[Reader-list] How I Was Ragged in IIT Delhi, and Why It Was No Joke

Shivam Vij shivamvij at gmail.com
Sun Jul 4 19:16:25 IST 2004

    How I Was Ragged in IIT Delhi, and Why It Was No Joke

    Author: Sujit Saraf
    Institution: IIT Delhi 
    Years: 1989-
    Written on 1 July 2004

I went to IIT Delhi in the fall of nineteen eighty seven. I had been
living in Delhi for two years but I was still a small-town boy from
Bihar, intimidated by tall buildings and a steady stream of traffic.
Even now, after television and the internet and all that, I meet
people in my town who, when told about my college and career, respond
- ITI? ek hamaare yahaan bhii hai.

When I arrived at my hostel inside the IIT campus, I found a notice
posted in the lobby, saying 'Ragging is banned in the Institute.' I
had come with horrible stories of ragging in mind, told by friends,
relatives and well-wishers. My father, whose knowledge of college life
was thirty years out of date, wrote me in a letter that I was to 'take
care to avoid rigging in IIT'. I remember he mis-spelt the word, and
he seemed to think my participation was voluntary.

I entered the hostel, was given my room, and transferred my luggage
into it. I was on my knees ten minutes later with a leash around my
neck, announcing my name at the top of my voice and reciting the
hostel pledge, which granted every senior the right to fuck me in the
arse, then bust it into eight thousand pieces, mash some pieces into a
bharta, and feed the rest to the dogs of the hostel warden.

It sounds funny now, even to me.

We did many things in that one month that now appear harmless and
amusing. We stood on benches in the dining hall and recited the
national anthem, we crawled on all fours and barked like dogs, we
marched backwards in unison, we wore our clothes inside out, we ran
errands for our seniors, we brought them cigarettes and Campa Cola, we
cleaned their rooms and made their beds, we did push-ups in the
street, we barked and shouted and whispered and lived our lives
according to the prescriptions of boys barely a year older than us.
Finally, we dropped our trousers so they could look at our penises. We
held one another's penises and estimated their lengths, we formed long
human trains – each train car holding the penis of the car in front –
and whistled our way through hostel corridors at top speed, turning
left and right in response to semaphores controlled by our seniors. We
formed human pyramids, simulated orgies, stripped naked, then wore our
underpants over our pants, turning ourselves into 'The Phantom' of
comic books. After so many years, I can list these 'forms of ragging'
dispassionately, but no one should be misled. When an eighteen year
old boy stands naked to be inspected by ten leering animals, he
shudders in the bottom of his heart. Brutality and oppression remain
just that, no matter the name chosen for them, no matter the
circumstances in which they are exercised.

Who were these seniors, and why did they humiliate us so? They seemed
powerful then, but they were boys like us, older by a year or two or
three. They had endured similar humiliation in their time. Their
seniority in the hostel gave them, for the first time in their lives,
power over other human beings – power to command fear, subjugate and
humiliate. They exercised this power with abandon, and they had
developed countless theories – from the facetious to the philosophical
- to support their sadism. Ragging forces you to stay up late, they
said, and this is useful when you must prepare for difficult
examinations. Ragging breaks the ice between seniors and juniors.
Ragging brings the freshman – or the 'fachchaa' -  into intimate
contact with peers and seniors, and this turns the hostel into a home.
Ragging helps the freshman break out of his shell and lose his
inhibitions. And finally, said our seniors sententiously, ragging
teaches you humility. It prepares you for the 'real' world.
Presumably, if you have been insulted a sufficient number of times in
college, you will have acquired the virtue of patience when your boss
insults you in the real world. Like a well trained dog, you will not
bark and lose your job. Instead, you will wag your tail, look the
other way, and pretend the abuse was meant for someone else. Our
seniors proclaimed - and some actually believed - that they had
acquired this wisdom through age and experience, and they were now
anxious to pass it down to us. Many were genuinely surprised that we
were not grateful for this favour.

These arguments did not wash with us, of course. I was supposed to
come closer to my peers after our mutual penis-measuring ceremony.
Shared humiliation was supposed to draw us close together. Instead it
boxed us into shells. It destroyed our first foray into adulthood. It
robbed us of valuable moments in our lives. It turned our first month
in college into a nightmare.

As our first year passed, so did memories of our humiliation. Life in
the hostel became pleasant once we realized we could walk about with
our pants on, and did not need to spring to attention whenever a
senior passed us. Six months later, ragging was an amusing episode in
our past. Twelve months later, most of us firmly believed it was our
duty to pass on the wisdom we had acquired through age and experience.
We ragged the next class of freshmen ferociously and methodically, and
were genuinely surprised that they were not grateful for this favour.

Some people in my batch forced a freshman to sit on a corn-cob and had
him smoke a cigarette with the lit end inside his mouth. That incident
became a ragging 'case', drew much attention, lead to the expulsion of
the raggers, and incited a short-lived signature campaign to defend
the raggers as boys having fun.

I began a 'stop ragging' campaign that died quickly when neither my
batch-mates, nor the freshmen I was trying to save, appeared
enthusiastic. For my batch-mates, the logic of ragging was
irrefutable. They now had happy memories of their own initiation into
hostel life, and could not remember ever having disliked it. For
freshmen, getting ragged for a month was a rite of passage that would
ensure them free books and the patronage of someone powerful. It was
easier to 'get it over with' than be ostracized (so they were told)
for the rest of their stay in the hostel. When they were led on
leashes, some had ingratiating smiles on their faces

My seniors were wrong. I never managed to strike a friendship with any
of them, unable to forget the moments of humiliation. When I left IIT,
everyone I counted as a friend was someone I had met after the ragging
period. After travelling the entire world, working at many jobs in
many capacities and passing through many stages in life, I have never
found any use for the education my seniors so generously imparted to
me. I was never called upon to suffer humiliation in silence, bark
like a dog to break the ice with my peers, managers or sub-ordinates,
or insult my co-workers to gain their confidence. But of course, my
seniors had no inkling of the real world themselves. They were newly
pubescent boys who fancied themselves to be men. After all the
pretentious talk of their responsibility to make men out of us, their
entire exercise of power came down to the scrutiny of a shrivelled-up
penis, of a modest teenager brought up by conservative parents
standing naked amidst ten soulless boys, trembling in horror, his
pants wrapped about his ankles. Ragging is a case study for Sigmund
Freud, nothing more.

I have often wondered why ragging never comes to an end, in spite of
all the noise made about it among professors, politicians and the
parents of boys who suffer it. IIT had, in my time, a disciplinary
committee of professors whose job was to police ragging by making
surprise visits to hostels. They drove in a tell-tale white Maruti
van, whose arrival was announced by a freshman posted at the entrance
long before the professors had time to open the doors, get out of the
van and lumber into the hostel. The wise professors would find a group
of seniors giving an intense tutorial to freshmen on academic life in
IIT, and go home to sleep in peace. The disciplinary committee – whose
very name made it ridiculous, because we called it 'disco' – spent its
time discussing cases of ragging, fixing proportionate punishment,
deciding what was 'mental ragging' and what was 'physical ragging'
over endless cups of chai in somnolent meetings. Like all other
committees, its function was to manage ragging - not stop it - and to
prevent incidents of ragging from ballooning into 'cases'. Like all
other committees, it was also inept at its job, so we had one or two
'cases' every year which made their way into newspapers, caused much
heartburn, and resulted in the expulsion of those who had 'overstepped
the bounds', after which everyone was satisfied that something had
been done.

I do not want to over-simplify the situation. Even if the faculty at
colleges were sincere about stopping ragging, and even if they had the
support of student representatives, it is unlikely that ragging will
completely stop. Educational seminars, sensitization classes and
information dissemination may help but, as the all-forgiving cliche
insists, boys will be boys. I remember how we sniggered at such
lectures, how little respect we had for all attempts to discipline us,
and with what ridicule we regarded the notice saying 'Ragging is
banned in the Institute'. Years later, when I went back to teach in
IIT, I asked my students – all freshmen – whether they were being
ragged in their hostels, and if I could do anything to help them. We
have no such thing nowadays, I was told. Your time is now gone, they
said, as are the problems of your time. I knew they were lying, and
there was little I could do about it.

Ragging is not an exclusively Indian phenomenon. We have no monopoly
on brutality. Hazing rituals are common in the 'Greek societies' on
American campuses. My room-mate at Berkeley nearly died at an
initiation ritual in his fraternity, where he was made to drink many
glasses of vodka in a short period of time. There is a very important
difference between hazing in Greek societies and ragging in Indian
college hostels. Membership to a Greek society is voluntary. Those who
study at a university do not have to become members, and most do not.
Those who study in IIT must become members of hostels - this may have
changed since my days - and suffer the humiliation that comes with it.
Aside from the Greek societies, however, there is little or no ragging
in the dormitories on American campuses. At my dormitory in Berkeley,
we went on an overnight retreat and had coffee-socials to break the
ice between newcomers and old-timers. We ate together, chatted, played
racquetball and squash, watched football games, and these brought us
closer. The very concept of ragging was unknown. I cannot say this
with certainty, but this may be because American college students are
much closer to adulthood. Many are already in their twenties, most
have to earn their way through college or take loans to pay for their
education, and almost all are on their own. Their attitude to college
is very different from that of Indian boys, who have been dispatched
to the campus by loving parents, borne on a cushion of money and
support that they did not earn.

A college campus cannot exist completely outside the system that
enfolds it. The prevention of ragging through draconian rules may be
impossible. You cannot imprison freshmen into a hostel of their own,
forbid contact between freshmen and seniors, or electrocute seniors
who humiliate a freshman. Many of the frustrations that a student
expresses through ragging are really brought by him from the world
outside the campus. Given a chance to release those feelings, he will.
The reason there is little or no ragging on American campuses may just
be that college students are adults, and are treated as such. They do
not spring up with a 'Sir' when professors walk in, they are
encouraged to argue and protest, they live in relatively free
environments where the only restricted activity is that which harms
others. If Indian students were shown the same respect, they may begin
to find ragging juvenile. There remains no reason, in the twenty first
century, to segregate voting-age adults into unisex dormitories. Boys
and girls should live in the same hostel. They should come to their
hostels and leave them as they please, with no curfew hours. They
should be allowed to mix freely, speak freely, and enjoy every
privilege an adult is entitled to. They are eighteen, they can take
care of themselves. Should they violate rules or break the law, they
should receive proportionate punishment. These ideas may create
conditions that make ragging redundant and allow it to wither away.

(Sujit Saraf is a film-maker and playwright who lives in California.
He has been associated with IIT Delhi both as a student and an
assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is
a member of the PACE Anti-Ragging Cell.)

shivamvij at gmail.com

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