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Is it Ragging or 'Stockholm Syndrome' in our college campuses?


An understanding of the destructive psychology behind ragging is critical to the efforts by the government agencies and educational institutions to eliminate the menace.

By Harsh Agarwal

Febuary 19, 2010

Ragging (or Hazing, as it is known to the western world) has been debated and discussed for ages now. However all our efforts to understand the problem have not taken into account a psychological phenomenon that plays an important role in making it socially acceptable. It must be reckoned that unless ragging becomes a taboo amongst the students, it is virtually impossible to eliminate it from the education system. It has been more than a decade and a half since educational institutions and government agencies have started to recognise this problem and look for a solution but we are still far way from our goal. 

In their attempts to look for a quick solution, the focus has been too much on the law and order aspect of ragging and rather than the psychological aspect of it. We need to understand how a victim of ragging, who has been physically and mentally tormented by his seniors, starts treating them like his best pals within a short span of time. And how from the next year, he starts meting out the same treatment to his juniors. A better understanding of the psychology behind this strange behaviour is critical in our efforts to find a solution to this problem.

In August 1973, two bank robbers in Stockholm held three women and a man hostage for six days. In these six days, the hostages developed emotional bonds with their captors and exhibited a shocking attitude. They not only resisted the attempts made by the police to rescue them but one of the woman hostages later got engaged to one of the kidnappers and another arranged fund for the legal defence of the kidnappers. This incident baffled many across the world. Psychologists later tried to study the behavior shown by the Stockholm hostages and termed this phenomenon as 'Stockholm Syndrome'. They say that this is a common behavior seen in hostage situation. Psychologists believe that hazing, child abuse, pimp-prostitute relationship, battered spouses’ relationship, etc work on the same psychology and call them 'Societal Stockholm Syndrome'.

In evolutionary psychology, psychologists explain that capture-bonding, or social reorientation after capture, was an essential survival feature for millions of years. The captives who reoriented survived, and those who did not form social bonds with captors were killed. Psychologists believe that anyone can become a victim of Stockholm Syndrome if the following conditions are met:

  • Perceived threat to survival

  • The captive's perception of small kindnesses from the captor

  • Isolation from perspectives other than those of the captor

  • Perceived inability to escape.


Psychologists say that it takes about three to four days for this psychology to take hold of the victim mentally. A more in depth information about the psychology that works in such situations and the effect it has on one's personality can be found in the article 'The Psychology of torture' by  Dr. Sam Vaknin.

Now, when I look back at my days in Medical College, where I was ragged by my seniors and had to leave subsequently as the torture became unbearable, I can easily understand why my seniors during the ragging sessions, used to first beat me recklessly for hours without any provocation then show acts of kindness towards me and offer me tea, samosa, etc. and promise of helping me later on with notes and other study material they had with them. They were applying this same 'Stockholm Syndrome' psychological technique by playing the carrot and stick policy thereby trying to break me down psychologically – an art they intuitively learnt when they themselves were being ragged by their seniors. The same pattern in ragging can be seen across the country. Most of the victims just give in to these psychological tactics. Fortunately this phenomenon did not work on me; however, I feel that if the torture applied on me had not been unbearable and if I didn’t have an escape route (which meant leaving the course midway and taking admission in Hansraj College, Delhi University), I too would have become a victim of 'Stockholm Syndrome'.

Recently I saw a similar situation in the award winning film 'Your name is Justyna'. The movie almost brought tears in my eyes and on I switched the channels several times. The film shows a pimp who uses a similar strategy to force Justyna, the lead character in the film, into prostitution. His strategy was to psychologically break her down by simultaneously using torture and kindness. The director of this Film, Franco De Penn, while doing research on the subject found that using this psychological phenomenon, more than one hundred and fifty thousand girls in Europe were forced into prostitution. He says that this experience is so shocking to the victim that it completely destroys his/her personality. Psychologists who have worked on this phenomenon believe that this is not only harmful to the individual who goes through it but also to the others around.

This impact of ‘torture and kindness’ tactics is long lasting. We can find people around us who were ragged decades ago while in college but are still under its influence. Because of the Supreme Court guidelines and tragic cases of death by ragging reported in the media in recent times they will hesitate to openly show their support. However during personal conversations, they would first segregate ragging into mild and severe and then gradually start justifying its need for the initiation of a long lasting camaraderie among students and preparing them for the 'real world'. Psychologists agree that this phenomenon helps in establishing emotional bond but they call it 'traumatic bonding' and a manipulative behavior which has a harmful effect on victim’s personality. We need to ask ourselves that for the sake of bonding, is it justified to go this far and try destructive methods at the cost of  one's liberty, dignity and personality. I am sure none of us would agree.

People, who sing peans about the virtues of ragging, are not aware of the destructive psychology behind it. Furthering our understanding and awareness of this psychology would help a great deal in weakening the mass support that ragging enjoys and can gradually put a mass taboo on it. I believe that asking the students and faculty to do some Google search on the psychological phenomenon ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ might prove to be a great method of increasing awareness about ragging. After knowing that acts of ragging in the current form are nothing but a psychological disorder, few would like to be identified as suffering from it – either as a tormentor or as a victim. This might eventually lead to a peaceful and natural death of ragging, not by threat or coercion but simply by right-thinking and application of logic.

The author is a Co-Founder of anti-ragging NGO - Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education (CURE, 2001) and a former consultant to the Raghavan Committee on Ragging. He can be contacted at harsh.agarwal@noragging.com.



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