It is quite traumatising to even imagine what the victim of the ragging incident in Assam’s Dibrugarh University had to go through. Anand Sarma, a first semester commerce student, under attack from a group of seniors, ended up jumping from the second floor of his hostel building in a bid to save himself. Admitted now in the ICU of a local hospital, the young student is fighting for his life.
As per details that have emerged so far, the incident follows months of bullying that the victim went through. This was despite the matter being brought before university authorities. As per his mother, for quite some time, the seniors often didn’t allow Anand to sleep at night, ordered him to fetch food and liquor for them and made him wash their soiled utensils.
Sadly, while the grievousness of Anand’s ordeal helped it grab headlines, by no means are cases like these uncommon. By way of what she alleged, the victim’s mother has not only spoken for her son, but revealed part of the murky inner life of not just Assam but many of India’s higher education institutions.
Just earlier in November, four students belonging to SRKR Engineering College in Andhra Pradesh were arrested for beating a student with PVC pipes and burning his hand and chest. The same month also saw two differently-abled students belonging to Jadavpur University accusing a senior of physically bullying them. In October, an IIT-Kharagpur student hailing from Assam was found dead in mysterious conditions, after what is widely believed to have been a spell of ragging. And this list can just go on.
Bullying, including ragging, also takes the most myriad forms, from overt acts of physical abuse to more subtler practices. As any keen observer of India’s student life may realise, the latter forms often involve exhorting students, especially juniors to perform acts, which could be easily categorised as lewd and sexist. Unfortunately, most often than not, only those incidents that end up leaving more ‘tangible scars’ end up being talked about. Most others still don’t even find recognition as amounting to bullying.
When most leading institutions globally have long left behind such practices, it is a pity that so many of Indian institutions still struggle to grow out of such petty behaviour.
But what leads to such forms of abusive behaviour within institutions?
Of course, the first stop where responsibility could be pinned is upon the institution’s administration. It could be said that there is an inversely proportional relationship between such kinds of excesses, which are being discussed here and falling standards of institutional governance.
Reversing this does not, however, entail intensifying policing over students. With regard to the ongoing discussions, what is instead required is this: college and university administrations should tune their systems in such a way that not only strongly disincentivise bullying, but also makes it possible to intervene much before things turn for the worse.
However, while addressing issues of institutional governance is important, yet it is an inadequate measure by itself.
Tendency to bully, indulge in ragging someone junior, seem to be themselves fed by cultures that privilege masculinity, glorify aggression, adore discipline while yearning to exercise authority and enforce hierarchy. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that such valuations still hold great sway over most Indian societies.
Perhaps, this explains why most stakeholders have so far been unable to accord the seriousness that is due to the menace of bullying in institutions. Unless something really goes out of hand, as in Anand’s case, bullying and more so ragging is perceived to be something normal, nothing more than light-hearted fun. Even the convicts in the 2009 Aman Kachroo ragging case, perhaps the most well known of its kind, were released even before they completed their four-year jail term and were further allowed to complete their MBBS academic programme.
One of the more effective ways to deal with this menace, therefore, is by confronting the value judgements that encourage bullying among students in the first place. But that would entail going much beyond the odd anti-ragging awareness marches or orientation programmes that are routinely organised at the start of every academic session.
What it demands instead from institutional stakeholders, including teachers, student leaders and administrations, is a bolder commitment to stand for every student’s individuality, their legitimate right to freely access, be fairly treated and equally participate in institutional spaces. From such a commitment can emerge a new pedagogy, that which inculcates respect for the individual, emphasises the inalienability of consent, importance of democratic conduct and value of affirming difference.
This is perhaps the best guarantee to push back the culture of violence that produces strife among students within institutions as well as in the society beyond it. As Anand lies in his hospital bed, it also presents a moment to reaffirm our commitment to students.
The writer is a doctoral student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal.
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