Colombo, Education, Kandy, Peace and Conflict

Ragging in our universities: A symptom or a disease?

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries that provides students the opportunity of a free secondary education. More than 200,000 students sit for the GCE Advanced Level examinations in Sri Lanka every year, of which only around 20,000 are selected to the fourteen universities across the country. It is possible to conclude then that this 10% who make it, are among the brightest and best brains in the country, who deserve every bit of the chance they get to ensure a better life for themselves. Surprisingly then, barely one year into their University careers, a few of these same students get angrily referred to in the media and among the public as being “mentally unstable” and even “psychotic”. The reason? Ragging.

Ragging is thought to have begun in educational institutions in the 18th Century and was very much in vogue in European countries. The concept was then adopted in the US in a milder form known as ‘hazing’, and spread across the world during the era of colonization, entering the Indian sub-continent along with the British education system. Stern laws against ragging have resulted in its eradication from the West and most of the rest of the world. However, in Sri Lanka, it remains.

In 1975, Peradeniya University was the first to report a major ragging related incident when a fresher of the Faculty of Agriculture became paralyzed as a result of having jumped from the second floor of the hostel to escape the physical ragging being carried out by the seniors. She later committed suicide.

Dr. Anoma Abhayaratne, the Dean of the Arts Faculty at the Peradeniya Univerisity, says that ragging continues to take place at Peradeniya, albeit in a milder form. “A lot of the time we get anonymous notes and parents call us anonymously to complain about ragging,” said Dr. Abhayaratne, going on to say that few students are willing to identify the raggers due to the fear of what might happen to them. However, some weeks ago, for the first time in the history of the university, a fresher lodged a complaint against twelve senior students who had ragged him excessively. “We are very concerned about the security of this student because of what might happen to him due to his having had the courage to stand up to the raggers,” Dr. Abhayaratne said, “The court ordered police protection for him but that is a big challenge especially in an university environment.” The Dean went on to state the case of another fresher who had been physically ragged to the point of sustaining internal injuries to his head. He is still undergoing medical treatment.

Unlike in other countries affected by ragging such as India, no official movements against ragging exist in Sri Lanka, and related information and statistics are almost impossible to come by. However, in recognition of the magnitude of the problem, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed a Bill in 1998 entitled the Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act No. 20. Under this Act, ragging is defined as “any act which causes or is likely to cause physical or psychological injury or mental pain or fear to a student or a staff member”. The Act makes ragging a distinct and punishable offence under which any individual found guilty would be subjected to two years rigorous imprisonment, ten years if the rag were to lead to sexual harassment or grievous hurt. In addition, depending on the gravity of the offense, students found guilty could face expulsion from the University.

More than ten years after this law became effective however, ragging continues.

In 2002, Samantha Vithanage, a third year Management student at the Sri Jayawardenapura University, pioneered an anti-ragging campaign in the University in an attempt to stop the practice. On November 7th that year, the anti-ragging campaigners sat down for a discussion with the JVP controlled student council who defended the practice. Midway through the discussion, a mob of around 200 JVP supporters armed with clubs and stones stormed into the room and viciously attacked Vithanage and others in the anti-ragging camp. The attackers stabbed their victims with shards of glass and Vithanage who was struck, fell to the floor and had a computer monitor dropped on his head. Two days later he died.

Although the death of 22 year old Vithanage subdued the rag at the Sri Jayawardanapura University for awhile, students say it still occurs. While the rag is now less physical, it continues to be brutal, and a third year Management student recalled her rag as a fresher two years ago where one of the ‘activities’ the freshers were forced to do involved rubbing their hands in mud just before meals and being told by the seniors that they could only wash their hands once; either before eating or afterwards. Needless to say, many freshers went without meals for days.

A senior Professor at the Moratuwa University, who declined to be named, says that ragging is no longer the problem it once was. “Ragging has been eradicated to a large extent, especially in Moratuwa,” he said, “The administration doesn’t really consider it a big problem and because students don’t come forward to complain about it there is no real pressure on the administration to take any measures to prevent or stop it.” He went on to say that some students even consider it a “badge of honour” to have been ragged, but also said that he knows of students who have quit their degrees because of the humiliation they have been subjected to during the rag.

Kanthi Wickramasinghe (name changed) is one of those students. Having secured a place at the Bio Science faculty at the Colombo University, Kanthi endured two months of ragging before she finally decided that it was not worth it. “The last straw was when they singled me out and told the rest of the batch that they would be punished if they spoke to me,” said Kanthi who had also been banned from going to the canteen and attending meetings held for the freshers. “It was one thing to be ragged as a batch but to be targetted personally, partly because I had studied at a private school in Colombo, was unbearable,” she said.

The Arts faculty at the Colombo University has been free of ragging for the past five years. This year though, that changed. A group of students who themselves had never been ragged at University, began to randomly corner students in the canteen and verbally assault them, making demands that girls could only wear skirts or dresses to campus. Malini Fernando (name changed), a fresher at the Colombo Arts faculty, said that if a student not from Colombo wore jeans to campus, the raggers would yell at those from Colombo, accusing them of corrupting the others. “They go to the extent of threatening to kill you if you don’t wear a skirt,” said Malini, and even though the freshers are confident that the raggers do not mean this seriously, casually dishing out death threats is not something to be condoned.

The administration at the Colombo Arts faculty, for their part, seems to be willing to control the rag. “The lecturers gave us their numbers and told us to call them if we get ragged or see anyone getting ragged,” said Malini. However, she went on to say that many lecturers seem reluctant to be identified as being anti-ragging. “The lecturers don’t come while the rag is happening,” she said, “they only come afterwards.” One wonders about the wisdom in that.

At Kelaniya University, which has seen its share of student clashes, the authorities have taken an extreme and certainly unpopular approach of having police officers stationed both outside and inside the university. However, students say that the presence of the police does little to curb the ragging. “Most of the time the police just watch and laugh while the students get ragged,” said Sasha Perera (name changed) a fourth year Arts student, who went on to say that a few senior students had taken to saving freshers from the rag. “We try to flank them on either side when they enter the university so that the raggers can’t get to them,” she said, “But obviously we can’t save everyone and strangely, a few even say they want to be ragged.”

Michael John (name changed), a recent graduate from the Kelaniya University, sees ragging in a different light. “My batch-mates and I still laugh together about what we went through at our rag,” said Michael, who had in turn ragged his juniors when in his second year. “I tell people to think of ragging as an experience,” he said, “I’m very glad I went through it because I would probably have been more of an obnoxious prick if I hadn’t.” While he does not condone any form of physical or extreme ragging, Michael feels that there can be positive side to ragging which is not necessarily demeaning.

In Michael’s opinion, ragging is a complex class issue. He identifies those who protest against it as belonging to the middle or upper-middle classes in society and sees those who practice it as coming from the poorer strata of society. The hue and cry over ragging, he says, is a reflection of the intolerance of the rich about being dictated to by people they look down on. He argues that far from the raggers suffering from an inferiority complex, the complainers instead, suffer from a superiority complex, and he sees those who quit University due to ragging as those who can afford alternate forms of higher education either abroad or in private institutions.

To the vast majority however, ragging is bullying. To them, most of those who practice it, do so to make themselves feel important, feared and respected. A few more do it out of peer pressure. Whatever the perspective, there is no justification whatsoever for depriving any student, whatever his or her background may be, from pursuing the University education that they worked so hard for. There should be little debate that ragging violates civilized norms of behavior and established human values and there should be no place for it in modern society, let alone in institutions educating and nurturing the best brains in the country.

Perhaps it is useful to analyze how Western societies where ragging originated, have succeeded in eliminating it. Is it due to strict laws and their effective enforcement? Or is it due to the fact that the disparities among the student populations there are not as vast as in a developing country like ours? Does the fact that all students pay for their education make them feel more equal?

There are many views on the root causes of ragging varying from it being a psychological problem to it being a form of expression of frustration against inequalities, injustices and disparities in society, particularly the wide urban – rural and rich – poor gap that continues to exist. Proponents of ragging see it as a means of equalizing the wide disparity in social status that exists in a university student body, as well as a means of ensuring that those from more priviledged backgrounds become aware that they are no better that those from less priviledged ones. Politicization of university student movements, which exist despite claims to the contrary, may also be a contributory factor.

Is the Western success in eliminating ragging replicable in a country like Sri Lanka? Perhaps legislation can only go thus far and no further than in eliminating extreme forms of ragging that lead to grievous hurt or death. Depending on one’s view on the root causes of ragging, until some of the wide spread disparities in society are addressed and the gaps bridged, ragging may be one of the few negative consequences of an otherwise equitable free education system, that students just have to put up with.

Having said that, apart from legislation and deterrent punishment, a more effective approach to address the problem of ragging in Sri Lanka, would be through creating awareness and conviction about the futility of ragging among the students themselves. In this context, anti-ragging student movements starting within the universities is a step in the right direction and presents the best opportunity to effectively address this long standing problem. It should therefore be wholeheartedly supported and encouraged by everyone who wishes to see Universities in Sri Lanka rid of ragging.

By Nishika Fonseka, Groundviews Staff Writer