It is not unusual for controversial stand-up comedy group All India Bakchod to be in news. But Rohan Joshi, one of its members, was all over Twitter timelines recently for sharing a disturbing experience that he faced as an engineering student.

In a series of tweets, Joshi narrated how, during his student days, he was arbitrarily singled out by a professor and was made to endlessly redo an assignment though there were no errors in the work submitted by him.

Joshi said the experience eventually led to him dropping out of engineering altogether. It was clearly not an unusual experience for his tweets seemed to strike a chord with many..

Stories of an entire classroom of Joint Entrance Examination toppers being failed in a course arbitrarily are not at all uncommon at premier engineering colleges in the country. Harassment, over-the-top and capricious disciplinary measures and unfair grading came up in various responses that followed.

All of these are issues that students often themselves helpless against, but what was missing in the discussion that followed was the much larger elephant in the room – ragging.

A dark history

But only because it does not get talked about much does not mean that ragging is merely something that used to exist only in the past. It continues to be a very real hazard – in some cases, even trauma – that students who enter institutions of higher learning face.

It is not only the authorities who are in denial mode about it, though. Nor is it the students who are leading the fight against it.

Professor Raj Kachroo, whose son Aman Kachroo died as a result of injuries sustained during ragging, led what came to be known as the Aman Movement, which eventually resulted in the historical Supreme Court judgment of May 8, 2009 (University of Kerala vs Council, Principals, Colleges and others, 2006).

This judgement forced the University Grants Commission to issue its first set of guidelines “towards curbing the menace of ragging in Higher Educational Institutions”. The guidelines have been amended thrice since – in 2012, 2013 and most recently 2016.

Raj Kachroo was also instrumental in the setting up of a national level toll-free anti-ragging helpline, which allows students to anonymously register complaints online, or over the phone. The helpline’s website has received more than 4 crore hits and over 2,100 complaints have been registered since its inception, as per available data.

It would be naïve to therefore assume that ragging happens without the active participation – or at least the tacit approval of students.

‘Casual’ Ragging

The campuses of some of India’s most prominent higher educational institutions, however, tend to paint a very different picture. But ragging continues to exist – not in its conspicuous and much-outlawed physical form, but in a more covert, sinister and psychological form.

It is not “a menace” but a “culture”, some argue, that helps maintain power hierarchies on campus. But it is a culture that affords the best hangout spots and most convenient routes to major buildings on the campus to senior students, and forces juniors to stay cooped up in their hostel rooms in fear. It is a culture that relegates juniors (or “freshers” or “fuchas”) to “funda routes” – the least convenient paths to anywhere on campus.

Many institutions have now formalised policies banning fresh batch of students from visiting cafeterias or campus streets notorious for ragging during their first semester.

That seniors are to be addressed as “Sir” and “Ma’am” is perhaps one of the first things still taught to a new entrant, under the guise of preparing them for professional life. But some engineering colleges have taken this a step further with their institution of what they call a “Tech Family”, a custom whereby a fresher gets “adopted” by a senior student. Under the guise of giving students a family away from their family, the tech family commands subservience over the course of the following three years of their lives. While it offers “protection” from other seniors, it is the “Tech Father/Mother”, who first rags the “son/daughter”.

Most students do not consider this to be ragging.

In fact, most practices that look and sound like ragging are often justified and defended vehemently. Ask why senior students make junior students write their theses, and you would be told that this prepares them to write their own later.

Making juniors perform humiliating tasks on “Freshers’ Nites” apparently serves the purpose of “helping juniors become more confident”, while dress-codes and restrictions on movement are said to ensure that “juniors stay focused on their studies and not waste time”.

What is noteworthy is that these are rules created and most enthusiastically enforced by students themselves. Collective resistance on the part of juniors against these rules often leads to “batching out” – a collective social boycott of the entire junior batch by the senior batches, which serves to bring any resistance to its knees.

Many, therefore, see the first year of higher education as a minor inconvenience which affords them significant power and privilege for the next three to four years. The desire for this power is what allows ragging to thrive on our educational campuses, year after year.

It is therefore unrealistic to assume that a rule imposed top-down by the UGC alone will curb the menace of ragging.

For that to happen the students at our higher educational institutions have to be prepared to see their peers as equals, regardless of their caste, class, language, gender, sexual orientation and, most importantly, age.

The big question is, will they ever?

Paras Sharma is a mental-health professional and a doctoral scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai