When it comes to educational institutes, the word “elite” gets thrown around extensively in modern India. Yet, it does not seem to lose its import as oft-repeated descriptors are wont to. It is a word born out of postcolonial aspirations.
Tragically, the greatest indicator of the aspirational nature of those desirous of breaching the hallowed halls of elite institutes is the spate of suicides committed by young adults unable to cope with parental and academic pressure. According to certain estimates, nearly a quarter of India’s schoolchildren and adolescents suffer from psychiatric disorders, with India also having the highest rate of suicide among its youth population.
All of this is even before a student is admitted to one of the elite institutions. Once admitted, many students often feel woefully underprepared for the pressure and rigour that these institutes demand. However, it is not just the academic workload that can affect a fresher’s balance at elite institutions in India. The lack of awareness of the dynamics of caste, class and gender in these “elite” institutions makes their life more miserable.
This is notwithstanding the fact that the Presidency – and its academic cousin, Jadavpur University – continue to be symbols of revolutionary and radical thinking. This is what drew us to these campuses: not the (as advertised) world-class faculty, not the (near enough) state-of-the-art equipment and certainly not the prospect of the (often barely attended) classes. What made these institutions elite, at least to us a decade ago, was the atmosphere that promised to develop our minds in ways we had not yet imagined.
Swapnadeep, a 17-year-old boy from Nadia, abandoned the possibility of a science course at a local college to pursue his dreams of Bengali literary scholarship at one such elite institute – Jadavpur University. Yet, his aspirations and, indeed, his life were cut short as hostel seniors, referred to in Bengali as ‘dada’ or elder brothers, decided to enact their perversions on the unwitting, distinctly non-urban youth. This is not the first such case in Jadavpur; in 2016, a second-year philosophy student, Soumitra De’s body, was found hanging in his hostel room. In another case, the death of a third-year mechanical engineering student, Faizan Ahmad, at IIT Kharagpur raises many questions. Ahmad’s family alleged that their son had been murdered. Initially, it was believed to be a case of suicide, but later, after the second post-mortem, the Calcutta high court directed the special investigation team to treat this as a case of murder.
These are mere examples of an avalanche hurtling through campuses in India.
The case of Swapnadeep – the most recent high-profile incident of ragging on elite campuses – typifies all aspects that are characteristic of similar cases across the country: senior students enjoying free reign inside hostels, the lackadaisical approach of the institute administration, the lack of implementation of rules and yet, a certain academic and social elitism that can only be born within a colonial framework.
In Bengal, in the Jadavpur University case, this was compounded by the issue of the unabashed ex-student ‘dadas’ who are often venerated by their immediate juniors as founts of knowledge. Disagree or disobey them, and your life on campus can become very difficult. The internal committee probing the case at Jadavpur University has identified no fewer than 35 seniors and six ex-students who are directly or indirectly involved in ragging and are, arguably, responsible for maintaining the environment which led to the death of the aspiring teenager. The same panel has found that the youth was subjected to sexual and physical abuse alongside mental harassment.
Ragging on educational campuses is little more than ritualised bullying. It has become a sort of rite of passage that every fresher must go through in order to be accepted into the groups, cliques and coteries that existed within the campus. The practice had gone on for decades before the administrators of Indian academia – mandated by the Supreme Court – decided to put in place certain deterrents, most of which have evidently not worked. The number of cases has only risen in the past decade, and sometimes the lives of aspiring youngsters have been abruptly ended. According to the University Grant Commission (UGC), there were 6412 ragging cases reported in the past 10 years (2012-2022), of which 6,192 cases have been addressed. The number of cases reported over the past four years was 1,016 in 2018, 1,070 in 2019, 219 in 2020, and 511 in 2021. The UGC did not publish any data after 2021. Overall, a UGC study found that in Indian institutions 40% of students reported experiencing some ragging, and only 8.6% of those incidents were reported.
At the same time, it is unfortunate that “bhadraloks” in Bengal (and, indeed, in Indian) academia are ignorant about caste. Last year, an Assistant Professor of the International Relations department of Jadavpur University was accused of making casteist remarks to her OBC PhD scholar. In 2021, an assistant professor of Economics from Viswa Bharati University refused to converse with an SC student and called him ‘impure’. This is not limited to students. Deputy Registrar Amal Kumar Bhuiyan of Vidyasagar University and Assistant Registrar Bivore Das of IIEST, Shibpur, have also recently alleged caste-based discrimination against their administrative superiors.
As per data submitted to the Rajya Sabha by Union Minister of State for Education, Subhas Sarkar, 98 students died by suicide in the last five years. Each of these students was studying in central universities and institutes of national importance such as IITs, NITs, etc. Furthermore, the MoS did not say that most of these students were from lower caste or rural backgrounds. Very recently, two students, Ayush Asna and Anil Kumar, from the SC community, died from suicide in a span of two months in IIT, Delhi. This makes clear that the problem is undoubtedly a national one.
Coming from diverse backgrounds, our own contrasting experiences show that there are deeper issues at play on Indian campuses, especially elite ones. Being in touch with both popular culture and high art is necessary in elite places like the Presidency and Jadavpur. You had to understand both obscure references to Pink Floyd and the works of Bela Tarr. For most students outside the cosmopolitan world of Kolkata, neither were familiar names. For some, these were things they were not interested in. An expression of individual choice that, in our experience, was often used as a premise of ostracisation with the suggestion that such a choice makes that person unsuitable for the elite campus.
Despite the highly left-leaning gesticulations of the inhabitants of such campus, the fact that this lack of cultural capital is almost always a result of financial difficulties, rural backgrounds and traditional family structures is often summarily ignored.
None of this is the fault of the high-achieving school student who had managed to breach the walls of an elite institution. However, on the campus, this meant ostracisation and isolation. The fear of these fates also prevents many victims from not reporting their ordeals to the authorities, who, themselves, often fail to take seriously whatever reports they do get. The usual explanation being, ‘Oh it’s just a bit of fun.’ Senior students tend to possess the safety net of familiarity with the authorities, especially those active on campus. Younger students will see the familiarity of their seniors with the faculty and feel that anything they have to say will not be taken seriously.
The solution lies in properly inculcating a sense of humanity in students entering elite institutions before they are indoctrinated in the esoteric philosophies of their various subjects. We as a society must reconsider our parameters of success. More importantly, we must stop gaslighting ourselves into thinking that caste and class discrimination does not exist. They very much do, and for those craving power but not possessing any, a sense of class or caste superiority is an easily available stepping stone in climbing the ladder of oppression.
Furthermore, it may also be worth considering, as a society, why we remain obsessed with the concept of the elite. It is a symptom of our postcoloniality. It is a British idea worked into the already existing caste and class system that only one particular group of people within society have the right to make decisions and are, by that very virtue, inherently better.
Soham Mukherjee is a doctoral candidate at IIEST, Shibpur, Kolkata. Sumanta Roy is a doctoral candidate, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU, New Delhi.