Campus menace

Published : Aug 14, 2009 00:00 IST

AMONG the many ills that plague higher education in our country, the one that dominates public concern these days is not capitation fees or the poor quality of teaching. It is the evil of ragging, an expression that has brought infamy to our colleges and caused nightmare to parents. If left unchecked, it is a matter of time before this near-pandemic afflicts our high schools as well.

The popular perception is that some campuses are too dangerous for pursuing professional and other education. The Aman Kachroo incident at the Rajendra Prasad Medical College, Tanda (Himachal Pradesh), a few months ago, is one tragedy that has served to fortify this impression.

The other incident that has caused nearly the same damage is the attempted suicide of a girl at a college in Bapatla (Andhra Pradesh). It is just possible that many more, perhaps less serious, happenings have been suppressed by college administrations acting in collusion with misbehaving students.

In the Kachroo case, a young, bright and handsome student, whose parents live near Delhi, was the hapless victim of student brutality. From all accounts, he did not offer any provocation whatsoever to his aggressors that even remotely justified the savage attack on him. The student-criminals had bought their way into the hostel (where Aman lived) around midnight after neutralising the lone watchman with some liquor.

Although he had complained to his parents a few days before the attack about harassment by senior students, sadly, Aman effectively kept them away from intervening because, in his assessment, that would have only served to aggravate his plight. To this day, his father Rajender Kachroo rues his decision not to go to Tanda and take his son out of the campus.

The father has vowed to carry the fight against ragging nationally and do whatever he can to prevent the tragedy from repeating itself. One must interact with him face-to-face to gauge the intensity of his grief and his passion to avenge his sons killing by spreading the message that ragging is despicable and the fight is not hopeless.

The Kachroo episode typifies the horror that awaits students knocking at the doors of our colleges. There is near-licence in most of the campuses to target new students. Many of them, especially those from the rural areas, are terrorised, in the name of ragging. The practice, derived from the British, has cost many young lives and many more have been traumatised by the wanton aggression and suffered permanent mental disability.

Any nation that ignores such mindless violence by misguided elements on fellow-citizens has no moral authority to preach to others on how to uphold human rights. One wonders how these delinquents are different from terrorists, about whom we are very exercised.

It was not for nothing, therefore, that the Supreme Court chose to assert its authority in the area. I was privileged that a conscientious and visionary in the Bench, Justice Arijit Passayat, chose me to head a committee that would go into the problem in depth and suggest sustainable remedies so as to save generations of students from the horror and indignity they are subjected to in educational institutions.

I had distinguished educationists to assist me in what has become for me a labour of love. Even more gratifying to me was the courts acceptance of the committees recommendations in toto and its directive to the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) and State governments to implement them faithfully.

A further fiat to the University Grants Commission (UGC) that it should withhold grants to institutions coming to repeated notice for failing to check ragging reflected the apex courts determination to eradicate the evil. This is another example of how the judiciary steps in where the executive does not act.

The executive had no will to act until the other day, because the thinking in political parties across the spectrum was that there was no prospect of stern anti-ragging measures winning them votes in an election. So, why waste time and energy on an exercise that was hardly likely to bring major political gains?

The implementation of my committees recommendations has been uneven, but there is hope that the laggards will soon join the rest. The Centres regulatory bodies, after their unpardonable initial dithering, have shown signs of some activity and resolve.

For instance, the UGC recently issued concrete regulations that universities and colleges will find difficult to disregard. One would now like to see it imposing penalties on colleges that are indifferent to the problem. I strongly believe that it should also ensure the creation of a mechanism to prevent suppression of incidents on campuses. Such suppression is rampant in every region of the country.

What is most heartening amidst the gloom caused by the Kachroo murder in Himachal Pradesh and some equally appalling incidents elsewhere is the sensitivity shown by the media, both print and electronic. But for the interest evinced by them, I am not all that certain we would have seen the kind of intense public opinion that has been built, something that is visible in most parts of the country.

Their reporting has been nearly instantaneous, focussed and fair, highlighting all aspects of the menace. I was, therefore, delighted to speak recently at a Round Table organised by The Hindu in Hyderabad. The presence of Andhra Pradeshs Minister for Higher Education, D. Sridhar Babu, on the occasion was heart-warming. A victim of terrorism his father was killed by naxalites a few years ago and very young, I perceived in him more than a semblance of empathy for the cause.

Among the participants were a Judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, who delivered a remarkable speech laced with humour, and many educational administrators. This helped send out the message that society was no longer indifferent to the menace. What was most imaginative was The Hindus invitation to young student leaders, who brought the ground-level realities to bear upon the lively and meaningful discussion (The Hindu, July 20).

Apart from college authorities and student activists, the police machinery has its role cut out for tackling ragging. The perceptions and responses of senior policemen vary. Wherever they have been proactive, incidents have been handled with great alacrity and firmness.

Elsewhere, policing has been marked by a distinct lack of zeal if not outright indifference. That was why I was deeply impressed with the presence of the Andhra Pradesh Director General of Police at the Round Table. One of his deputies, A.K. Khan, Additional DGP (Law and Order), gave a presentation that was rich in statistics and skilful in analysis.

Ironically, just the previous day, Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupathi, had reported a rash of incidents of ragging, and the arrest of around 10 students. On this campus, on successive nights, junior students were forced to assemble at a designated place at the sound of a whistle blown by seniors and subjected to untold indignity.

This happened in spite of a visit to the campus by the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police to advise students against indulging in ragging. Can there be anything more distressing than this blatant refusal to adhere to established law and canons of good conduct?

Referring to the nearly 40 cases in Andhra Pradesh in which firm charge-sheets had been laid against offending students, A.K. Khan bemoaned the fact that 13 cases disposed of by the court had ended in acquittal. This spoke volumes for the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in tackling an acute social problem such as ragging. It is easy to be critical of the quality of police investigation, which undoubtedly is not that high in many parts of India. Even giving allowance to this shortcoming, there is an apathy among stakeholders that is responsible for failures in courts and criminals going scot-free.

In all such cases, ultimately, the police alone are left to hold the baby and required to ensure justice to victims. Often, the latter themselves, for a variety of reasons, including concern for personal security and a misplaced sympathy for the aggressors, tender wishy-washy evidence, which ties the hands of the judge hearing a case. One cannot fault the judge either.

In criminal trials, judgments cannot be pronounced on the basis of mere moral conviction that the accused are guilty. There has to be conclusive proof, and not even a preponderance of probabilities, that is demanded by the English jurisprudence that we have given to ourselves.

In the ultimate analysis, serious and well-focussed discussions of the kind organised by The Hindu are useful in building popular opinion against the evil of ragging. They can go, however, only a certain distance, beyond which all stakeholders have to more than chip in with a visible resolve to bring offenders to book.

In the case of ragging, as in respect of many other evils in society, the battle is bound to be weighted heavily in favour of the anti-social elements who manage to get into campuses to enjoy themselves at the expense of those who aim at academic excellence in the pursuit of satisfying careers thereafter.

The experience is that it is invariably students not seriously interested in studies who are in the forefront of agitations and organised misconduct such as ragging.

It will be a monumental tragedy if Indian society does not assert itself quickly against such lumpen elements. Justice Passayat has shown the way. If we do not capitalise on it, posterity will not forgive us.

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