Stephen's ragging: accident or college lore

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By CHARU SUDAN KASTURI in Delhi
  • Published 5.10.07
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New Delhi, Oct. 5: The official website of St Stephen’s College repeatedly refers to ragging incidents as part of college lore, without any condemnation, giving the acts “subtle legitimacy” on campus, anti-ragging activists say.

A first-year chemistry student at the college suffered burns on his hand and knees on September 27 after a bunch of seniors sprayed deodorant and then threw a lit match at him in their hostel room.

The University Grants Commission has said it would ask Delhi University to investigate the case, first reported on Thursday, and file a report.

Rajendra Prasad, a member of a Supreme Court-appointed committee headed by former CBI chief R.K. Raghavan to check ragging, said the incident at St Stephen’s constituted “severe ragging”.

“You may call it a prank, a cruel joke or anything else, but the reality is that it was harassment which has caused physical agony... this constitutes severe ragging,” he said.

College authorities have admitted the victim complained of ragging but said they see the incident as an “accident” during a “game”.

UGC secretary Tilak Ram Kem told The Telegraph that the commission, which controls the purse strings of all central universities, would ask DU for a report.

DU registrar Gurmeet Singh today spoke to the principal, Valson Thampu, on his own asking for an explanation, officials said.

“We have reiterated our position that the incident, though unfortunate, was not one of ragging. Since the victim does not wish to take this matter forward, there is little we can do,” a senior St Stephen’s official privy to the conversation said.

The college authorities say this is the first complaint of ragging at St Stephen’s this year.

But activists working with the Raghavan committee allege that far from being isolated, ragging has been “institutionalised at St Stephen’s”, like at most other colleges.

“The college’s academic record may set it apart from the rest, but when it comes to ragging, it is like any other college. The website proves my point,” an activist who studied at St Stephen’s said on condition of anonymity.

“In those days, ragging was a serious business: there were nights when we slept in drainpipes around Pandara Park instead of going back to college to face our seniors. It was an atmosphere in which legends battened and grew,” author Amitav Ghosh, an alumnus, writes in a light-hearted piece, The Lessons of Rudra Court, on the website.

In another piece, former Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq’s days as a student at the college are recounted. “Zia ul-Haq’s (old student 1940-44) novel method of ragging freshers was to parade them down the fields in the middle of the night. He last visited college in 1986. Incidentally, Zia ul-Haq misspelt his name in a leave application to the principal as Zai ul-Haq!” the article on the website says.

Shivam Vij, an activist who runs the website stopragging.org, called the pieces a “reflection” of the administration’s unwillingness to stop ragging.

“The St Stephen’s website effectively tells students that ragging is a part of the college’s culture. On the one hand, the college claims to be curbing ragging while on the other hand, such articles effectively promote it,” Vij said.

Professor Vinod Chowdhury, the media adviser to the St Stephen’s principal, accepted that the “past cannot be used to justify the present”. “I have not seen the web articles myself, but to justify the current incidents based on the past would be unpardonable,” he said.

The college has punished five students in all — four who were responsible for setting the victim on fire, and a fifth who led a group of students in a violent retaliation.

The victim, a Calcutta boy, is now back home with his parents and has said he does not wish any further action to be taken against the students who set him on fire.