Across cultures, initiation rites have been part of the social fabric. ‘Coming of age’ is generally celebrated through a ‘ritual’. These rites indicate that the member qualifies to be a full-fledged member of the group to which he or she is being initiated. These are sometimes also called ‘rites of passage’ and signify that the person is moving from one group to another. The Bar Mitzvah in the Jewish community or Confirmation in the Christian community or the Thread Ceremony are just a few examples of these ‘coming of age’ rituals.
In the social context of India, entry into college is a significant milestone not only for the individual but for the entire community itself. As they say colloquially: “Pappu ab college ja raha hai!” Every youngster looks forward to the day when they will pass through the portals of their school and enter into the grown-up world of college life. From junior college to degree college and from degree programmes to professional programmes, every step is viewed as a step closer to adulthood. In this context, it is but natural that these significant milestones are marked with some kind of ritual to indicate the progress and entry into a new phase of life.
While most institutions will have a formal induction programme to introduce and acclimatize the ‘freshers’ into a new realm, there is a lighter side to this welcome. Many colleges across India have ‘Fresher Parties’ or ‘Welcome Parties’ thrown to welcome the newcomers. This serves an important function for the initiate — it helps him or her meet new people, get to understand the culture of the institution (which may be dramatically different from the culture of their previous place of study), understand practices and among many other things, general tips of how to survive successfully the new academic programme.
At these events, there is quite a bit of light-headed ribbing and rubbing, pulling of legs of the freshers or pranks played on them. After all, humour is a good way to dissipate the stress of the transition and facilitate a faster moving into what is expected from the newcomer. However, in quite a number of cases, this degenerates into violence — physical or emotional or psychological, social or even sexual. It is these forms of ‘welcoming’ that the adult world is not comfortable about and the hullabaloo about banning such ‘fresher parties’ must be understood by the generation of youngsters in this context. It is precisely these forms of welcoming that come under the gambit of ragging (also termed as hazing or bullying) — illegal under the law of our land.
Ragging — a problem?
If initiation rites are part of social functioning, then why must ‘ragging’ be considered a problem that needs to be banned by civil society? I have heard youngsters proclaim their opposition to such bans by justifying such behaviour as normal and acceptable and that anyone who wants to be part of higher education should be ready for such behaviour. “After all,” says Rohit, a second year student from a college in Mumbai, “if you are not man enough to deal with a little fun, then you are not ready for growing up!”
Ragging is considered a social evil in our times, because what we are talking of is not some light-hearted fun and frolic, but rather behaviours that have serious physical and psychological consequences. Today, in many colleges, despite ragging being banned, new students are beaten, asked to do things of a sexual nature — like kiss someone or mimic a sexual act or reveal things that are considered personal and private — without their consent. Madhavi Chopra, a law student from Delhi, sums up the problem well in an article written by her:
“It has been rightly said that the end may not always justify the means. Behind the façade of ‘welcoming’ new students to college, ragging, in actuality, is a notorious practice wherein the senior students get an excuse to harass their junior counterparts, and more often than not, make them easy targets to satiate their own perverse sadistic pleasures. Apart from sustaining grievous physical injuries, those unfortunate students who succumb to ragging either develop a fear psychosis that haunts them throughout their lives, or worse, quit their college education even before it begins. For any student who slogs day and night to secure admission into a prestigious college, ragging can be his or her worst nightmare come true. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, today, ragging has taken the shape of a serious human rights violation with even the most respected and disciplined educational institutes falling prey to it.”
What is “fun” for a few people, becomes a living nightmare for another, a violation of their basic right to live a life of dignity; and to be stripped of one’s dignity, even in the name of ‘welcoming’ is what makes ragging unacceptable and something that needs to be stopped.
Root of ragging
When what was meant to be a welcome degenerates into violence, we are forced to ask: ‘What do the seniors get from indulging in such behaviours?’ A lot of thought and research has gone into studying such behaviours. The one thing that stands out as a common factor is what most perpetrators feel is ‘power’. They feel powerful that they can make others feel ‘powerless’; they get their high from making others do, what in a normal day would be considered inappropriate.
This raises a very serious question: “If I need to make others feel powerless in order to feel powerful, then is it really power that I enjoy?” I think it is high time that we relook at the concept of ‘power’ — not in terms of dominance, but rather as the ability to bring about change in my life, in the lives of those around me, to my community and the society and country that I live in. Using our God-given talents and abilities to build up others in the truest sense constitutes authentic power.
Jeevan D'Cunha is currently the Director for People, Learning and Capability Development at Global Education Solutions and has nearly 25 years of experience working with adolescents. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org