Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Psychopathology of Ragging

Ragging is a common phenomenon in Indian higher education. As fresh students enter the institute, the seniors “rag” them purportedly in order to make them familiar with other members of the fraternity and to help them grow quickly into accepting the hostel life and its peculiarities.

However, in recent times (the last 10-15 years), ragging has devolved into a violent, vicious, sexually explicit, sadistic and degrading ritual of harassment, violation and torture. The freshers cringe at the mention of it, and seniors look forward to it as a yearly episode of entertainment and as a show of their “advanced” personalities relative to the neophytes.

I think there are good reasons (as opposed to a justification) for this phenomenon in a country like India.

The Indian higher educational system is currently designed in a way that to enter any good institute takes years of concentrated study to the exclusion of the development of the other parts of one’s personality. Usually only the hard-working, studious and nerdy students make it to the top institutes. In the years of preparation for the entrance exams, the students are left with almost no time and energy for an active social life or development of social skills. Fantasies about the pleasant life after one is admitted to an institute of one’s choice run deep. And as this is the period of extreme hormonal activity after puberty, sexual activity, instead of being channeled properly, is mostly confined to neurotic imagination, dreams, nervous self-consciousness and masturbation.

The seniors have been through this themselves, and they know the nervous, self-conscious, handicapped and one-sided personality of most of the freshers entering the college. Their few years in college have given them a vast freedom compared to their studious years at home spent mostly in the watchful and worried eyes of their parents. However, outlet of one’s sexual energy is still looked down upon, observed voyeuristically and considered something to hide from one’s peers and parents (especially for young educated women).

Coupled with this is the fact that most Indian colleges and universities have a rote-centric system of learning, with very few opportunities for making one a rounded individual having real-life experiences of working hard, earning money and interacting with the world. Almost all undergraduate students in India are sponsored in their education by their parents or, in case of poor students, via scholarships. The teachers in most Indian institutes are mostly mediocre academicians, having evolved from students directly to being teachers without having gone outside an educational institute into the real world (so to speak). Only a miniscule minority of the teachers are passionate about their subjects, about research and learning new things, about motivating the students to have a deep interest in the subject and about interfacing the subject with real world knowledge.

This kind of education from such teachers is not an enjoyable experience and students become bored and frustrated, knowing that they have to spend four or five years in this confined and stultifying atmosphere. It is rare in India for students to take a year or two off to work in the middle of their degree education or for them to develop a new interest while in college.

Now what happens if you put a frustrated, sexually starved bunch of young people in a position of power over an inexperienced, moronic, wide-eyed, right-out-of-mummy’s-lap group of juniors who have little experience in standing up for and fending for themselves, who have little knowledge of things other than theoretical science, and who come to the college with dreams and hopes which the seniors know to be idealistic, who consider themselves victorious kings and queens of the world now that they have succeeded in getting through a grueling competition for entrance?

The seniors resent the temporary exuberance and happiness of the freshers. They consider them still as mama’s kids who need to have a violent awakening into the real world of dashed hopes, fears and frustrations, sexuality and its perversions, endless days of stress and boredom, mediocre and opinionated teachers; they consider themselves as whip-wielding mentors and guides who need to push these suckers into the world of real men like themselves who mouth obscenities, chew tobacco and smoke cigarettes, drink all night, talk lewdly, don’t give a shit to the holy grail of learning and science, are worried about their careers and the competitive world of making it out for oneself…

This resentment and the attitude of a drill-master takes the form of harassment and mockery, explicit questioning, a drumming down of the other’s respect for one’s culture and learnt attitudes, one’s attitude towards one’s parents and towards the other sex, a violent education about sexuality, a berating and insulting lesson about one’s inability in standing up for oneself, about one’s lack of knowledge about the world, and so on.

The more shy or reticent or introvert or inane a fresher, the more enjoyable becomes the task of a senior in making him/her enter the world of taboo acts, of unspeakable words and in making him/her respect the senior’s level of “evolution” and knowledge about the other aspects of life. The more someone protests, the more insistent is the ragging, and the more enjoyable his humiliation and his exposure. Seniors don’t enjoy humiliating a person who is witty, is a well-balanced personality, who has confidence and whose experiences are more varied than theirs.

Sexual language, obscene inanities, vulgar acts are very common in ragging. And apart from the reasons I give above, there are other factors in operation. Firstly most of even the seniors are virgins. They vicariously enjoy the freshers proposing to the girls, freshers talking about their sex lives, freshers talking lewdly and lasciviously about girls and women around them, and so on. Only rarely do the seniors actually sexually assault the freshers, however.

Secondly, in hostel life, there is a sudden and wide availability of pornographic literature and videos (all the more now that internet access is widespread). Freshers who haven’t been exposed to such media are fed increasingly explicit and perverse imagery and this can be traumatic. The emotions of romance, “pure love”, youthful infatuation are ridiculed and women (or men) are sought to be portrayed as sexual objects only. Seniors want the freshers to be their copies as far as their attitudes towards sexuality and the other sex are concerned.

When I entered IIT Delhi, there were a few frenzied weeks of extensive ragging in which many students were reduced to tears. Many of us were smart and could have fun with the seniors but most of us didn’t know tit from fat. One of my friends, a brilliant computer engineer today, didn’t know the capital of Calcutta (sic). Another didn’t know which way babies were born from a woman’s body. Another wouldn’t admit (actually till the fourth year, till he was found out accidently) that he masturbated. Another had to be educated about the finer aspects of zipping up his fly which he routinely forgot.

Some enterprising seniors made a dozen of us strip completely and perform a few pornographic acts. We weren’t coerced too violently but, being in a new environment with overbearing seniors, we were scared and did whatever we were asked to do. That event proved to me too much for some of us to come to terms with. One of the more deeply troubled amongst us complained to the authorities and severe disciplinary action followed against the seniors. But I think most of us didn’t get scarred psychologically by that humiliation.

However, it is easy to see why some would become disillusioned, depressed and suffer from nervous breakdowns after repeatedly going through such scenarios. One often reads about freshers committing suicide, about freshers leaving the college back for the security of their homes never wanting to come back, about violence when a fresher dares to speak up or when a fresher refuses to participate in things he/she considers too degrading.

Freshers come to a professional college flush with hopes and gloating with congratulations from their peers and family over their success. They are upbeat, confident and looking forward to a better life after years of toiling over books. The rude awakening which awaits them in the hostel rooms and aisles during the night can be very unpleasant. Some of them, who come from an extremely sheltered and morally upright upbringing cannot reconcile their hopes and ideals with this decadent reality. They go into severe depression, their dreams of a happy and free existence shattered. The world seems a cruel place, with no one to turn to. The food is bad, the hostel menacing, the new schedule grueling, the peers scared and witless, the seniors harsh and cruel, the teachers not all that great that one had thought them to be, the loss of comfort, the constant requirement to be on one’s own and on one’s toes, …

Usually, many colleges have what is called a “freshers’ welcome” week in which many cultural events, song competitions, quizzes, indoor games take place. Most freshers are still trying to find their bearings in the new place when they are thrust forward to perform in front of jeering seniors and hostile people from other hostels. Some like such events to exhibit their abilities, others just can’t wait to be left alone in their rooms. There is too little solitude in the first few weeks, too little time to take in and reflect on the so much new that is happening around oneself. From daybreak till late at night, one is constantly under pressure and surveillance.

I remember when I was in the second year at IIT, there was an inter-hostel mimicry competition amongst freshers. One poor guy was no good at it but he had obviously been asked to perform by his seniors (maybe there was no one particularly good at mimicry amongst freshers in that hostel). He was tongue tied in front of the microphone. The seniors kept jeering and making cat-calls. He just collapsed right there in front of the audience from nervous breakdown. I left the hall in disgust.

Most institutes also have fierce inter-hostel rivalry which is expected to be internalized by the freshers as well. When I was a fresher, I could see no reason to bark against other hostels but was asked to do so no-end by the seniors when the other hostels were playing against us or when of their students was singing a song etc. I lost all interest in the freshers’ events, in the success of my hostel and hated the scornful seniors. I am sure many others went through these feelings.

Fear of punishment can only act as a deterrent. It cannot take away the frustrations and resentment of seniors or the one-sided personalities of the freshers.

I think what might aid this sorry state of affairs towards resolution is to make the student life (both the pre-college days and in college) enjoyable, fascinating, interactive, less hierarchical (teachers and the administration vis-a-vis the students), less stressful, less future-oriented and geared more towards leisurely learning, work in the real world, more time to think and reflect and apply one’s learning rather than a deluge of study and assignments. And I think as Indian society becomes more accepting of pre-marital or casual relationships, the sexual perversity in Indian student life will also come down.

But in the meanwhile, I can only advise a would-be fresher to anticipate a few weeks of ragging not with fear but with interest (as a learning in human nature), to stand up to oneself in front of others, to be confident, fluent and balanced, to spend time socializing and traveling as much as possible during one’s school and college years, to develop other interests (especially knowledge about procreation) in one’s life than merely theoretical science, and not to consider a particular entrance examination as the be-all and end-all of life. It also helps if one can spend the weekend during the first few weeks by oneself at some relative’s place, to reflect upon and to absorb the new atmosphere.

And if the ragging turns violent and too degrading, I would advise the fresher to not hesitate in complaining to the college authorities or to the police. Fear of censure amongst the student community for having been a complainer is misplaced. The seniors must respect a basic minimum dignity in the other person, even in an act of ragging, and to do otherwise is to invite suitable punishment from law enforcement.


Anonymous said...

I went through your postings.Insightful. I was particularly drwan to your views on ragging since I am researching for a film on the subject.
Can u pls give me a email address or a contact number? I want to touch base with people who have something to say about ragging.

with regards

Anonymous said...

im not sure im agree with your neat analysis of the phenomenon. it seems to me to be simply weilding of those who have power in a context, over those who dont. if a certain situation allows you to excercise unrestrained power, there are few who will resist it. ragging is certainly a widely accepted norm in youth culture. ragging doesnt happen just in colleges of higher education which admit students of the "nerdy" kind, it also happens in arts courses in colleges like DAV Chandigarh (i was a student there), where students have brilliant flunk records.

even ragging of the subtle kind is a form of opression, and the powerful-powerless equation comes into play. and like always, it is often the opressed who support the practice. many a junior will argue for the "virtue" of ragging, and how it helps you "open up". i guess these people find being stripped in front of everyone and having their genitals manipulated liberating.

Anonymous said...

i am writting a script on ragging, n thought may be i can get some help.. do let me know if possible.


Di said...

my brother went to IIT bombay and had similar tales. However, in his case, he would come home and narrate the funny stories. E.g. getting freshers to put on undies on top of the pants and roam around etc. One boy did complain and the person on whom he complain was removed (there is a technical word for it) for a month! So freshers do have a recourse and there is zero tolerance for ragging on works too...