Anxiety is a typical emotion for teenagers around the world upon leaving home to take up residence in a college dormitory. They face the daunting challenges of fitting in and making new friends amid unruly roommates and without the comfort of home cooking. But for thousands of Indian students, the anxiety is driven by an even greater menace: the prospect of constant verbal and physical abuse by senior students as part of a hazing tradition called "ragging," which critics say is systemic and far worse than in the United States.
Although the government does not keep exact figures, the Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education, a non-profit lobby group, found 52 hazing incidents reported in India's English-language media between June and September of 2007. The group claims that six suicides and three attempted suicides in the same period can be blamed on harassment, which they say is widespread at engineering and medical colleges mostly, although not exclusively, among male students. Anti-ragging activist Shivam Vij, who launched the website stopragging.org in 2005, claims that nine out of ten students in India are subject to ragging, but that most cases go unreported.
An engineering student in the northern city of Agra broke his legs in October after seniors allegedly pushed him off a college building during a ragging session. In a suicide note, another student at an engineering college in the northern city of Jalandhar described the constant harassment as humiliating and blamed it for his decision to throw himself in front of a speeding train two years ago. "If education... is to serve as the lever to the great surge forward of the Indian nation, the scourge of ragging which corrodes the vitals of our campuses needs to be curbed," an Indian Supreme Court committee concluded in a recent report. Ragging, it said, is "a form of psychopathic behavior and a reflection of deviant personalities."
The ragging problem is a legacy of the British, who imported the practice to India from elite public schools back home. But while experts say extreme forms of hazing have all but disappeared in Britain, they continue in India and other Asian countries. Like mild hazing in the United States, ragging in its more innocent forms students forced to address seniors as "sir," answering their questions and doing their menial chores is defended as a way to create camaraderie and build character. In an essay about his experience at the prestigious St. Stephen's College in Delhi, writer Amitav Ghosh describes two ragging experiences that led to lifelong friendships, saying the relationships later helped launch his writing career.
But critics say Ghosh's sympathetic portrayal of ragging reflects a misguided sentimental view too common in India. "Ragging is sold as part of the tradition of the college," says Vij, who refuses to distinguish mild ragging from harsher abuse. "The idea of ragging that freshmen have to be made to feel lower is wrong. And once seniors know they can control students, once they taste that power, mild ragging often turns into something harsher."
That was the experience of Rohit Kaliyar, 24, who was at an engineering college in the northern state of Uttaranchal five years ago. Like other freshmen, Kaliyar was told he could not look seniors directly in the eye but had to stare down at the third button on his shirt. Seniors cursed him, slapped him and struck him with a metal ruler. They also entered the hostel around midnight one day and forced his friends to strip and rub Vaseline on each others' bodies, he said. "It was all for their sadistic fun." But freshmen were reluctant to retaliate, he said, reasoning they needed to befriend seniors for books and jobs. A faculty member was also unsympathetic, telling Kaliyar his ragging experience was not that bad.
Kaliyar, who is broadly built and over six feet tall, fought back, but soon left college fearing retribution. Although his father supported his decision to leave, Kaliyar says others were less supportive. "They said, 'You took it to heart. This is something that always happens. You should not have reacted that much,'" Kaliyar explains. "I was filled with rage and anger toward everyone because it was the rare person who said, 'You did the right thing.'"
The government has tried to clamp down on ragging, but so far its efforts have proven ineffective. Many states have enacted anti-ragging laws, and in 2001 the Indian Supreme Court advised colleges to implement measures such as advising students about the punishment for ragging, and informing freshmen of their rights. But the most recent report commissioned by the Supreme Court notes that ragging has not declined, and found that school officials do not report even extreme ragging cases to police. The report also faults state and central government authorities for failing to implement and monitor anti-ragging provisions. The committee recommends that schools be forced to file police reports if the alleged ragging victims or their families are not happy with the institution's response, and says ragging should be added to the list of punishable offenses in the Indian penal code.
But threats of punishment may not be enough. Harsh Agarwal, co-founder of the Coalition to Uproot Ragging, says the practice will stop only if there's a cultural shift in colleges. The Indian Supreme Court committee agrees, calling for human rights instruction for younger students in addition to a widespread public awareness campaign. "The biggest hurdle is no one believes ragging is a social evil," Agarwal says. "When an entire society believes in this, how is enforcement of the law possible?"