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In its 2001 judgement, the Supreme Court took a zero-tolerance stand on ragging. Institutions, however, have yet to take the ruling seriously, sometimes with tragic results, reports Shivam Vij

Since the SC ruling, there have been 15 ragging deaths, but not one institution has been punished for failing to curb ragging on campus
On October 10, Shiv Shankar Ash, a student of the Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology, Bhubaneswar, was pushed off the hostel terrace by his seniors, ‘Potassium’ and ‘Magnesium’. These were the only names he knew them by — two months into the new academic session and, under the immunity of ‘ragging period’, they had still not introduced themselves to freshers. Ash suffered concussions to his spine, two collapsed discs and multiple injuries to his legs. It is uncertain whether he will ever walk again. Now in the Apollo Sagar hospital in Bangalore, he is undergoing physiotherapy after an operation that cost his Sambhalpur-based parents over a lakh and a half rupees — much more than the education loan they had taken to send their son to college to train as an agricultural scientist. In Bhubaneswar, the police is waiting for him to return so he can identify his attackers.

Speaking to reporters after the attack on Ash, Orissa’s agriculture minister, Surendranath Nayak, voiced the commonly-held view of ragging: “It’s understandable when it’s for fun, but it should not be allowed to go out of hand.” Ash’s seniors were indeed having fun that day, asking him inane questions that he said he did not want to answer because he was feeling unwell. “I am going to my room,” he said, just before he was pushed off the building. His crime: talking back to seniors and refusing to obey orders, both of which go against the cardinal rules of ragging in any college anywhere in the country.

For the university’s part, its Vice Chancellor, Prof Bhagirathi Senapathi, has submitted a report to the state government claiming that there is no evidence that any ragging took place at all. Although Orissa does not have an anti-ragging law like other states do, institutions may still be held accountable for ragging under the Supreme Court’s 2001 judgement: “If an institution fails to curb ragging, the ugc/funding agency may consider stoppage of financial assistance to such an institution till such time as it achieves the same. A university may consider disaffiliating a college or institution for failing to curb ragging.” Ash’s parents have already hired a lawyer to sue the university. Similar action is also being considered by the parents of Bijay Kumar Maharathi, a first-year student at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, who was found dead in his hostel room on October 17. The institute says he committed suicide, but his parents allege he was poisoned.

Incidents of ragging going seriously out of control often take place because heads of institutions prefer to turn a blind eye. In 2002, Kumaon Engineering College fresher Rohit Kaler found that complaining against ragging resulted in his being accused by none less than his college principal of “leader-baazi”. Even the local sdm refused to take seriously his complaints that seniors beat freshers, made them strip and demanded that they apply Vaseline on each others’ bodies.

The idea of ragging is that it has to hurt, says Shobna Sonpar, a counsellor. ‘Mild ragging’ is clearly an oxymoron
Fifteen ragging deaths have taken place since the sc judgement of 2001, but in not one instance has the institution been punished for its failure to check ragging. As a result, culprits go unpunished even in cases of death, and suicides are explained away by labelling the victims as psychological weaklings. Anoop Kumar, a student of the Institute of Engineering and Technology in Lucknow, killed himself in September 2002. In his suicide note, he wrote about “unspeakable” sexual abuse. In the midst of investigations, police officials told a newspaper, “Anoop’s was not a lone case; hundreds of students are subjected to ragging every year but nobody commits suicide so easily. It is possible that the boy was hyper-sensitive or was suffering from depression.” Not surprisingly, nobody was ever punished.

The only institute made to suffer consequences was the School of Medical Education in Kottayam, which was disaffiliated from the Kerala Nursing Council after a student was raped during a ragging session in 2005. In the case of other institutions, far from withdrawing affiliation, the University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education are not even ensuring that the Supreme Court’s recommendations be followed, such as asking the parents of seniors to sign an undertaking saying that their children would not indulge in ragging.

The greatest impediment to checking ragging remains the academic community’s tacit support to the practice in the name of college tradition and, at the same time, its compulsion to cover up serious cases lest the institutional reputation suffer. When institutions do take action, however, the parents of delinquent seniors are up in arms. In September this year, bits Pilani’s Dubai campus suspended 12 students on charges of ragging. One student was later expelled; his family told newspapers that they were planning to go to court against the decision. Should they do so, the judges would have a precedent from Kerala to go by: in 2001, the principal of Trivandrum’s College of Engineering had suspended five students for physically assaulting a fresher. The students went up to the Kerala High Court, which upheld the decision.

Tamil Nadu, in 1997, became the first state to institute anti-ragging laws, after a fresher was murdered and his body cut into pieces that were strewn in the street. The accused was let off for want of evidence. Maharashtra got an anti-ragging law after the suicide of Indu Anto, a Class xi hostel student at the prestigious Sophia College. Anto’s father, CL Anto, has been fighting a case ever since not just against the students accused but also against Sophia College, which he says consistently destroyed evidence to prove that his daughter committed suicide not because of ragging but from depression. Anto’s post-mortem had revealed evidence of severe sexual abuse, and her father believes she was murdered.

Way too much ragging goes on under the claim that it is ‘mild’, but clinical psychologist Shobna Sonpar, who counselled ragging victims at iit Delhi for 13 years, says that the idea of ragging is that it has to hurt. She remembers one student telling her that the “fresher has to be stretched like a rubber band until he breaks”. ‘Mild ragging’ is clearly an oxymoron and the practice should be met with a zero tolerance approach if the severe cases have to be stopped.

The only success stories are heard from those institutions that have implemented the Supreme Court’s advice to make freshers and seniors “interact with each other in a healthy atmosphere and develop a friendly relationship”. For 40 years, the Counselling Cell at iit Kanpur has had seniors appointed as counsellors for freshers, giving freshers a sense of security and intimacy in the hostel. It has now been replicated by other iits and Andhra Pradesh’s medical directorate has asked all medical colleges in the state to follow suit. “When we told them there was to be no ragging, it had hardly any effect. So we decided to give them to responsibility of guiding the freshers,’’ says Andhra Pradesh’s Director of Medical Education P. Vijayalakshmi. And it worked.

Nov 18 , 2006

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