A strategic response looks to the causes of ragging rather than its symptoms. It is based on the answer to the question: why do seniors rag freshers? Andy Schubert of the Social Scientists Association, suggests after reviewing some of the literature that ragging is part of a process of identity creation, building social bonds and indoctrination (see “Thela Bedala: Examining the Culture of Student Violence within a State University in Sri Lanka” (2012) Dialogue, Volume XXXIX). Dr. Kumudu Kusum Kumara from the Department of Sociology at the University of Colombo, argues in “Understanding Ragging Social Phenomenon” (Colombo Telegraph - June 29, 2016) that it stems from senior students’ unmet desire to be leaders.
Drawing from experiences and conversations with students at universities around the country I would suggest that ragging is fundamentally about establishing control and power over freshers. This is used for anything from winning student union elections, to gathering large crowds for student protests, to ensuring that seniors are treated with “respect” and “honour”.
The rag is also meant to be a response to social divisions which are carried into the university from outside. It is said to be an equaliser, bringing everyone to the same level - whether rich or poor, from the city or the village, from a national school or a provincial one (ethnic divisions are left untouched, with ragging being racially segregated). This process of equalisation is also used to express class hatred against the ‘privileged’ students. Ragging is also supposed to create unity, instilling a sense of ‘family’ within the batch and between freshers and seniors. At universities where Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim students are in a minority this family is often limited to one’s community, fuelled by the idea that when in a minority “our community must stick together”. Last, the rag is also supposed to be the means of inducting newcomers into the subculture of the university. It is part of a transition from school to university, from village life to the city.
Underlying all this, of course, is the idea that ‘force’ is the best way to get things done. And disturbingly enough, a rag can be effective. Ragging creates a context of shared suffering which can effectively bonds people and break social barriers. The indoctrination about family and unity results in a powerful safety-net for students – their “faculty family” comes through (willingly or unwillingly) if they face bereavement, illness or academic struggles. Moreover, many seniors and juniors form strong friendships despite the violence the latter face from the former.
Of course this is not universally true. For many students the rag brings nothing positive, and in any case positive ends cannot justify immoral means. Indeed, the means we use to achieve our ends alter and transform the type of ends we eventually arrive at. The use of a rag to break social barriers, create unity, and create a safety-net for the vulnerable eventually distorts those very aims. What is achieved tends to be superficial. Ragging does not overcome structural social and economic divisions. “Forced unity”, a contradiction in terms, often evaporates once the rag ends, and the “faculty family” is generally a deeply oppressive, intolerant one.
However, it is precisely the effectiveness of the rag – short-lived, twisted and distorted though it may be – that is the strongest argument in its favour. This is why so many students – seniors and freshers alike – vigorously ensure its continuation. This is the logic that keeps it alive. Unless this idea – that the rag is the only way to achieve these aims – is confronted and defeated, it will remain a problem. How can we do this?
Imagining an alternative
Let me first ask a slightly unrelated question: what is a university for? A university is a place where a critical community of scholars engages in genuine dialogue, questioning any idea, belief or practice. It is a place where new knowledge is created, the big questions in society are interrogated and human flourishing is sought. Students - how they interact with each other and how they see themselves - play a big role in making this happen. Yet each year the students we receive come with deep ethnic, religious, linguistic and caste divisions. They are often still in an “A/Level mentality” looking to memorise notes rather than to learn to think. Most still consider themselves children rather than adults and struggle to adapt to life away from home. We cannot close our eyes to these problems because they keep us from forming a true university community.
Addressing these issues is essential if we want to make our universities what they ought to be. After all, promoting deep friendships between students from different backgrounds is necessary for a genuine community to develop. Socialisation between juniors and seniors - on an equal footing - is the starting point for dialogue. Making sure that new students have help and support as they get used to life on their own is the first step towards intellectual and emotional maturity. The university should not be neutral about these things - it should actively pursue them!
"For many students the rag brings nothing positive, and in any case positive ends cannot justify immoral means. Indeed, the means we use to achieve our ends alter and transform the type of ends we eventually arrive at"
It so happens, of course, that if we pursue these things we will also be undermining the foundations of ragging itself. The rag’s legitimacy stems from its claim to be the only way to bring about a sense of equality, unity and family and that it transitions students from school to university. Yet, if universities themselves had engaging bold and creative programmes that aimed at friendship, community, dialogue and maturity, then this claim would be undermined. If we could demonstrate that there are other ways of solving the problems that the rag claims to solve then we would have demolished one of the chief arguments in its favour. We would have countered the pervasive idea that force is the best way to solve problems. We would also have come closer to the kind of universities we want to see.
I have been deeply encouraged by local examples of student-initiated orientation programs that are engaging, promote socialisation and cohesion, and provide essential help to students. They do this through sports, competitive group activities for freshers - including treasure hunts to introduce the university and its environs, puzzles, dramas and quizzes - a well as student mentoring programs. When coupled with a strong program to inculcate the skills needed to transition to university life and the supervision of the staff and administration, these types of initiatives could severely undermine ragging.
Zero-tolerance is a first step. It must be buttressed by a creative alternative that strikes at the crude logic behind ragging and addresses its root causes. This two-pronged response, holistic and strategic, is what will take us forward.
Of course there is one thing that such alternative programmes cannot, and should not provide. They cannot give seniors control and power over freshers. This is precisely why they would be opposed by most student unions - or accepted only if they are coupled with ways of maintaining this power. There is no immediate way to eradicate this desire for dominance. In the short-run a policy of zero-tolerance coupled with a creative alternative is the best option. This could work at the foundations of the rag. In the long run, however, we need to reimagine the purpose of power. This would be the most strategic, but also the most difficult, of all our interventions.
What is power for? Our society tells us that it is for the benefit of whoever holds it. It is a chance to amass wealth, collect influence and secure your own position. Whether it is the government official who demands a bribe, or the husband who beats his wife - power is often used in this way in the home, at schools, at offices, in religious institutions, in politics and in government. Our universities, naturally, are not immune. Some lecturers use their power over students’ grades to make sure they are subservient. Some university administrators ensure that “their people” get promotions and their opponents are side-lined.
We need a re-imagining of power as something that must be used to serve others. Power as something that must be used for the benefit of the powerless. We need a vision of power as the liberating authority rather than as oppressive authority. The first step in this direction leads to uncomfortable questions for all of us, especially if we work at universities: what do we use our power for? Do we see ourselves as the servants of those whom we have power over? Or do we use our power to maintain our honour, our egos, our influence? After all, students might learn from lectures in the classroom, but they are formed by the way things are done around them. If they see us use power to control, dominate, hurt and oppress, should we be surprised when they follow our example?
The British politician William Wilberforce began the struggle to ban the British slave trade in 1789. Success only came in 1807, after 18 years of gruelling defeats and near-losses. This is not unusual. Durable social change takes time, persistence, creativity and hard work. It is often a matter of “three steps forward and two steps back”. Ragging goes against everything that a university stands for. It is a many-faceted phenomenon. Can it be ended? If even a part of the effort and resources that universities put into research, teaching and organising events is channelled towards ragging, it could be. The real question is: “How badly do we want to end it?” Our answer to this, is what would make all the difference.