Terrible stories of murder, abuse, violence, and trauma in the name of ragging have been reported from educational institutions all over the country once again. In recent years, ragging has been banned in many universities. In May 2001, the Supreme Court held that "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. An University may consider disaffiliating a college or institution failing to curb ragging."
This judgement was the result of a public interest litigation that pointed out the ill-effects of ragging on students and argued that ragging is not part of Indian culture. Rather than thinking of ragging as a practice that is "alien" to our culture, it is important to re-think about ragging, and look at it as part of a culture that pervades Indian educational institutions. We need to examine how and why students imitate, adopt or innovate techniques of violence found in other social contexts, and why these forms of violence are not named as injurious when inflicted in the context of ragging.
The origins of ragging have been traced back to an institutional form of sociality that has been described variously as "a rite of passage", "fun" and "subversive". As a rite of passage, ragging has been seen to mark the transition of schoolchildren to college students, and from children to adults. It has been seen as liminal time during which formal admission to the college does not automatically secure one the status of an undergraduate student. Also, we are often told that ragging is subversive of existent social and administrative hierarchies.
However, to be anti-structure, students must possess a critical awareness of the techniques of power through which social and academic identities may be subverted.
It can be argued further that since educational institutions also operate as regimes of discipline and surveillance to make students docile so that they do not threaten existent academic hierarchies, ragging marks a temporal span in which students are allowed breach of discipline. Hence, existent social and academic hierarchies align with permissive institutional norms in a way that ragging becomes a site where trauma is visited.
We know that ragging that denigrates, humiliates, injures and/or is violent leads to high rates of dropouts and even suicides, rape or murder. The term "ragging" has made the routine harassment and violence that new students face into something normal. Such that while we may have laws that ban ragging, somewhere the idea that ragging is merely fun and mischief still dominates the way the issue is treated. The form ragging very often takes ranges from the "benign" forms - performing servile tasks for seniors - to extreme forms of sexual abuse such as stripping, public parading, sexual molestation and rape.
Forms of ragging that aim to sexually denigrate are premised on the idea that hierarchy between students is sexualized, that sexual humiliation is the normative mode of exerting power and that freshmen are available for sexual violence. The fresher is seen as lacking in power, autonomy or dignity, hence her or his body is up for grabs. In extreme forms of ragging, a violent exertion of power and sexual indignity seems to be combined in macabre ways. Why is it that surviving sexual abuse becomes a test - to prove a gendered identity, and the capacity of being an adult?
The trauma is then carried over to the following academic year - to be inflicted on the next batch of freshmen. The idea built into this cycle of wounding is that the cost can be exacted after another year by repetition. And this assures the continuity of ragging as a dominant form of student sociality each year.
In cases of brutalization, the promise of the transformation of the victim to the perpetrator is deferred over a temporal span of the academic calendar. It is this period - between the end of first semester of an academic year and the beginning of the first semester of the following academic year - that lies forgotten in the indulgent bureaucratic reckoning of ragging as a disciplinary problem. For, bureaucracies see this period as productive of normalcy. It's almost as if they say - 'back to discipline and forget the effects of ragging as wounding'.
The intergenerational infliction of wounds on all new entrants irrespective of the stage at which entry is enacted in the academia is part and parcel of every educational institution. However, the question remains - What is it about the imagination of "institutional space" that normalizes terrible forms of violence by calling it ragging?
It is a fact that such acts of violence in other contexts would be named as murder, rape, torture, riot and abuse. Policy measures cannot grapple with the problem unless it is clear what ragging means, and whether ragging takes on different fields of meanings over time and in different institutional contexts.
Apart from a commitment to redressal mechanisms, we need to institutionalize prevention of abuse that is perpetrated in the name of "ragging", and build in deterrence into the annual calendar rather than merely regulating the effects of "ragging" during the first semester.
We also need to strenuously challenge virtual censorship on complaints of ragging, once complainants go public. In other words, we must ask ourselves how we can institutionalize cultures of care, dignity and respect in spaces of learning, and challenge the pedagogies of ragging which popularize techniques of violence.