Ragging is officially prohibited in universities and is a punishable offence under the Ragging Act (Prohibition of Ragging and other forms of violence in educational institutions Act, No. 20 of 1998). Seniors under the guise of ‘orienting’ first year students (freshers) and making them ‘comfortable’ to the new surroundings, torment freshers through their indisciplined haughty speech and at times violent physical actions which can be tantamount to torture, and therefore raggers can be charged under the Torture Act (Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act, No.22 of 1994) while provisions in the penal code are executed as well.
There is ample documented and undocumented evidence of students being harassed, and consequently dropping out of university. While physical ragging of freshers may seem to phase out, there is verbal abuse which often leads to mental distress. When students don’t comply with the commands of the seniors which are apparently a part of the university sub culture, they are harassed, threatened, ostracized and abused. More often than not, even in universities that claim to have a zero tolerance ragging policy, seniors coerce freshers to follow rules they have laid down.
Cooperating with the seniors and adhering to their policy is supposed to ‘win’ eligibility to social functions and to the sub-culture.
In certain universities where the university authorities have taken a firm stand against ragging, the freshers continue to be submissive to seniors and obey their commands, resulting in ‘self-ragging’. Seniors take advantage of the fear amongst freshers as most students are from rural villages and believe that submitting to seniors is a part of university life. A student under condition of anonymity testified to how she complained about ragging during the orientation programme and how the seniors involved were warned by the student counsellors, which put an end to it. However this is not the case in most universities as students are afraid to complain fearing a backlash and even if they do complain,sufficient action is not taken.
According to several students we spoke to, it seems that ragging is still an inherent part of a first year student’s life at the university despite the regulations to do away with it. Two students we spoke to and who refused to disclose their names said that the system was discriminatory. For instance male students have been advised not to allow female students to head group projects and they have been asked to look into the affairs of their peer female students, which seems to imply that the female students are feeble.
Earlier last year, the Daily Mirror in an article noted how narcissistic personality traits, border-line personality traits and inferiority complex in students resulted in students ragging others. Commenting further the psychiatrist said that students should be screened for such disorders. He also said, however, that not all raggers suffered from mental disorders and that certain students followed them as a ‘tradition’. Certain parties justify ragging claiming that it improves one’s personality, social awkwardness and bonds. However experts have pointed out that this is extremely false. In contrast ragging victimizes students so much that some commit suicide.
In certain universities, student unions voice their anti-ragging stance, however first year students complained to us that they are forced to obey the illogical commands of the seniors. Dress code ragging, where female students had to wear skirts and blouses, male students pants and shirts, as a symbol of recognition has been done away with in certain universities, to prove their anti-ragging stance. However freshers in these universities complained of how they have been forced to carry a file around and in another instance buy a diary distributed by the seniors, maintain it, and carry it around in their hand, displaying that they are freshers and are vulnerable. Seniors who oppose such illogical activities are often reproached and condemned as well.
Requesting students to refrain from such violent behaviour within university premises which could lead to suspension, Duminda Nagamuwa, Politburo Member of the Frontline Socialist Party assured that students’ union representatives did not indulge in ragging.
“Sub cultures are found anywhere. The student sub culture develops togetherness amongst the university student population. There is also a quality amongst students to speak against the wrongdoings of the government or the university management,” he noted. As negatives of the student sub culture he said that there was a tendency among university students to continue with the trends brought by the backwardness of society.
When we raised the issue that those who did not adhere to the sub culture were harassed, he said the following: “There can be verbal fights but it can’t be physical. This is a feature of the sub culture. It does not permit seniors to physically touch first years.” “Physically attacking someone who does not submit to the student sub culture is not a common situation and is an isolated incident. The occurrence of such incidents should be eliminated,” he added.
“A person has a right to choose how he wants to live. No one has the authority to infringe this right. But, liberalism today has led to hard-core Individualism. This individualism has had a negative impact on the collective effort of society” he said.
When asked if harassment was justifiable in such instances he replied in the negative adding that it was also not appropriate to live a solitary life based on individualism.
The latest incident relating to inhuman and disgraceful ragging and violence against those voicing against this brutish behavious by senior university students with political backing was reported from the Peradeniya University. On Wednesday, January 18 a second year student who had been very vocal against ragging and identified himself as an anti-ragger was assaulted in the Peradeniya University premises.“A group of third year students including two who came on a bike assaulted me,” said the victim, Sasindu Patabendige.
“They slapped me, punched me on the head. There was a security guard as well. He was asked not to interfere. I called the student counsellor and one of the English instructors. They rushed to the place and I was sent to the university health centre. They did the initial diagnosis and I was transferred to the Peradeniya Hospital afterwards,” he said.
He added that he was an active anti-ragger empowering freshers and the assaulters had been following him for the past few weeks. “Anti-raggers are not allowed to go to the public canteen. They can’t even stay in the hostel as they are harassed,” he said.The anti-raggers in universities are not an organized movement. They oppose ragging and in return pay a heavy price in the form of being subjected to harassment, bullying and ostracism.
Sasindu and two of his friends who were with him at the time the incident took place have given their statements to the police. OIC Kamal Ariyawansa of the Peradeniya police station said that investigations pertaining to the assault were underway. According to the Peradeniya Police, the identification parade was held yesterday, and seven out of the eight suspects produced, were identified. They have been remanded until the 9th. of February, 2017.
A lecturer attached to the Faculty of Social Sciences and Languages of the Sabaragamuwa University said that the seniors who rag are invariably connected to the Students’ Union. The lecturer who wanted to remained anonymous also noted that though the majority of students were females, the students’ union body, mostly comprised of male students who took decisions. She added that sexual harassment was prominent as well. “According to what I’ve heard from students, students in the hostel have been taken to a remote place where they have been asked to touch each other’s body parts. Freshers are scolded in filth and are told that they should be able to bear anything. This is a very traumatizing experience,” she said. She added that students were not allowed to utter simple English words such as ‘assignment’ or ‘canteen’ which are very much a part of the university jargon.
Speaking to Daily Mirror Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, the President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) said that police should not intervene when tackling ragging because student politics was ‘sensitive’. “University authorities don’t have a proper mature strategy to counter ragging. There should be a zero tolerance ragging policy. They shouldn’t use ragging to impose restrictions on other student activities. Ragging should be isolated and dealt with,” he said.
He added that students who were subjected to ragging had a tendency to tolerate it believing that it was part of university life. “There is direct or indirect acceptance of ragging. Hence there are no complaints,” he said.
“First year students in the Arts faculty of the Colombo University are physically attacked. This has not happened in history. Seniors have no right to touch freshers. I am against ragging but ragging generally allows only verbal abuse,” he added.
“The victim has made a complaint to the police and the alleged assaulters have been handed over to the police. We don’t have authority to get involved in the legal process. But I have called a meeting and we will take appropriate internal action,” said Prof. Upul Dissanayake, the Vice Chancellor of the Peradeniya University.
When asked about the safety of the student when he returned to the university, Prof. Dissanayake said there were security officers, marshals, student counsellors and a proctor system in place to look into the safety of students.
He added that the students’ union had been very cooperative and not involved in ragging. “I won’t say that ragging does not take place. This is an university where 12,500 students learn. So things could happen,” he said.
Mangala Maddumage, the President of the Peradeniya Students’ Union said that the assault was a result of a heated argument. “This is an assault and we condemn it. But now there is a huge campaign slinging mud at us that students’ unions are involved and the incident is related to ragging. This is not connected to ragging. We condemn the efforts made to exaggerate this incident as well,” he said.
“We are clearly against ragging. There is no division as raggers and anti-raggers. We are all students,” he said when asked about their stance on ragging. This anti ragging stance by students’ unions could be observed in many universities where ragging takes place. It seems with what takes place in the university premises that their anti-ragging stance is merely an assurance to pacify the authorities.
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