According to a recent report by the Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education (CURE) in the period from July 2009 to June 2010, there have been 164 ragging cases and 19 deaths related to ragging. There have also been 4 reported suicide attempts.
It is a staggering figure considering the fact that all colleges have an 'anti ragging' policy and there are stringent rules in place to combat it. So how is it that the phenomenon persists?
"Ragging is a complex issue that cannot be tackled just by punitive measures or by passing a law," says Harsh Agarwal, who works with CURE, an NGO. "We need more than laws to eradicate the menace that ragging or hazing has become. Only about 10 per cent of cases are reported, so the number is likely much higher."
Most would argue that ragging is not really as bad as the NGOs make it out to be, except for a few severe cases that are covered in the news. It is a way for freshers to make friends claim some, or its just harmless teasing claim others, but Somesh Kamra disagrees.
Kamra, who heads the Mumbai arm of the Kolkata-based NGO Society Against Violence in Education (SAVE), says: "Take the case of a social activist who works with us. He is a homosexual and he was ragged when he was in college. He is such a sensitive person that for him to sing in front of four people could lead to depression. So for the people ragging him, it was just about him singing a song, which anyone could do. But for a person like him, it could push him to suicide."
He cites another instance that happened in a college in north India. "There was a case where a boy was asked to fill a bucket with water one spoonful at a time. He had to collect the water from the top floor and fill the bucket kept on the ground floor, spoon by spoon. Harmless enough, right? That boy had a heart problem and he died from the exhaustion he suffered while trying to complete the task."
So who defines what is considered ragging and who draws the line between what is a minor case of ragging and a severe case?
What constitutes ragging?
"We look at it from the human rights perspective specifically those of choice, dignity, diversity, equality," says Agarwal.
"Say a senior asks a junior to dance. The senior is pulling rank which violates equality. Being forced to dance in front of a group of people negates dignity. If a junior is asked to introduce himself to the group (on the pretext of making friends), it violates choice -- he is not choosing to make friends with that group, he is being forced to do so. As for diversity, in many cases students are categorised in different groups -- as coming from certain parts of the country, speaking a certain language, or coming from a certain economic background.
"For instance, I studied in Delhi University, where there was no physical or sexual tone to ragging but there was a strong element of economic backgrounds and regionalism. A student could be asked to introduce themselves in a language they are not fluent in. This negates respect for diversity.
"But students do not understand the complexities of ragging and neither do the authorities," he continues.
Why does the problem persist?
Ragging is a sociological problem more than a law and order issue. "The law has been there since 1989, but this obviously is not achieving results," agrees Agarwal.
In 2006, the Supreme Court set up the Raghavan Committee in an attempt to study and eradicate the menace of ragging. CURE was called in to consult and make recommendations.
"Most of our recommendations focussed more on debate and discussion rather than punitive measures," says Agarwal. "We realised that it is a very complicated problem. It is difficult to implement a law without addressing and changing the mindset.
"Over 50 recommendations were made and accepted but we only hear of the FIR, we do not hear about the student debates and interaction programmes. The root cause is still not being addressed."
He advocates talking to students to dispel the myths that surround ragging. "Students have not been given the chance to realise the repercussions of what are doing. A student in an engineering or medical college has the intelligence to realise (after being shown properly the effects of ragging) what he is doing and why it is wrong," he says.
"Another problem is that when a ragging complaint is filed with the anti-ragging cell of a college, it usually gets lost since the cell comprises seniors studying in that college," adds Kamra.
"The rules have been put down on paper, but how they will be implemented, executed, how the victim will benefit, nothing of the sort has been written. And no college wants to get into it because a ragging case becomes a criminal case, so there will be cops on campus and there will be an inquiry. No college wants that," he says.
So what needs to be done?
Ragging is a complex problem that cannot be eradicated just by rules or laws. If a college is serious about learning whether ragging is taking place on campus the easiest way would be an anonymous survey of the students, says Agarwal, with questions like are you being ragged, where, when etc. "Just putting a complaint box somewhere near the principal's office is not going to work. No fresher has the courage to approach the complaint box and name a particular senior," he says.
"Colleges need to talk to students and give them an opportunity to think. We need them to weigh whether what they are doing is rational. What is happening now in the name of awareness is putting up a poster saying 'Ragging is banned'. But that is not awareness, you are telling them the provisions of law but not why it is banned. There needs to be a comprehensive awareness programme."
In a lot of cases, the punishment is much higher than what befits the crime, he mentions, which is another problem. "The moment you decide to rusticate a student, the sympathy shifts towards the senior student, which causes no punishment to be given. This then sends the message that ragging is okay or that nobody gets punished. So there must be some punishment, but there must be a system to it."
What is being done?
The emphasis at the moment is on encouraging victims to come forward and report their case to the authorities, with all the details they have.
"We need to bridge the gap between the victims and the police," says Kamra. "We have got MP Milind Deora working with us. So if there are any issues he addresses them with the relevant people in the government." SAVE is also in the process of setting up an anti-ragging helpline, planned to provide counselling and assistance to victims. The problem is even after reporting a case, victims do not have too many details about the incident or do not share them, so it is hard to take action.
The NGO will also be urging colleges to set up an anti-ragging committee that comprises not just seniors but also two juniors and two administrative staff.
CURE on the other hand is focused on spreading awareness among students through interactive sessions and presentations. The sessions discuss what ragging is and its effect on the victim. "We encourage students to think about what they are doing, we make an appeal on an emotional level," informs Agarwal.
A more recent development is the 'Bus Aur Nahin - Speak Up Against Ragging' campaign that began on August 11 in New Delhi. The bus made its way through Jaipur, Mumbai, Pune and Hyderabad and Bangalore and will proceed to Kozhikode, Kochi, Kottayam, Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai garnering the support of students along the way.
Supported by the Muthoot Pappachan Foundation, the bus spreads awareness about ragging and asks students to sign a pledge to 'say no to ragging'.
Ragging needs to be weeded out before more students are scarred physically and mentally. With more awareness and more support, however, there is hope.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh