When the Supreme Court in 2009 (Civil Appeal 887 in University of Kerala vs Council, Principals, Colleges, Kerala and Others) appointed us, a committee of mental health and public health professionals to look into the issue of ragging and give recommendations, we found ourselves intrigued by why ragging continued to take place despite decades of efforts to eradicate it; why, despite injuries and fatalities, there persisted doubts over whether ragging was a ‘real’ problem; and why ragging continued to be defended by many. This, despite the fact that based on English print media reports alone, compiled by the Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education (CURE), there were 717 cases of ragging from 2007-13, which saw 71 deaths, 30 attempted suicides, 199 cases of injuries (81 of which led to permanent disability) and 128 cases involving sexual abuse.
Our study, the first and largest of its kind in India, used quantitative and qualitative methods to survey 10,632 students from 37 colleges (both professional and other colleges) across the country. It conducted interviews and focus group discussions with students and staff of these institutions. Data was collected in 2013.
A supplementary survey on bullying was conducted in six schools, both government and private, in Delhi and Bengaluru, with 1,453 high school students and 83 teachers.
We found that ragging continued to be widely prevalent, with nearly 40% of students canvassed reporting being ragged, and 4% severely so. Student views about ragging were strikingly ambivalent. On the one hand they believed it helped build bonds and self-confidence, enabled getting help from seniors, and made them strong. On the other, and in equal measure, they believed it harmed self-confidence and had long-lasting adverse effects on studies and on the psyche.
However, less than 2% wanted it to continue in its present form, 53% wanted it to be allowed “within limits”, and 43% wanted it stopped altogether. We also found that many staff and teachers privately supported ragging. They argued that the issue had been vastly exaggerated, that it had its benefits, that they had themselves enjoyed being ragged as students and encouraged their children to participate in it, and that “acceptable” ragging should be allowed. Only 20 of 81 college teachers interviewed — 25% — resolutely opposed ragging.
Ragging can be categorised into three broad types. The first comprises the most common practices such as “giving introduction”, addressing seniors as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’, complying with instructions to sing, dance, or maintain a dress code, not looking directly at seniors, etc. This kind of ragging is either not classed as ragging but as “interaction” or “fun”, or as mild ragging. It appears to involve the introduction and integration of newcomers into the institution and its culture, and the establishing of hierarchies around seniority.
The second category is clearly identified as ragging. These are acts like coerced drinking, smoking, approaching the opposite sex, using abusive language, and sexual forms of ragging. The underlying motives seem largely linked to issues of growing up: asserting freedom from childhood restrictions, enacting sexual fantasies that provoke both anxiety and excitement, and living up to gendered expectations, especially about being manly. There is a need for life skills education on issues that perplex young people, enabling them to make the transition to adulthood in a responsible way — towards handling the excitement of sexuality and intimacy and the headiness of independence with maturity, exercising ethical judgment in action, withstanding pressure from peers and others.
The third category is of severe ragging. It comprises physical abuse meted out as punishment, physical coercion, and violent assault. It is sometimes intended to prove manly strength, but most often it is to assert dominance by intimidating, humiliating and punishing newcomers into submission.
What is to be noted is the continuum of a power dynamic that stretches through mild to severe ragging. In mild ragging, its form reflects widely accepted social beliefs about seniority and hierarchy — but this can descend through coercion and humiliation to brute physical violence when power norms are resisted. From an intervention perspective, this poses a challenge because of socially prevalent values and practices that support hierarchy, dominance and superiority. For young people, negotiating relations of power becomes an important area for life skill development. This would ideally mean being able to distinguish between the ethical and compassionate wielding of authority and the power assertion that seeks to simply dominate, being able to resist the pressure to conform while navigating social hierarchies, preserving self-respect while wanting acceptance and belonging, and valuing relations of equality built on pro-social virtues of co-operation, kindness and altruism rather than on dominance and superiority.
These issues can begin to be addressed through life skills workshops focusing on the dynamics of interpersonal and group relations. A second possibility is to make student-body related activities an arena where young people consciously practise and learn about wielding authority responsibly and ethically. A third possibility is through observing and experiencing adults model such authority. This is contingent on having a convincing number of such models in the family and in society.
The findings of the study on bullying in schools flag a major problem. Extremely high levels of expressed aggression were found — more than a third of high school students surveyed reported physical aggression like hitting, kicking, shoving, spitting, and damaging property. About half reported verbal aggression in the form of name-calling, threats and taunts, and a quarter reported social aggression through malicious gossip and ostracisation. It seems violence gets ‘normalised’ quite early on, with a social normative acceptance of aggression ‘to teach a lesson’, ‘discipline’, or to ‘show them their place’.
Ragging was found to be significantly more prevalent and more severe among male students and in professional colleges. Anxieties about proving manliness and sexuality readily play into ragging practices, thus accounting for the higher prevalence among males. In professional educational institutions, ragging seems to be a way for seniors to preserve their superior status in a fiercely competitive context. It is also a rite of passage into an exclusive status since several ‘elite’ institutions consider ragging a ‘tradition’.
The psychological consequences present a complex picture: 10% of those ragged reported severe and continuing emotional distress; about 50% reported emotional distress that they got over in time. The difficult feelings associated were those of shame, humiliation, anger and helplessness. Coping with them and recovering self-respect often involved retrospective justification of ragging and/or appeasing or befriending tormentors.
Opinions about ragging become more positive with increasing seniority, suggesting ‘normalisation’. Unfortunately, this also implies that the practice continues. Studies have shown that feelings such as shame, humiliation, anger and impotence are implicated in perpetuating cycles of violence. Indeed, it is commonplace that some of those who rag do so because they were ragged. Perhaps they do so to rid themselves of the toxic feelings arising from their own humiliating victimisation. This is where it becomes important for counselling services to reach out to victims and perpetrators proactively.
A highly encouraging finding is that most senior students are not immune to the distress of freshers being ragged, and do not rag themselves. More than half the senior students felt bad when witnessing ragging, and a third tried to intervene. More than 60% did not support batchmates who ragged. This indicates a substantial resource in the student community that can be mobilised. In fact, studies in schools where bullying is rampant has shown that mobilising bystander students through workshops that taught them what they can do to intervene, and that they have the solidarity of like-minded peers, brings bullying down drastically. Engaging like this becomes a real-life learning experience to develop competencies of responsible citizenship.
An analysis of the 10 colleges that had the highest prevalence of ragging showed that these colleges had actually implemented many of the UGC recommended anti-ragging guidelines such as instituting an anti-ragging cell, putting up posters, having orientation programmes for newcomers, etc. Evidently, more needs to be done. The law and order approach to combating ragging will not suffice because the roots of ragging lie in society. Ragging has to do with young people’s developmental needs that the education system neglects to address, as well as in the socio-cultural context that projects a certain idea of what it takes to be a successful adult: being able to negotiate power structures, make friends in the right places, and be tough enough to handle the ‘real’ world. Despite lofty ideals, many educational institutions end up being microcosms of the social world, replicating its values while failing to provide students an environment that fosters the critical consciousness and ethical clarity so necessary for true social progress.