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Ragging: Cured at law school or a more insidious modern-day menace?

Bullies to the rag
Bullies to the rag
“If you don’t touch his balls, and it gets out that you didn’t listen to a fifth year, no senior will ever help you do research or anything. In fact, I think we might have a word with the student disciplinary committee. You know what they can make you do, right?”

- A scene from NLSIU Bangalore in Satyajit Sarna’s novel The Angel’s Share

The event is not fictional, says Sarna. “There was a bit of a major crackdown [on ragging at NLS] around 2000, 2001,” he explains. “A lot of disciplinary enforcements [occurred]. For us, you were ragged more during the first couple of weeks, people were interested.”

Legally India interviewed students and alumni of six national law schools about fresher-senior “interaction”. The consensus is that the degree of ragging has decreased at law schools in the past years, although everyone continues to defend ragging-like behaviour on campuses.

They say that nowadays if seniors ganged up on freshers, other seniors would generally warn the harassers to back off, but incidents commonly described as “positive interaction” remain. Notably, there is a common tradition of seniors making “good natured” calls for juniors to sing and dance on the campus, and introductions are often tinged with sarcasm and heckling from the seniors.

Sometimes, seniors would ask juniors to perform small-time “hardening” chores, such as fetching of cigarettes or cleaning of football boots, and many similar examples exist of power games seniors play in moot court selections to arbitrary demonstrations of subtle power exerted over junior batches.

But sometimes the line between harmless fun and ragging is hard to draw, depending on circumstances and the subjects. 

Relativism

For one, law school’s enforced song and dance routines may ignore that while a confident city-bred private school kid could see them as a fun-packed challenger round, for a child coming from a less privileged background with weaker English skills, the encounter can be positively hostile.

The IDIA diversity initiative aims to change the make-up of law schools, for example, by introducing students from rural Indian districts with local language education to legal education at national law schools.

“When we ask them to sing in front of everyone it is not just to hear them singing but for them to come out of their shell,” justifies one national law school student. “People who have never done these things before, it is their chance to say: Hey I cannot sing but I can, say, tell a joke! So then, it is their turn to be as cool as their city-schooled classmates by showing off their unique talent!”

Then again, you never quite know how these games turn out and some IDIA students do not last until graduation – while ragging has never been blamed so far, it should make you wonder about the challenges of fitting into environments as competitive as law school.

Poppy

One alum narrates how a male fresher a few years ago “earned” the nickname of a female pop star after enthusiastically gyrating to one of the artist’s songs at the insistence of a group of seniors in his first week at college.

The nickname stuck until a senior began endlessly pursuing the fresher to dance, ending in tears. The situation was nevertheless resolved amicably but it does illustrate that what might seem “good natured” to one person, could be anything but for another.

Why should a young adult, often living away from home in the company of total strangers for the first time - possibly strangers whom the fresher has little in common with - have only one of two options when faced with “positive interaction”?

Either you can take the bait and comply with seniors’ demands, step out of your comfort zone and potentially embarrass yourself in front of 200 others, or you confront them and risk being a social outcast for the first year in college or longer.

Rules of the game

Indeed, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) anti-ragging notification of 2009 defines ragging more broadly in nine points, including, apart from the obvious such as physical violence and intimidation:

“asking any student to do any act which such student will not in the ordinary course do and which has the effect of causing or generating a sense of shame, or torment or embarrassment so as to adversely affect the physique or psyche of such fresher or any other student”

“any act that affects the mental health and self-confidence of a fresher or any other student with or without an intent to derive a sadistic pleasure or showing off power, authority or superiority by a student over any fresher or any other student.”

Quite clearly, even “good natured” activities such as asking first-year students to perform under duress are ragging under the rules.

The excuse that the more subtle manoeuvres weed out ‘juniors with an attitude’, ‘spoilsports’, ‘dorks’ or those ‘lacking team spirit’, can make things worse for the victim. Am I overreacting or being a spoilsport by not automatically subjugating to the seniors and following pointless orders?

Furthermore, the attitude of “what happens in law school, stays in law school” creates the sort of climate where a subtle ragging culture can continue breeding.

Recent forum posts on Legally India, alleging instances of ragging at two top national law schools, are therefore hard to corroborate amid nearly too vociferous denials from students, and even faculty will rarely be aware of all the facts, if any.

Happy, not positive interactions

The non-governmental organisation (NGO) No Ragging suggested alternatives in a research report entitled Humiliation Studies, and wrote of a UN workshop where people from 40 different cultures underwent a familiarisation process where activities included memorising names, adventure sports to build trust, sub-group mentorship, inter-personal communication, games involving physical contact, dramas aimed at team building, informal dinners and dance parties in the evening.

Some people who were not comfortable dancing, were not forced to dance, but they simply gained motivation to dance by watching others dance.

To be fair, even ‘song and dance’ appear to be on the way out at many law schools. According to one GNLU student this year’s ice-breaking sessions consisted of only one session where seniors asked for fresher introductions, and then picked out the ones displaying “no attitude” and took them under their wings on excursions to town – around 20 out of a batch of 180 were part of those chosen few.

But India continues to have undeniable tensions because of demographic, religious and socioeconomic factors. Law students, as future servants and defenders of the constitution, should actively strive not to reinforce any differences but to eliminate them.

And any practising lawyer who has ever been shouted at or humiliated to tears by a senior partner or lawyer in a law firm or in court – and such stories are not rare - should consider this: could such behaviour not too have had some of its roots in student days?

If you have any ragging stories and your views, please do share them anonymously in the comments.

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