Death by ragging: A long global history of violence

Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, Indian academia was overrun by waves of inculturation from the US.

Published: 24th August 2023 12:20 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th August 2023 12:20 AM   |  A+A-

This month, India’s worst case of homicidal ragging, that of Swapnadeep Kundu, at Bengal’s famous Jadavpur University, is forcing us all to introspect about studentry and power. The meaning of the word ‘ragging’ is threefold:

First, it means to make fun of someone rumbustiously. Second, it means to upbraid someone without restraint. And, third, it means to “draw attention facetiously and persistently” to someone’s alleged shortcomings. In its original sense, by 1739, ‘to rag’ meant ‘to scold, chide’. By 1807, the word ‘bullyrag’, meaning ‘to intimidate’, had come into play; by the following year, it had become studentry slang, meaning to ‘annoy, tease, harass roughly’.

What took hold in the West was a plesionym of ragging, a less offensive term: hazing, a celebratory rite of passage into fraternities since the founding of Plato’s Academy in 387 BCE. Called ‘pennalism’, it meant ‘a system of mild oppression and torment practised upon first-year students’.

In 18th-century Europe, student guilds came up, with all the perks of swaggering seniorism. Meanwhile, in the US, in 1684, a student was expelled for violence and vassalage. The world’s first death from ragging was documented in 1873 in New York City.

The history of military hazing is long, multigeographic, and across cultures. Ragging, which is today an almost exclusively civilian phenomenon, has military origins. While some institutions of higher learning have damped it, it continues unabated in nearly all military academies under the stern rubric of ‘toughening up’.

But the history of ragging truly takes off only after World War I. Following the armistice, millions of the surviving soldiery entered college (some to make splendid postbellum careers for themselves as technicians, scientists, writers and poets), and brought their traditions and traumas with them.

The 20th-century World Wars might have been fought mostly in Europe, but the soldiers were funnelled in from all the colonies. In much of South Asia, the act of gateway bullying, both in the military and academia, didn’t exist prior to the decolonising fall of dominoes in the mid-century. Demobilised Sri Lankan troops, back from the killing fields of World War II, entered the higher education system, bringing with them the methodology of military-style hazing learnt abroad. The Sri Lankan college system today is riddled with ragging, with deaths even more numerous than in India. Given that Sri Lanka has 1,00,000 tertiary education students compared to India’s 35 million, this fact speaks to its epidemicity.

But ragging didn’t infiltrate India through its southern neighbour. Most of India’s demobbed wartime soldiers returned not to a collegiate life but to their meagre landholdings, and taught the next generation of soldiery their traditions, including the ritus transitus hazing of their White counterparts.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, Indian academia was overrun by waves of inculturation from the US. American student comportment sidled in through chinks in the fortress of State protectionism (which, when it fell in the early-1990s and gave way to liberalisation, allowed in a stormfront of cultural inspiration, including an uptick in copycat ragging).

A 2015 study by JNU, Psychosocial Study of Ragging in Selected Educational Institutions in India, found that nearly 60% of students were targeted by raggers, and that, going by “rough estimates, from reports in English media alone, there are more than 10 deaths, 40–50 cases of serious injuries leading to hospitalisation, several cases of rioting in colleges due to ragging every year”.

This month, a UGC response to an RTI query was telling: over the past five and a half years, at least 25 students died by suicide-after-ragging. The UGC’s anti-ragging cell reported that in 10 years (2013-22), 832 complaints of ragging were recorded in Uttar Pradesh, followed by 666 in Madhya Pradesh. Two states alone. The aforementioned JNU report believes that stats like these represent “the tip of an iceberg”.

Today, military ragging in India has a name that is widespread through the ranks: ragda (which translates, variously, as friction, attrition, scouring, grinding in a pestle). It is, essentially, corporal punishment of conscripts and cadets—overseen institutionally by so-called squadron traditions and applied covertly by younger officer-instructors on loose leashes in the chain of command.

Also read: Death of artistry: The lament of India’s creative soul

The fallout of sadistic punition has been terrible: 1,256 cadets quit the National Defence Academy (NDA) from January 2008 to November 2017, mostly because of unapproved, even illegal, punishment. In 2016, the Indian Military Academy (IMA) demoted 16 of its under-training cadets for ragging. According to a report in 2015, the inordinate harshness of seniors cost the NDA an unprecedented 40 cadets from its 127th course (2011–14)—the previous dropout average per year being 12. In 2018, a paper jointly prepared by the Integrated Defence Staff Headquarters and the National Defence Academy revealed that the dropout rate was 16–20% each year.

After Independence, the Indian youth has been instilled with two ambitions: either to gather as many higher education qualifications as possible, or join the military (or both). Both realms of social mobility and livelihood have been infected by one of the worst traditions of colonialism: pitiless superiorism. Of course, it’s not about teaching, hardening up in the interests of national or corps duty, or building character.

As complex a phenomenon as it is, with intersectional motivations such as “colour, race, religion, caste, ethnicity, gender (including transgender), sexual orientation, appearance, nationality, regional origins, linguistic identity, place of birth, place of residence or economic background” (UGC), the punishment for maximal ragging is paltry: a maximum of two years of imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of  Rs 10,000. I could find no data on a single student or senior cadet who has faced the full rap.

Kajal Basu

Veteran journalist


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