A Hazing Murder Roils India

The hazing death of a 19-year-old Indian student earlier this month at the Dr Rajendra Prasad Medical College in India’s northern state of Himachal Pradesh has sent shock waves across the country. Aman Satya Kachru, a so-called quota student at the school, the son of highly qualified parents, died March 8 of a brain hemorrhage triggered by torture by four senior fellow students.

With Kachru's parents accusing his college of trying to hush up the incident, the youth’s death has raised questions about extreme hazing, called ragging in India, which goes on unchecked in professional schools. Just weeks before, on February 11, the Supreme Court ordered all universities to follow guidelines from India’s Medical and Bar Councils and the University Grants Commission on ragging and that college personnel read regulations to all students at the time of admission.

According to the rules, students could be suspended and police were to be informed to begin criminal investigations. If schools sought to shield errant students, they were open to losing grants in aid, the committee said. But despite that, little is being done on campuses across the country. In fact Kachru’s college has been notorious for ragging, to the extent that even senior doctors say they dread being posted there. No anti-ragging laws are in place in the Himachal Pradesh state government, which supervises the Dr Rajendra Prasad Medical College. A 1992 ordinance to deal with the problem has faded into oblivion because it wasn’t converted into law by state governments that have come into power.

It isn’t just northern India. The malaise is deep-rooted in the entire country and has ruined countless careers, injured thousands and killed many. Scores have been sexually exploited. A few months ago, two students in the south of the country committed suicide after becoming victims of violent ragging. K. Harika, an engineering student at Osmania University hanged herself in Hyderabad and S Harish Kumar died at his home in Kurnool, three months after he had swallowed acid over persistent ragging and humiliation by senior students. He was made to clean toilets and was paraded naked, he wrote in his suicide note.

There are many such horror stories. Last year, in a case that dominated the front pages, a student at IMT-Ghaziabad – a management school in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh – tried for 68 days simply to register a complaint against three senior students who had been ragging him for months. The hapless student finally had to knock at the Prime Minister’s Office because police refused to register his complaint. The youth had apparently been forced by upperclassmen to undress after which they threw lighted matchsticks at his private parts. The local police finally registered a complaint but only after the PMO's intervention.

Education analysts say that with higher education increasingly privatized, academic institutions have been experiencing increasing ragging-related excesses. In 2007 for instance, 42 cases of physical injury and 10 deaths were reported across the country. The practice continued across the country in 2008. Last year, as many as 70 cases of ragging, nine of them suicides, were reported. Overall, 30 deaths have been recorded over the last seven years, with many youngsters required to be admitted to mental hospitals.

The problem of ragging in India, say experts, is brushed aside as a "sociological" one. Education authorities say it reveals a feudal mindset that goes back to the British Raj – of seniors who feel the need to "dominate" their juniors by abusing them. This is amply demonstrated in Kachru’s case. He came into the school through a quota system for minorities, thus making him a target for intimidation from socially higher-ranking seniors with a colonial mindset.

"Ragging," says sociology professor Veena Deb, "can only be checked by creating awareness among students, teachers and parents. There should be an atmosphere of discipline and an unambiguous message ought to relayed to the offenders that their misdemeanors will not go unnoticed or unpunished. There has to be zero tolerance on the issue."

The punishment, Deb continued, can take the form of withholding scholarships or other benefits from erring students or even expulsion. As for the recalcitrant colleges, their funding ought to be stopped or they may be disaffiliated till they rectify the situation.

In fact more and more analysts believe the blame needs to be pinned laid at the institution’s door. Kachru, for instance, was killed on the premises of his college. Before his death, he and 13 of his classmates had filed written complaints with authorities, who employed no punitive measures against the errant students. The college simply brushed the matter under the carpet for fear of its reputation getting sullied, observers say.

Shivam Vij, editor, www.stopragging.org, recounts in an online article a case at the National Institute of Technology (Allahabad) in 1990. He describes how a session of "mass ragging" -- which involved beating freshmen black and blue -- prompted one to escape by jumping from the window. He broke his neck and died subsequently.

"I see ragging simply as a systemized form of abuse and exploitation," Vij wrote. "And the price of not obeying the seniors can range from ostracism to violent and/or sexual retribution."

The Society Against Violence in Education (SAVE), a registered, non-profit, voluntary organization, advocates that the public and authorities work towards putting an end to the violations as well. However, sporadic measures by voluntary groups are only a part of the answer. Ragging is not perceived as a serious human rights issue. Until it is, such initiatives can at best only serve a supplementary role, authorities say. The primary thrust, they say, must come from the academic institutes, the parents and the students themselves. Not to mention the Indian government which should strengthen its law enforcement mechanisms in such a way that in future no serious case of ragging goes unchecked or unpunished.