** me in the arse, then break it into eight thousand
pieces, mash some into bharta, and feed the rest to the hostel warden’s
It sounds funny
now, even to me.
We did many things
in that one month that now appear harmless and amusing. We stood on
benches in the dining hall and recited the national anthem; we crawled
on all fours and barked like dogs; we brought cigarettes and Campa Cola
for our seniors; we cleaned their rooms; we dropped our trousers so
they could measure our penises; we formed human trains — each
car holding the penis of the car in front — and whistled our way
through hostel corridors; we simulated orgies; stripped naked; then
wore underpants over our trousers to turn ourselves into comic book
Presumably, if you
are sufficiently insulted in
college, when your boss insults you in the real world, like a
well-trained dog you will not bark but will wag your tail and
pretend it was meant for someone else
After so many years,
I can list all these forms of ‘ragging’ dispassionately,
but no one should be misled. Brutality and oppression remain just that,
no matter the name used for them. Who were these seniors, and why did
they humiliate us so? They seemed powerful then, but they were boys
like us, older by a year or two or three. They had once endured similar
humiliations. Their seniority in the hostel gave them, for the first
time in their lives, power over other human beings — power to
command fear, to subjugate and humiliate. They exercised this power
with abandon, and they had developed countless theories — from
the facetious to the philosophical — to support their sadism.
Ragging forces you to stay up late, they said, and this is useful when
preparing for difficult examinations. Ragging brings the freshman —
or the fachcha — into intimate contact with peers and seniors,
and this turns the hostel into a home. Ragging helps the freshman lose
his inhibitions. And finally, ragging teaches you humility. It prepares
you for the ‘real’ world. Presumably, if you are insulted
a sufficient number of times in college, you acquire the virtue of patience,
and when your boss insults you in the real world, like a well-trained
dog you will not bark and lose your job. Instead, you will wag your
tail, look the other way, and pretend the abuse was meant for someone
else. Our seniors proclaimed — and some actually believed —
that this was wisdom acquired through age and experience, and they were
now anxious to pass it down to us. Many were genuinely surprised that
we were not grateful for the favour.
As time passed,
so did memories of our humiliation. Six months later, ragging was merely
an amusing episode. Twelve months later, we felt it was our duty to
prepare the next batch for life. We ragged them ferociously, and were
genuinely surprised that they were not grateful. I launched a ‘stop
ragging’ campaign that died quickly when neither my batchmates
nor the freshmen showed enthusiasm. My batchmates now had happy memories
of their own initiation. For freshmen, it was easier to ‘get it
over with’ than be ostracised for the rest of their stay on campus.
When they were led on leashes, some had ingratiating smiles on their
Everyone was wrong.
I was supposed to come closer to my peers after our mutual penis-measuring
ceremony. Shared humiliation was supposed to draw us close together.
Instead it shut us into shells and ruined our first forays into adulthood.
Now, having travelled the world and passed through many stages in life,
I have never found any use for the education my seniors gave me. But,
of course, they had no inkling of the real world themselves. They were
newly pubescent boys who fancied themselves to be men. Their lesson
of life came down to the scrutiny of the shrivelled-up penis of a modest
teenager brought up by conservative parents, standing naked amidst ten
soulless boys, his trousers wrapped about his ankles. Ragging is a case
study for Freud, nothing more.
IIT had a disciplinary
committee of professors — we called it disco — who policed
ragging by making surprise visits to hostels. Their white Maruti van
was announced well in advance by a freshman posted at the entrance,
so the wise professors might find a senior giving freshmen an innocent
tutorial on IIT life. The disco spent much time in meetings and consumed
many cups of chai. Its function was to manage ragging — not stop
it — and to prevent incidents from ballooning into ‘cases’.
Like all committees it was inept, so we had one or two cases every year,
which resulted in the expulsion of those who ‘overstepped the
bounds’, after which everyone was satisfied that something had
Even if faculty
and students were sincere about stopping ragging, it is unlikely they
will succeed. I remember how we sniggered at lectures on ethics. Years
later, when I was as an assistant professor at IIT, I asked my freshmen
students how I could help them escape ragging. There’s no such
thing nowadays, they said with straight faces.
There is little
or no ragging on American college campuses. By this I do not mean that
Indians have a monopoly on brutality. One of my friends at Berkeley
nearly died during a vodka-drinking hazing ritual in his fraternity.
But most students do not become members of fraternities. For them, the
very concept of ragging is unknown. In my dormitory at Berkeley, newcomers
went on an overnight retreat with seniors, had coffee-socials, played
racquetball and watched football games together. Humiliation was not
a requirement for breaking the ice.
Why does this not
happen in Indian colleges? The answer perhaps lies outside the campus.
American college students are adults, and are treated as such. They
do not spring up with a ‘Sir’ when professors walk in, they
are encouraged to argue and protest. Many are already in their twenties
and most have to earn or borrow for their education, unlike Indian boys
who have been dispatched to college by loving parents on a cushion of
money and support.
A college campus
cannot exist outside the system that enfolds it. Many of the frustrations
that a boy expresses through ragging are brought from the world outside.
Given a chance to release those feelings, he will. You cannot expel
every senior who humiliates a freshman. However, if Indian students
were shown the respect due to adults, they may begin to find ragging
juvenile. For instance, there remains no reason in the 21zzz century
to segregate voting-age adults by sex. Boys and girls should live in
the same hostels, come and go as they please and enjoy every privilege
an adult is entitled to. Should they break the law, they’ll receive
punishment. This may create conditions that make ragging seem quaint
and allow it to wither away by itself.