Sleep Deprivation, Slapping, Miming Sexual Acts: Inside The Murky World Of Ragging In Indian Colleges

ANIL KUMAR TIWARI
 
14 Sep 2022 12 min read  Share

A total of 511 complaints of ragging or hazing were reported from across the country’s colleges in 2021, compared to 219 in 2020, according to the University Grants Commission’s anti-ragging cell. Experts said inaction and underreporting by college authorities cause ragging incidents to flourish despite laws against it. Medical colleges account for large numbers of ragging complaints, with UP and MP leading state-wise figures.

Representative Image of Ragging/ZACHARY KADOLPH, UNSPLASH

Rewa, Madhya Pradesh: On 2 July, a 21-year-old student of science attempted to end his life at the Bhagwantrao Mandloi Agricultural College in the southern Madhya Pradesh (MP) town of Khandwa. 

Deepak Patidar, a first year BSc student, wrote a note accusing senior students of committing “ghatiya” (disgusting) acts in the name of ragging and then went on to consume a small bottle of insecticide.  

The college administration found 18 senior students involved in ragging, the Indian term for hazing. Ten were expelled from the college and hostel for a year.

Madhya Pradesh has recorded the second highest number of cases of ragging, behind only Uttar Pradesh. According to the anti-ragging cell of the University Grants Commission (UGC), in the 10-year period from 1 January 2013 to 30 April 2022, 832 complaints of ragging were recorded in Uttar Pradesh (UP), followed by 666 in MP. 

Medical colleges accounted for a large percentage of these—in 10 years, 126 cases of ragging were reported from UP’s medical colleges, and 101 in MP.

According to the UGC’s regulations on curbing the menace of ragging in higher educational institutions, released in 2009 and amended last in 2016, ragging may include any act of physical or mental abuse (including bullying and exclusion) targeted at another student (fresher or otherwise) on the ground of colour, race, religion, caste, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, appearance, nationality, regional origins, linguistic identity, place of birth, place of residence or economic background.  

Despite the Supreme Court-ordered notification of anti-ragging regulations and formation of mandatory anti-ragging committees in every higher educational institution, the practice is far from eliminated, students, teachers and activists conceded. While newer forms of bullying by senior students, including online harassment, came to light during the pandemic, colleges began to once again witness a rise in ragging complaints as in-person classes resumed.   

According to the anti-ragging cell, 511 cases of ragging were reported across the country in 2021, compared to 219 in 2020—lower than in previous years only on  account of the closure of colleges during the pandemic. (Reported cases in 2019 and 2018 numbered 1,070 and 1,016 respectively.)

Union minister of state for education Annapurna Devi told the Lok Sabha in a written response on 20 December 2021 that  2,790 complaints of ragging had been received from students since 2018, of which action had been taken in 1,296 (about 47 % of the cases)—this included 616 complaints in which accused students were let off with a warning, 620 cases in which students were suspended and only 17 cases that ended in rustication of accused students.

The numbers may also have been softened by under-reporting, said experts. “Junior students don't complain against ragging due to fear of tarnishing their social image, or being isolated in the institution,” said Prasanna Shukla, an Indore-based activist. For many students, seniors and juniors, ragging was a rite of passage, unless it took a very serious turn.  

‘Forced To Imitate A Sexual Act’

In the government-run Mahatma Gandhi Memorial (MGM) medical college in Indore, junior students in July 2022 reported a group of seniors for allegedly harassing them mentally and physically. Seniors forced them to pass sexist and derogatory comments on body shape and skin colour of female batchmates, according to students.

“Seniors make us do non-sensible acts which contain sex with a pillow or doing the same act with own batchmates,” said the complaint letter. “Juniors were also forced to slap each other and were beaten by the seniors when they failed to do so.” 

The complaint said cellphones of the junior students were  taken away during the duration of the ragging, to prevent them from recording any of the acts. The victims called the bullying a traumatising experience, and said they had been mentally affected by the incident. 

In this case, the complaint by junior MBBS students to the UGC’s anti-ragging helpline led to the arrest of eight students under sections 294 (obscene acts and songs), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.

In Some Instances, Colleges Take No Action 

On 23 August,  a complaint was filed with the dean of Shri Vasantrao Naik (SVN) government medical college Yavatmal, in easten Maharashtra, regarding the ragging of a first-year resident doctor.

Juhi Bhambhani, the victim’s mother, alleged that third-year resident doctors had inflicted mental and physical torture on her son in the guise of ragging.

In her letter to the dean, Bhambhani said first year resident doctors were not allowed to go to their hostel rooms even if there was no work in the hospital’s wards or in the out-patients’ department, a form of harassment that directly affected their daily routine. “They are so sleep deprived that it affects their quality of work towards patient care, which might be risky for patients,” she added.

She said her son had developed cellulitis in his left leg as a result of being constantly on his feet, as a result of the ragging, and because he had no rest since joining the college in March.

According to her, senior authorities had been informed about the ragging, but no action was taken.

Sumer Sethi, director of  DAMS-eMedico and MD (radiology), reacted to the incident with a tweet.  “This is unacceptable. We all need to do our bit to create a culture of learning and mutual respect for our juniors and resident doctors," Sethi wrote. DAMS-eMedico is an online medical education-technology platform for medical students.

FIRs In Few Cases, Seniors Expect To Get Away

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In a video that went viral in July 2022, medical students of the government medical college in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, were seen slapping their juniors across the face, one by one. Seniors could be heard abusing the first-year students who were seen on camera standing next to a wall, heads hanging—juniors are forbidden by seniors from making eye contact during the period when ragging continues.

The Ratlam police registered a first information report (FIR) against seven students. The seven, all boys, were suspended for two years by the college.

The boys were charged under sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 341 (wrongful restraint) of the IPC. Police told Article 14 that investigations were still underway. 

Arrests and police investigation in ragging complaints is limited to rare cases, said students and activists. 

Gaurav Singhal, vice-president of the Society Against Violence in Education, an anti-ragging non-profit led by alumni of various Indian Institutes of Technology, lawyers, engineers and other professionals, said most senior students expect to get away with ragging. “Victims are afraid to complain against seniors as they have to live in the same college premises and hostels over the next few years,” he said. “There is no way to provide protection to victims.”

Guidelines Violated, Anti-Ragging Squads Not Properly Formed 

According to guidelines issued by the All India Council for Technical Education  (AICTE), every single incident of ragging must be reported to the local police, without exception, by institutional authorities.

However, Singhal said, in his estimation not more than 4% to 5% of the total cases received by the UGC helpline are reported to the police. “The UGC helpline has become helpless and cannot provide assistance,” he said.

According to him, while the UGC guidelines do not require callers on the helpline to reveal their identity, the operators usually ask callers to confirm their identities, creating what he called a trust deficit. 

Singhal said that often, college administration officials themselves cover up the ragging incident in order to protect the reputation or standing of the institution. 

Students said professors also sometimes supported ragging by senior students.

Meera Kaura Patel, a Supreme Court lawyer and also honorary legal head of SAVE Foundation, said the anti-ragging committees are often not properly constituted, and do not have the mandatory representatives from non-profits, civil society, local media or police administration. 

“It is pertinent to note that members of the committees are selected by heads of institutions,” she told Article 14. “Thus, sometimes, institutions do not include neutral persons or NGOs working actively towards the elimination of ragging.”

This means that if an incident is reported, an anti-ragging squad comprising only staff-members conducts an inquiry. As a result, Patel said, college authorities are  often inclined to protect their institution’s reputation and “begin putting pressure on victims to withdraw their complaints”.

Patel said the helpline is a “post office, and is toothless” because often, complaints to the anti-ragging helpline are merely forwarded to the college.

Aman Kachroo And India’s Anti-Ragging Regulations 

Aman Kachroo, at the time a first-year student of the Rajendra Prasad Medical College and Hospital in Tanda, in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district, died in March 2009 after being severely beaten by inebriated seniors in his college. An autopsy revealed that the 19-year-old died of a brain haemorrhage.

In 2010, four senior students were convicted for the murder, but were released in 2014 for good behaviour. It was following Kachroo’s death that the Supreme Court, in May 2009, directed all educational institutions to adhere to anti-ragging regulations. Subsequently, the UGC’s regulations were notified in June 2009. 

These regulations mandated an anti-ragging committee in every institution; a monitoring cell for ragging at the university-level, which could coordinate with all affiliated colleges and institutions; and a monitoring cell at the level of the chancellor of state universities. 

The UGC sends all universities and other institutions a circular regarding these regulations twice a year, besides creating awareness through media campaigns, posters, jingles and television commercials. 

“Senior students view ragging as a way to socialise,” said Shukla, the Indore-based activist. “But the methods used are cruel and anti-social.”

Besides sections of the Indian Penal Code and the UGC’s regulations, there are some state laws against ragging in colleges, but activists said these too have not completely rooted out the practice, and legal action is rare.

Under the Maharashtra Prohibition of Ragging Act, 1999, a student found guilty may be sentenced to up to two years in prison and fined up to Rs 10,000. Some offences may result in the student being dismissed and barred from enrolling in another educational institution for five years. 

The Andhra Pradesh Prohibition of Ragging Act, 1997 punishes any student who humiliates another student in the name of ragging with imprisonment up to six months and / or with a fine up to Rs 1,000. Punishment for ragging incidents that result in a death including abetment to suicide is life imprisonment or imprisonment for a period of 10 years and a fine up to Rs 50,000.

Yet, in many cases, the accused senior students are let off lightly as victims fail to come forward. Anti-ragging committees in colleges are, in many cases, limited to paper only, said teachers and activists.

Alongside its 2009 regulations, based on the SC order, the UGC also launched a toll-free helpline number (1800-180-5522) and a website (www.anti-ragging.in)  where victims can complain about any incident of ragging.

Depression, Thoughts Of Self-Harm Among Victims 

A second year student of the Indira Gandhi government engineering college in Sagar, MP, said he and his batchmates were made to stand for seven to eight hours at a stretch, after being instructed to visit seniors’ hostel rooms immediately upon returning from classes. “In the name of teaching us the rules and regulations of the college, they abused us,” he said.

His batch of freshers would be asked to fill water bottles for seniors, write their assignments, and more. “Those who refuse or complain were not only beaten but blacklisted in all college programs by the seniors.” He said he was diagnosed with depression after continuous harassment and humiliation by seniors.

Itne torture, beijatti ke karan bahot baar college chhod dene ka mann ka hua tha par ghar ki halat ke karan chhod nahi paya. (The torture and insults made me want to leave the college, but I couldn’t due to my family’s financial difficulties.)”

After a first-year student of  the Bhima Bhoi Medical College and Hospital in western Odisha’s Balangir district ended her life in July, leaving a suicide note blaming  three seniors for harassing her, the state government announced the formation of a state-level anti-ragging squad and issued a helpline number. 

In April, the same college had witnessed a similar incident. Nishant Kumar, a native of Karnal district in Haryana, died after jumping from the fourth floor of his hostel building. Police discovered a diary in his room in which he described the trauma he had experienced due to ragging.

In the year 2020, India recorded a new high of 12,526 student suicides, according to data compiled by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), a 21% rise since 2019.

Odisha had the second highest number of suicides among students in 2020, after Maharashtra. A total of 1,469 students committed suicide in Odisha and 1,648 in Maharashtra in 2020. In 2021 too, Maharashtra recorded the maximum number of student suicides (1,834), followed by Madhya Pradesh (1,308) and Tamil Nadu (1,246), according to NCRB data.  

Rajendra Kachroo, Aman Kachroo’s father and founder of the Aman Movement, said ragging could be one of the causes of suicides among students. “There is little research done or scientific studies to determine why student suicides are increasing,” he said.

According to Patel, as most victims of ragging and harassment are first-year students, analysing data of first-year students’ suicides during the first six months after admission into. College should help identify links between ragging and suicides. 

Patel said the solution is to strictly implement the UGC regulations, particularly vigilance in colleges through CCTV cameras in common areas. “There is a need to establish an independent monitoring or compliance check authority over every college in the country, as UGC rules regarding ragging have been formulated, but no active body is in place to ensure the rules are being followed,” she said. 

Such an authority could conduct a yearly audit with regard to UGC regulations and submit annual reports.

“There is a need to have a Central law under which ragging may be made a cognisable offence,”  she said. Cognisable offences are those in which police may make an arrest, in accordance with the law, without a warrant.   

Shashank Tiwari, an advocate at Jabalpur high court, said ragging continued to be viewed as a less serious crime, even by police and college staff. Only when offenders are viewed as criminals, not just students, will the spate of ragging complaints reduce, he said. “The mindset of people about ragging would change once it would become a cognisable offence.”

(Anil Kumar Tiwari is an independent journalist based in Madhya Pradesh.)