Shivam Yadav’s bruises have long faded but emotionally, he is still scarred.

After dinner one April night in 2013, seven to eight senior students cornered him in his hostel room at Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya in Indore and rained blows upon him. Some used sticks, others their bare hands. One blow caught Yadav on the neck and left him gasping for breath. The attackers fled. That session of violent ragging ended with Yadav making a trip to the emergency room.

“But that was not the worst part,” said Yadav, who graduated with a degree in pharmacy last year and now works with a multinational food and drink company in Gwalior. “That was the mental abuse I suffered for the whole year leading to that night.”

He said that he was verbally abused, frequently beaten and received no support from university officials. “It ruined my career,” he said. “I was not able to focus and later, when I complained, college authorities were hostile to me. I stood up for myself but it changed me. I get angry very easily, even violent, if I feel someone is being wronged.”

Yadav agrees with the findings of the Supreme Court-initiated study, Psychosocial Study of Ragging in Selected Educational Institutions in India (2015). In Yadav’s case, some students were expelled from the hostel after he lodged a complaint with the anti-ragging helpline of the University Grants Commission – India’s higher education regulator – in July 2013.

On Monday, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, suspended 16 second-year students for three years, and six for one year, for ragging. First-year students had filed a mass complaint in August alleging, among other things, that they had been forced to strip. “This is the first time the institution has taken action against ragging in a decade,” said a senior faculty member who did not wish to be identified.

The faculty member found that there have been similar ragging cases in Kanpur and other IITs, which did not lead to complaints. Another student who graduated last year attested to this. “My friends told us [about the ragging] when were in third year,” said the student.

The ‘buzzer game’

A committee constituted on a 2009 Supreme Court order studied, for the first time, the prevalence and causes of ragging over 2012 to 2015. The Psychosocial Study involved a survey of 10,632 students in 37 colleges, most of them professional ones, interviews with 187 students and group discussions. The report, made public in August, observes:

“The fact that ragging occurs among youth means that youth-specific developmental issues such as the need to belong and be accepted within the peer world, and the excitement and anxiety about becoming an adult, including that around sexuality, play an important role in ragging.”  

This explains both the forms of ragging and the students’ reluctance to complain. The IIT-Kanpur student who graduated last year was told her batchmates had played “the buzzer game” in their first year. It involves stripping and answering questions. “If you give a wrong or stupid answer, you are asked to touch the other person [on the genitals] but only for a second, like pressing a buzzer,” she said. “But no one complained, and by third year everyone was laughing about it.” According to her, the ragging period, an initiation rite, lasts for about 10 days in an IIT.

For students like Yadav, it can last for months.

According to the study, ragging is most prevalent in medical colleges where 48.3% students reported they were ragged, including 3.8% who said they were “severely ragged”. Among engineering students, 44.5% said they were ragged, 4.6% severely. Also, 4.2% said they experienced beatings and physical punishments, and 1.4% reported sexual ragging.

The study found that while 35.7% students believe “ragging prepares students to deal with the harshness of the outside world”, about an equal number – 35.5% – think it has “long-lasting emotional effect”.

That the absence of complaints regarding ragging does not mean endorsement of the practice is evident from letters the IIT-Kanpur professor received in response to his posts on the practice on social media. Students and alumni of IITs in Kharagpur, Banaras Hindu University and Guwahati wrote back to him on the subject. “I saw the same description and terminology [in their letters],” said the IIT-Kanpur professor. Students reported that the senior who occupied the hostel room before them becomes their baap (father) and boss. “All new students spend one night in the rooms of their baaps,” he said. “They can be made to sit in the nude for hours, touch each other or roam the wing wearing their underwear over their trousers. I offered to file a police complaint on behalf of the student in Guwahati but he refused.”

Afraid to complain

Students and teachers said that in IITs, although first-year students are given the option to leave or even refuse to participate while being ragged, very few do because of peer pressure and the fear of being targeted later. Elsewhere, as in the case of Yadav, seniors react differently to disobedience.

The importance of seniors is impressed upon new entrants from the start. “Juniors fear they will become a joke if they refuse to participate, that their seniors will not help them,” said the IIT professor. “The promised reward is the friendship and help of seniors over the next three years.”

Students also fear a social boycott, a harrowing experience in student residences, added Gaurav Singhal, who studied chemical engineering at IIT-Kanpur from 1998-2002. He now teaches and volunteers with Delhi-based anti-ragging non-profit, Society Against Violence in Education, or Save.

Complaints rarely yield effective action.

Yadav, who joined his institute in 2012 had complied with all demands of song and dance performances. He started protesting when he was allegedly ordered to buy liquor and cigarettes and re-enact porn scenes. “This provoked the seniors,” he said. “They ordered a boycott, abused me and grew more violent.” Before calling the University Grants Commission, Yadav had complained to university officials multiple times. But he alleged that each time, they merely informed the perpetrators about the complaint who redoubled their abuse as payback.

The University Grants Commission’s regulations on ragging, framed in 2009 in response to another Supreme Court case on the subject, place the onus of both prevention and action upon the institution.

“We opposed this,” said Meera Kaura Patel, a Supreme Court lawyer and Save’s legal head. “The institution has vested interests. Its reputation is at stake and in many cases, they tell students to compromise and not file FIRs [First Information Reports with the police].”

The IITs have a different problem. “From about 2006, the disciplinary committees stopped punishments [for ragging] fearing suicides,” said the IIT-Kanpur professor. “Over 2006-’08, there were about ten to eleven suicides. Even in the couple of cases where termination [orders] were given [for other reasons], the concerned students were allowed to appeal after a semester and the senate allowed them to resume.”

Over the last decade ragging, a practice that had practically ended in IIT-Kanpur around 2006, has resumed. “In fact, the suspended students argued they had been similarly ragged, that it is the culture of hostels and that the faculty would not understand it,” said the senior faculty member from IIT-Kanpur.

Dropping out

But ragging has also destroyed careers. As lawyer Meera Kaura Patel explained, many victims abandon their studies, even coveted medical college seats, to escape ragging. She recounted a 2012 case from a public medical college in Tamil Nadu in which a second-year student, trying to protect a junior from ragging, entered into a fight with his senior. “Before he could file a police complaint, the senior students had already filed a false one [against him],” she said. “He was terrified and left.”

Another student, from the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, is fighting it out in the Delhi High Court but had to abandon his studies.

“He had cleared the exam in 2012 after trying for two to three years,” said Patel. “He was made to perform physical exercises with bricks on his back and tore a ligament. He returned home in Jharkhand for treatment but fell short of attendance and the institute refused to let him write his exam.” His explanation and complaint of ragging drew no sympathy, said Patel. “And these cases usually have no witnesses because others have to continue in the same institution,” she said, adding that she believes IIT-Kanpur took action because students complained as a group.

Patel also believes that the only way to hold an institution accountable is by filing a First Information Report. “The UGC [University Grants Commission] regulation requires institutions to file an FIR within 24 hours of receiving a complaint which IIT-Kanpur did not,” she said. Activists from Save intend to lean on IIT-Kanpur to file an FIR too.