- Another poignant incident which left the public dismayed was the brutal ragging of freshers at the University of Peradeniya
- This shows the tendency to see ragging in isolation from other problems
Ragging of freshers is an ordinary occurrence in Sri Lankan State universities. However, the tragic incidents that we hear of or read on newspapers are far from what ordinary youth must endure in their institute providing higher education. Nevertheless, like many other blatantly irrational aspects of our society, despite all measures that have been purportedly taken so far, nothing seems to have curbed the strong-willed mindset of those who engage in ragging. While the majority is brainwashed to continue with the viscous cycle, some drop out, some fall ill and some even commit suicide.
A 23-year-old undergraduate of the Sabaragamuwa University committed suicide after suffering mental trauma because she underwent severe ragging in 2015. There were recent reports of six fresher Buddhist monks being stripped naked and subjected to disreputable forms of ragging by a few senior undergraduate monks. Another poignant incident which left the public dismayed was the brutal ragging of freshers at the University of Peradeniya in an isolated house by 15 second-year undergraduates. An unprecedented number of cases, associated with undergraduates who enter universities with aspirations to build their lives, feature incidents of them being abused mentally, physically and sexually. But these victims refrain from reporting these incidents due to their lack of faith in how the country enforces justice.
By now, after many records of traumatic and unimaginable acts of ragging and displeasure expressed by many in response, people are aware that ragging is an offence and is prohibited under the Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act No. 19 of 1998 (Ragging Act). Ragging can also be tantamount to torture and thereby a violation of the fundamental right; which provides for an individual to be free from torture and cruel and degrading treatment. This right is protected by the Constitution, warranting the invocation of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Insofar as ragging takes the form of sexual harassment, penal provisions can be invoked.
If the Ragging Act is a failure and the prevailing legal framework is insufficient to eradicate this menace, does the solution lie in legislative amendment and criminalising of ragging?
Standing up for their rights
Ragging is a criminal offence with rigorous punishment under the Ragging Act which was passed 20 years ago. The problem was that it was not implemented for a long time and many students were ragged
Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Minister of Higher Education & Cultural Affairs airing his views on ragging said,“Ragging is a criminal offence with rigorous punishment under the Ragging Act which was passed 20 years ago. The problem was that it was not implemented for a long time and as a result many students who were ragged did not come up and complain to the relevant authorities. Now, the act is well implemented and mechanisms are in place. We have conducted many awareness
We have conducted many awareness programmes for both undergraduates and parents to advise students against engaging in ragging
programmes for both undergraduates and parents to advise students against engaging in ragging. We have also used media as a tool to reach out to people and make them aware of the legal actions that can be taken. As a result there are many students who step up and report on abusive activities they were subject to by their seniors and we see a big difference in them standing up for their rights. Currently there are about 50, 60 undergraduates who are in remand prison after being accused of ragging. Justice will be served”.
Having inquired about whether the available legal framework is sufficient to stop ragging at universities, the Minister answered in the affirmative. “With an Act and mechanisms to implement it in place, the law that’s available is adequate to fight ragging. The Rule of Law must be upheld. We cannot allow students to suffer. What happens under the guise of ‘ragging’ is torture and sexual harassment. Now it is up to the victims and the general public to make use of the laws and corporate to stop these crimes,” he added.
Greed for power
Ragging in any form should not take place in any institution. There is nothing called mild ragging or good ragging. Ragging does not start at Universities, it happens at schools
Prof Chandrika Jayasinghe, Professor in Medicine, Consultant Physician, Faculty of Medicine, Peradeniya and the author of the book – ‘Ragging in Higher Educational Institutions’ said that ragging is a national disaster.
“Ragging in any form should not take place in any institution. There is nothing called mild ragging or good ragging. Ragging does not start at Universities, it happens at schools, mainly at the hands of prefects. The main reason for the existence and continuation of ragging in any educational institute is the greediness for power. The opportunity to exert power over equals which they would not have done under normal conditions is therefore seized,”Prof. Jayasinghe explained.
In addition, Prof. Jayasinghe underscored several reasons for ragging to take place which are; the idea that it is tradition, the notion of fun, fear of exclusion as it is done by the majority, jealousy, ‘returning the rag’, intentions of forming ‘cliques’ and finding girlfriends.
“Jealousy is the basis of the dress code during rag season. There is an incorrect notion that most individuals who engage in ragging come from less affluent families. This is wrong. More than poverty, wrong upbringing, a callous home atmosphere and insensitive parents are the usual background of those engaging in ragging.” she went on.
Referring to brutal physical acts of ragging, Prof Jayasinghe stated that sexual acts such as stripping freshmen naked and forcing them to engage in sexual or obscene acts- although classified as sex education- will lead to a nation that possesses sexual perverts. “These acts happen again due to the greed to exert power combined with deranged mindsets due to not receiving love at their own homes and being harassed when they were young. Inferiority complexes, low self-esteem, general rage against the human race and derivation of sadistic sexual pleasures are also reasons behind these kind of acts,” opined Prof. Jayasinghe.
Speaking of medical complications, Prof. Jayasinghe said that stress, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, phobias and long standing depression can result from ragging. She assumes that Amali Chathurika, the student of Sabaragamuwa University, who committed suicide, must have suffered from these conditions. Among other health impacts are lasting personality disorders, Haemolysis (destruction of red blood cells), Rhabdomyolysis (destruction of muscle cells) and renal failure which can lead to death (cause of death of Selva Vinayagar Varaprakash, student of University of Peradeniya), anxiety, panic attacks and trauma.
“When freshers enter universities they are already in a compromised and vulnerable position as their medical status, including mental strength, is not known to fellow students and the staff. Harassing them further can easily dislodge them from their balance and cause heavy impacts,” she warned.
Jealousy is the basis of the dress code during rag season. There is an incorrect notion that most individuals who engage in ragging come from less affluent families. This is wrong. More than poverty, wrong upbringing, a callous home atmosphere and insensitive parents are the usual background of those engaging in ragging
Asked about what measures could be taken to eradicate ragging, Prof. Jayasinghe strongly insisted that as a first step, academic and non-academic staff members should be committed to wipe out ragging. “If there is a zero tolerance policy for ragging, there has to be genuine adherence to zero tolerance. Students who report of ragging must be protected from those who engage in ragging without isolating them. The university system has failed to understand that the degree of sensitivity and tolerance varies from person to person. An act which is mild for one can be a harsh experience for another depending on their sensitivity. When some in the university staff do not encourage reporting ‘minor’ incidents, new students lose confidence in the reporting system.
“Any framework put in place must include senior students. Through soft skills and mental health leadership programmes, we can curb insecure feelings of those who engage in ragging. We need to have better discussions with students rather than blame and condemn them. Educating freshers and their parents that they have a right to be free of ragging is necessary. The message that they needn’t waste their time satisfying putrid demands and requests of those who engage in ragging, but can enjoy university life and gain the maximum out of it should be conveyed out to them. Technology must be used to bring freshers together before they can be infiltrated by those who engage in ragging. The country’s law must prevail in the universities too, especially when these acts are exposing somebody’s mental, physical health and life to risk,” she said.
Freshers need help at a new place
Ragging is the result of a complex set of factors and divisions in our society. It is fed by a desire for dominance and a desire for unity and a sense of family
Sanjayan Rajasingham, a former Lecturer of Law at the University of Jaffna and currently engaged in post graduate studies, said that critics can’t take a one-dimensional view of ragging as done by ‘barbaric’ or ‘insecure’ seniors with the intention of protecting themselves. “Ragging is the result of a complex set of factors and divisions in our society. It is fed by a desire for dominance, a desire for unity and a sense of family, a demand for equalisation across social, ethnic and religious backgrounds and a need for socialisation. This is because the core of ragging is the idea that force is essential to reach these goals. Moreover, ragging is also part of a much larger set of problems freshers face at university. They need help in a new
I do not think university administrators or staff can be neutral on ragging. We need to be proactive in responding to it. Universities are meant to be places where students are taught to think critically and creatively
place. They need help transitioning from school rote-learning to critical thinking. They need money for food, a good place to stay, and other day-to-day things. Seniors come in to fill these needs, but often have ragging as the condition for their help. We need to think about how we respond to this.” opined Rajasingham.
Asked about whether the university staff is justified in taking a neutral stance in relation to ragging with the university, Rajasingham answered in the negative. “I do not think university administrators or staff can be neutral on ragging. We need to be proactive in responding to it. Universities are meant to be places where students are taught to think critically and creatively about life, society and themselves. Yet in ragging we find a process that teaches them, right from the start, to be obedient and subordinate to a certain group (in this case seniors). I think this is one reason that our students are not formed into critical citizens as much as we would like. Some even support ragging. Some of them say that they had it worse when they were in university, or that it is only for a couple of months and so isn’t worth being bothered about. This is outrageous. There are also administration and staff who actively struggle against it. However this can also be problematic so far as their position and power are used to dominate and control students. I often found it tempting to use my position to control students when I was a lecturer. But ifI did that, why should I be surprised if seniors use their power to dominate and control juniors? Ultimately, they learn things from us based on how we act,” added Rajasingham.
Speaking of university subculture, he stated that it is merely a tool used to justify acts of ragging. “Subculture can mean harmless things like wasting time all day at the canteen - or
I do not think university administrators or staff can be neutral on ragging. We need to be proactive in responding to it. Universities are meant to be places where students are taught to think critically and creatively about life, society and themselves
it can be deeply harmful things like violent, sexually abusive ragging. Yet I think this issue of subculture takes us to a broader question which is, are there meaningful justifications for ragging.
“While the legal framework and other additional things like confidentiality complaints are positive steps, all of them only respond to ragging after it takes place. This shows the tendency to see ragging in isolation from other problems students face. We need holistic solutions which address the root causes of ragging. I think the staffers need to get on the ground, speak to student leaders and first years and understand them. Why do they rag? What are the factors that convince so many of them (even first years) that this is a good thing? And most importantly, are there alternative ways of achieving some of the aims of ragging? The reason ragging persists is because there is no viable alternative offered to help orient students; support them when they are struggling as a new person at university; and build a community. Thankfully I have seen some students take the initiative regarding this, and there was a fairly successful attempt at an alternative conducted at Jaffna University’s Law Department last year,” he said.
Solution possible through discussion
Whatever practices that are conducted within universities are influenced very much by what is happening outside; by the social, economic and political changes that take place in society
Lahiru Weerasekara, Convener of Inter University Students’ Federation said thatseniors do not deny that there are regressive practices like cruelty and violence at universities. “However, it is not fair to view them in isolation and point fingers at the IUSF, Student Unions or Leftist parties as supportive of these acts. Whatever practices that are conducted within universities are influenced very much by what is happening outside; by the social, economic and political changes that take place in society. There is no point in passing laws to control or change this situation. The Ragging Act was brought essentially for the eradication of university students. It is a solution imposed by outsiders and cannot ever be a viable answer to the issue. Since these alleged practices have been conducted for generations, it is through discussions within universities between student groups and university staff that a solution can be arrived at. We are in the process of conducting such discussions,” said Weerasekara.
New app to stop ragging
In collaboration with the Sri Lanka Information and Communication Technology Agency, the University Grants Commission has launched a new Emergency Safety Mobile App to report acts of ragging conveniently. According to Minister Rajapakshe, it is only operating within the Uva-Wellassa University presently, but will be introduced to other universities in the near future. The minister was unaware of whether the app had been successful, but assured that there is a separate unit and an officer-in-charge and also a hotline for students to reach the authorities.
(23), Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo said thatalthough it is a good step that has been introduced to get every university entrant to certify, prior to entrance, that he or she will not engage in ragging, it would be of no real effect if complaints made by victims of ragging are subjected to ragging once they start university education. Mendis said that complaints fall on deaf ears or victims suffer due to the slow process of justice present.
“The burden of eradicating ragging is not only on the students, but also on the administration. It is of no real effect if the administration is not vocal and active about its zero tolerance of ragging. In such an environment the students will not be convinced that the laws in place are affording them any real protection,” said Mendis.
(23), Faculty of Management, University of Jayawardhanapura said that ragging should continue at universities to a certain extent because it is during the ragging period that freshers get to know each other and build up strong bonds with eachs. But there must also be some control over extreme acts of ragging. The prevailing rules are of course useless; what need to be changed are the attitudes of people. Strict rules must nevertheless be brought in to stop extreme acts of ragging.