For the estimated six million young adults enrolled in Indias 322 universities and 14,000 colleges, the rite of passage from school to college from child to adulthood is grimmer than depicted in popular literature and cinema. Indeed in college campuses across the country old fashioned ragging has not only persisted but degenerated into full-scale violence. The growing number of victims of campus violence face traumatisation intense fear and emotional numbing, loss of control, and the shattering of their trust and ability to make sound judgements about the people and the world around them. The cost of this potential loss is inestimable. Consider these case histories chosen at random:
Chennai, July 1998. Sarika Shah, a student of Ethiraj College in Chennai, was sexually molested outside the gates of her college. Subsequently she was manhandled and run over by a motorcar. Lucknow, February 2000. Over two dozen students from the State Architecture College, fled their hostels to save themselves from ragging atrocities. The freshers claimed that senior students made them stand straight for hours on end or dance through the night.
Hyderabad, September 2001. M. Srinadh Reddy (19) a first year student of Venkateshwara Engineering College, Hyderabad, committed suicide by throwing himself before an oncoming train. This is my last appeal that seniors should not target juniors in the name of ragging and destroy their promising lives, he said in his suicide note.
Delhi, November 2002. A woman student of the Maulana Azad Medical College was dragged off a busy road at knife-point and allegedly gang-raped inside the confines of the Khooni Darwaza, a state-protected monument located opposite the college gate.
Kolkata, August 2003. Sayandeep Bandopadhyaya a student of the Jalpaiguri Engineering College was forced by senior students to strip and hit himself with slippers even as other students struck him with bicycle chains and iron rods. Not content with that the perpetrators of these crimes made him sign a suicide note.
Campus violence assumes several virulent forms, the commonest being ragging and the growing harassment of women students. Of these, ragging has received intense attention while the growing harassment of women students remains a hushed affair. To a great extent campus life in the nations beleaguered institutions of higher education is a mirror image of an illiberal democracy characterised by the rise of particularisms such as caste and religious identities against the backdrop of crumbling law and order and other institutional mechanisms. But a particularly reprehensible feature of rising campus violence is that it stamps the mind of the barely adult college goer with a lasting, unpleasant impression of the real world beyond college gates.
Dr. Monica Chib, senior consultant in psychiatry at Delhis Apollo Hospital, traces the origin of campus violence to the degradation of the social fabric. People with values who live by the rules are regarded as weak individuals who will never quite make the grade. Aggression is looked upon as a positive trait. This attitude is sometimes encouraged by parents who tell their children that they are unlikely to be successful unless they become aggr-essive. This message is intensified in schools where overcrowded classrooms make it difficult for teachers to pay attention to committed and quiet students. In universities an 18-21 year old though technically an adult, seldom has the emotional maturity to know where to draw the line when it comes to violent behaviour or sexual harassment. For this the media is also to blame. Cover stories in the print media scream about hitherto taboo subjects such as pre-marital sex, kissing on screen etc. The question is, whether this attitude is supported by what the student sees at home. Sexual awareness coupled with the contradictory messages they get from their homes and the inability of young adults to talk with significant adults in their lives about these matters degenerates into campus violence and sexual harassment, says Chib.
Nalini Parthiban, principal of the Van Vani Matriculation School, Chennai believes that ragging which has morphed into campus violence is a foreign import unsuited to Indian conditions and needs to be dealt with sternly. In foreign countries ragging is meant to toughen freshers. Indian youth lack the mental toughness of their western counterparts. Colleges in India are certainly not safer than elsewhere and unless stern measures are adopted to curb the menace of ragging and adequate security is provided to students by college authorities, it will lead to escalating campus violence, warns Parthiban.
Fortunately officialdom is becoming aware of the magnitude and ramifications of the ragging phenomenon which is escalating into campus violence. Ragging has become a grave menace in educational institutions. Students have sometimes died. We are ashamed about it and have to put an end to the practice, comments Hari Gautam former chairman of the University Grants Commission.
Supreme Court dicta on sexual harassment
In Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan & ors (1997) the supreme court took cognisance of the ubiquitous phenomenon of sexual harassment of women in Indian society. The court defined sexual harassment as unwelcome sexually determined behaviour including physical contact; demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; exhibiting pornography; and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.
The apex court opined that preventive measures taken by employers or other responsible authorities in public or private sectors should include: express notification and prohibition of sexual harassment; prohibition of sexual harassment should be included in the rules and regulations of government and public sector bodies; appropriate work conditions should be provided for work, leisure, health and hygiene to ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women in workplaces, and no woman employee should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.
The court recommended that all employers must constitute Complaints Committees headed by a woman and that not less than half of their members should be women. Complaints committees should include an NGO or other organisation familiar with the issue of sexual harassment and the investigation procedure must be time bound with confidentiality of the complainant and proceedings being maintained. Such committees should make annual reports to the government department concerned with complaints and report the action taken.
UGC directives to universities and colleges advise institutional managements to take strict action against bullies and offenders on pain of either de-affiliating it in the case of a college or cutting down financial assistance if it is a university. The Supreme Court of India took note of ragging in 2001, when in Vishwa Jagriti Mission through President vs Central Govt. through Cabinet Secretary & Ors (1998) it set out guidelines to deal with this phenomenon (see box).
Delhi Universitys Ordinance XV B also lists in great detail culpable acts violative of campus discipline. Among them: physical assault, threat of physical force, violation of status, dignity and honour of students of the scheduled castes and tribes, any acts verbal or otherwise derogatory of women, wilful destruction of institutional property and ragging. A separate ordinance (XV C) specifically prohibits ragging and prescribes punishments ranging from withholding permission to write exams to fines and rustication.
Other universities too have evolved guidelines to deal with ragging. For instance Punjab University has imposed a total ban on ragging. Those found guilty may be punished with cancellation of admission, suspension from classes, expulsion from hostels or from the institution for varying periods and subsequent debarment from admission to affiliated institutions, fines upto Rs.25,000 and even rigorous imprisonment of upto three years.
Likewise the Tamilnadu Prohibition of Ragging Act, 1997, proscribes any acts that cause physical or psychological harm or raise fear, shame or embarrassment in a student in any educational institution. Punishments for breach of provisions of the act include imprisonment, which may extend to two years and a fine of upto Rs.10,000 or expulsion.
Unfortunately these stringent laws are practised more in the breach than observance and most university and college administrators are loath to apply their provisions. Last August for instance, hundreds of Lucknow University students went on a rampage injuring a dozen people, including two teachers and six PAC constables while smashing over half a dozen vehicles on campus. Their grouse: a lathi charge on a student procession, led by a former student union leader, demanding a roll back of a modest increase in tuition fees. Lucknow University vice-chancellor S.B. Singh was quick to condemn the violence as politically motivated and stated that all the students involved would be expelled. Its a promise he still has to make good on.
Dr. Anil Wilson, principal of St. Stephens College, widely regarded as North Indias premier liberal arts college, underscores the need for applying the provisions of disciplinary legislation. Discipline depends entirely on the attitude of the principal which filters down to teachers and eventually to students. If I see a broken window pane and let it pass I will soon have to deal with broken doors; but if I raise a hullabaloo for a broken window pane it will stop right there. The degree of conscientiousness and commitment on the part of institutional managements, makes all the difference. No institution is immune to the virus of violence. What is important is how institutions react to violence. In India there are some completely misplaced ideas of compassion. There is widespread inclination not to spoil the careers of students guilty of campus violence. My view is quite the contrary. By disciplining offenders we help their careers. Students are part of society and like everyone else they have to learn to live with the consequences of their actions. We have forgotten this is a very important part of education, says Wilson.
Lucknow Universitys former vice-chancellor and head of the department of philosophy Dr. Rooprekha Verma attributes the general reluctance of faculty to implement campus discipline laws to the reality that heads of universities and colleges are trained as teachers, not administrators. The university is a unique work environment, characterised by a custodial relationship between student and teacher. Inevitably women students are at a special risk if campus violence is not dealt with firmly. But somehow safety is hardly an issue with administrators. The general attitude is that boys will be boys. On the other hand major investment or resource inputs arent required to create safer campuses. It is just a matter of determination on our part, says Verma.
The greater vulnerability of women in institutions of higher learning which Verma highlights is barely documented while theres no shortage of studies about sexual harassment in the workplace. Beyond Victims and Villains: Addressing Sexual Violence in the Education Sector, a publication by the Panos Institute, London, throws some light on the issue. Its 1997 survey of 200 women college and university students in Mumbai indicated that 39 percent complained of harassment, including verbal comments, lewd songs, and harassment through phone calls and staring at womens breasts, particularly in canteens and at the entrance gate. In addition, faculty members were also a source of harassment including physical touching, continuous staring, ridiculing female students, introducing sexual innuendo or discomfiting content into teaching and offering marks for sex.
In another survey (1996) by the Gender Study Group of Delhi University, an astonishing 91.7 percent of over 100 women students living in hostels said they experienced sexual harassment on campus almost every day, mostly from non-university males but also from male students and faculty members. Though half the women students said that incidents of harassment did not affect their academic performance, 45 percent alleged it did. For instance, many of them avoided libraries where they were likely to be targeted and certain study courses. While there are no similar studies for Lucknow University an informal survey undertaken by the universitys department of women studies last year concluded that women students are subjected to some sort of harassment within the campus every six minutes!
See also: Rape and Delhi..
Must boys tease girls?
Indeed blaming the victims rather than campus hooligans and law-breakers is a pervasive attitude within police personnel, even policewomen. Wherever there are boys and girls together, some mischief is to be expected. And practically speaking some part of the onus for this lies on the girls. A lot depends on how the girl dresses up and how she conducts herself, says Vijay Lakshmi Pandey, sub inspector in charge of the Lucknow University campus.
Not surprisingly women students have minimal confidence in the two-dozen policemen who either saunter around the campus with their shirt buttons half open or lounge around Lucknow Universitys parks. Comments Ritu Sharma, a first year arts student of the university: Whenever we see these gents we take a detour. Sure, they may be on the campus to help us but they neither look friendly nor safe. The looks they give us are positively scary. This in a university where most women dress conservatively. Unlike metropolitan universities it is rare for women students to sport jeans or western attire on the LU campus.
Dr. Rakesh Chandra, faculty member of Lucknow Universitys department of philosophy, who had a brief stint as an education consultant with UNICEF and has been working on participatory literacy and gender sensitisation programmes, ascribes the rising tide of violence against women students to societal attitudes. At the policy level, we have not been able to address gender issues. Efforts to make pedagogies or curriculums more gender sensitive have been woefully inadequate. The way history is taught is an example; its just a recounting of the deeds of kings. Outside classrooms, popular culture reinforces gender stereotypes. On television women are portrayed as either victims or schemers, though ironically, those who portray such roles are actually modern, working women. The solution according to Chandra lies in identifying and bringing into the public space models of empowered, sensitive women. Granted that universities today have departments of women studies but their research should be mainstreamed. An intellectual climate has to be created to build gender equality and inculcate zero tolerance for gender violence, he adds.
With law, order and justice systems across the country and particularly on campuses in gross disrepair, womens education is particularly endangered. This is bad news for the national economy given that only 39 percent of adult women in India are literate. And despite the Union ministry of HRD constantly tom-tomming rising womens literacy statistics, educationists and academics are becoming increasingly aware of the wide gap between mere literacy and education. According to grim prognostications which are rapidly gaining currency a mere 10 percent of women (and 30 percent of the male population) in the country are educated in terms of functional literacy an unsustainable burden.
Ragging: Supreme Court guidelines for institutional managements
In writ petition No. 656 of 1998 (Vishwa Jagriti Mission through President vs Central Govt. through Cabinet Secretary & Ors) a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India (R.C. Lahoti & Brijesh Kumar JJ) took cognisance of the ragging phenomenon. The apex court defined ragging as any disorderly conduct whether by words spoken or written or by an act which has the effect of teasing, treating or handling with rudeness any other student; indulging in rowdy or indisciplined activities which causes or is likely to cause annoyance, hardship or psychological harm or to raise fear or apprehension thereof in a fresher or a junior student or asking the student to do any act or perform something which such student will not do in the ordinary course and which has the effect of causing or generating a sense of shame or embarrassment so as to adversely affect the physique or psyche of a fresher or junior student the cause of indulging in ragging is deriving a sadistic pleasure or showing off power, authority or superiority by the seniors over their juniors or freshers.
The apex court drew up guidelines for the managements of all education institutions to follow. Among them:
Anti-ragging measures should be taken by educational institutions right from the time of advertisement for admissions. The prospectus, the form for admission and/ or any other literature issued to aspirants for admission must clearly mention that ragging is banned in the institution and anyone indulging in it is likely to be punished appropriately which may include expulsion from the institution, suspension from the institution or classes for a limited period or fine with a public apology.
The punishment may also take the shape of: (i) withholding scholarships or other benefits (ii) debarring from representation in events (iii) withholding results (iv) suspension or expulsion from hostel or mess, and the like. If there be any legislation governing ragging or any provisions in a statute/ ordinance it should be brought to the notice of the students/ parents seeking admissions. A printed leaflet detailing when and to whom a victim may turn for information, help and guidance for various purposes, keeping in view the needs of new entrants, along with their addresses and telephone numbers should be given to freshers at the time of admissions so that they need not look to seniors for help in such matters.
If an institution fails to curb ragging, the UGC/ funding agency may consider stoppage of financial assistance to it till it does so. A university may consider disaffiliating a college or institution failing to curb ragging.
Failure to prevent ragging shall be construed as an act of negligence in maintaining discipline on the part of the management, the principal and the persons in authority of the institution. Similar responsibility should be imposed upon hostel wardens/ superintendents.
If ragging becomes unmanageable or amounts to a cognisable offence it may be reported to the police. However, the police should be called upon or allowed entry in campus at the instance of the head of the institution or the person in charge. Police should deal with such incidents when brought to their notice for action bearing in mind that they are dealing with students and not criminals and the action of the police should never be violent and always guided by a correctional attitude.
Consequently the rise in the incidence of harassment of women students by their teachers is a grim augury. But the fear of the consequences of outing such aberrant faculty is so pervasive that the students thus abused routinely refuse to complain or identify rogue faculty members. In August last year the Supreme Court treated as a writ petition, letters written by womens organisations to the chief justice regarding a case of sexual harassment. It involved a student doing her doctoral thesis in MS University, Baroda, who was sexually harassed by her supervisor for three years. The petitioners expressed outrage about the lack of remedial action by the university administration. The admission of the petition by the court has boosted the fight for a uniform policy of sexual harassment in institutions of higher learning.
After the Supreme Court ruling in the Vishakha vs the State of Rajasthan (1998) we set up a body named GSCASH (Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment) comprising students, teachers and faculty representatives plus wardens. This committee reports, monitors and investigates cases of sexual harassment. Forty cases have been filed since the inception of GSCASH and stringent punishment has been meted out to five individuals, including a faculty member D.K. Tiwari. The administration was not willing to take action against him but it had to after we called a massive strike, says Ena Pandey, joint secretary of the students union at Delhis Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Likewise the Delhi University based Forum Against Sexual Harassment (FASH) is lobbying hard for acceptance of its policy against sexual harassment. Essentially a programme for implement-ation of the Supreme Court guidelines in the Vishakha Case, FASH demands an autonomous committee representing all sections of the university community rather than ad hoc committees comprising officials who are beholden to the system for patronage.
Dr. Nishi Pandey, professor of English and modern European languages at Lucknow University who has herself been harassed and abused by a fellow professor, endorses the need for establishing empowered committees with the authority to take serious action against campus wolves. If as a teacher I have had to contend with a system that had little to offer by way of support, where does a student turn for help? The harassment that women students experience from their teachers is persistent and subtle. The first step is to evolve a mechanism wherein the anonymity of complainants is maintained. Next women students have to be educated on what constitutes harass-ment for very often in the absence of clear definitions, ones own perception is doubted. In Utsaah, an NGO promoted by her as a response, lessons are conducted in Wenlido (which translates into Womens Path of Strength), a Canadian strategy that combines physical self defence techniques with self image conditioning and teaches young women to become strong, capable individuals who can take control of their lives.
Dr. Hema Raghavan, dean of student welfare and principal of Delhis Gargi College for the past ten years lays the blame for rising campus violence on student politics supported by political parties. This kind of student politics always degenerates into violence. It is very possible and perhaps desirable to encourage college elections where canvassing is restricted to institution improvement issues. But what is the necessity for university elections? Candidates seldom have any political ideology, know next to nothing about current affairs and the level of violence in which they indulge is despicable. If future generations are to be safe, political parties need to be careful about what they are supporting, says Raghavan, who has herself suffered politically motivated campus violence.
The benefits of a ban on university elections in terms of a perceptible reduction in campus violence have been experienced in Lucknow University. Faculty members are unanimous that during the past three years when elections were proscribed, the campus atmosphere has vastly improved. However with the recent change of government in Luckow and announcement of student elections, there is a growing apprehension that peaceful days are over.
But with growing awareness within academia that ragging is not a harmless rite of passage or coming of age ritual and that it naturally escalates into campus violence, hitherto indifferent institutional managements are beginning to pay greater attention to campus safety issues.
In Mumbais Hinduja College of Commerce for instance, senior students have formed committees to safeguard freshers and help them around during the first few days on campus. Likewise in the commercial capitals Mithibai College of Arts, which principal Dr. Madhav N. Welling claims has remained immune to the ragging epidemic, there is a premium on counselling and strict discipline is imposed to prevent bullying. Similarly Fr. Joseph Xavier, principal of Loyola College, Chennai says prompt, stern action is taken against campus bullies, and freshers are put through a three-day induction programme to acquaint them with campus discipline, rules and regulations.
See also: Safer campuses
Student and management initiatives in college campuses across the country to reimpose law, order and discipline are an encouraging indicator that there is new resolve to root out ragging and other dubious traditions which have prompted widespread indiscipline and violence, particularly against women students. The system which seems helplessly indifferent to these important grassroots issues has to be radically overhauled. Relying upon the police and law and order authorities is at best a partial, piecemeal solution. Support systems have to be built within academia and students have to be made aware of the need to speak up in favour of anti-violence reforms. It is no longer a matter of choice. And as a start the one question teachers and policy makers really need to ask themselves is how serious are they about taking on the challenge of campus violence, says Dr. Nishi Pandey of Lucknow University (quoted earlier).
The upside of the rising tide of campus violence across the country is that among educationists and varsity administrators there is growing awareness that gender justice and intolerance for violence in all its manifestations has to be incorporated into the education system including curricula and teacher training. Meanwhile the immediate requirement is transmission of an unequivocal message across every college and varsity campus that transgressions of the law will invite quick and certain punishment.