The allegations of mass sexual abuse at IIT-Kanpur must have brought back memories to scores of IIT graduates, a place where both ragging and more insidious abuse in its name are rife, but, unlike other colleges, seldom punished seriously. As someone who spent the late 2000s as an undergraduate student in one of the IITs, I can quite certainly speak for myself.
At my IIT, ragging had been abolished and rooted out of campus. This was done by segregating first years in separate hostel. Except the girls who had to put up with a single hostel complex. What we had was a thinly disguised orientation programme, or OP, in the second year as we joined the Seniors' Hostel. Kafkaesque as the shift might have been, it did work in protecting the most vulnerable; after a protected year on campus, having settled in, learnt the system and being comfortable away from home, the system did prepare people well for the abuse that was to follow.
The hostel I picked out of the sorting hat had undergone a scandal in the past. At an almost-official event, "freshers" had been asked to perform a lewd gesture with their (clothed) private parts. The punishment was mild; the hostel was banned from fresh intake for a year; a collective punishment that punished no one.
With the Kanpur scandal, I get the much-belated-but-still-shaking recognition that I was a victim of sexual abuse.
Opting out of OP meant (temporary) social boycott, while the herd who opted in were given a spectrum of choices from "easy" to fu*k the limits" (FTL). To the extent that an 18-year-old college kid could live with social boycott, participation was indeed voluntary. But there was much pressure to choose FTL with the mistaken notion that it would result in maximum career help later from seniors. FTL included the infamous firefly dance, performed naked in a pitch dark room with a lit cigarette stuck between the cheeks. And of course, the psychological mind games. All this and more I quite cheerfully did.
The traditional OP-ending ritual could definitely not be described as voluntary. In the dead of night, band of thuggish, violently screaming seniors banged on doors and instructed everyone to line up in the field blindfolded, and wearing only T-shirt and underwear. After the usual concentration camp like screaming from the student leadership, seniors moved through the line-up shouting abuse (often of a personal nature with details learnt during the OP) at shivering individual juniors.
One asked me to take off my underwear as well and (verbally) abused my genitalia. That was interspersed with attacks on my (then) commitment to academics, my dreams, my lack of confidence and my public speaking ability; screaming that I must show my loyalty to the hostel or I'd never amount to anything in life. Thankfully, I was in a happy place then, so I forgot it all in a day or two until today. But having experienced spells of poor mental health, I cannot imagine what my response to this crushing of my spirit might have been had I been going through an especially depressed phrase. What was most shocking was that the perpetrator (let us call him Fatty Super Final Year) was not some well-known thug, but an erudite well-spoken individual whom I knew well due to shared cultural interests. No one deserves abuse; physical, verbal or otherwise, even of the mildest kind. And no system can be called nurturing if it brings out the beast in the nicest of human beings.
With the Kanpur scandal, I get the much-belated-but-still-shaking recognition that I was a victim of sexual abuse, with all that the phrase entailed. Of the worst, least talked about and still quite stigmatic male-on-male kind. That no one would understand, and say I should have just stayed out of it all and locked my door shut that night.
As someone with no particular aversion to nudity (and a shameful ability to ignore swearing), I like to think that beyond the bitter humiliation that night, the experience had no long-term negative impact on me. But every individual has a different set of values and makeup. Knowing the nature of these events and hearing the screams and raucous laughter, I am also certain that at least a few were physically abused; slapped and fondled while blindfolded like Kashmiri suspects, unaware of the perpetrators.
I strongly believe that to root out the culture of misogyny, locker-room talk and workplace bullying, this kind of abuse is to be decisively ended. At the very least, alumni need to come out and stop glorifying every aspect of their IIT days and extolling ragging as a process of personal growth.
Thus, the national attention on the IIT Kanpur scandal is most welcome. But while a strong punishment is necessary, it must be kept in mind that the individual concerned were, in all likelihood, merely playing their culturally sanctioned role in a larger machinery of abuse.
(The author of the piece wishes to remain anonymous.)