A house, several kilometres away from the Peradeniya University, where students were ragged
It is a familiar cycle. An incident of ragging makes national headlines. Reactions of shock and horror follow: “How could this happen?” “Aren’t these the educated in our society?” and so on. There are calls for legal action. And then it ends. Ragging goes on, the cycle continues, and the question remains: why can’t we end ragging in our universities?
There are many reasons. Ragging is a deep-seated social practice. It is found in State universities, vocational training institutes, certain “elite” schools and, to my knowledge, at least one private educational institute. Ending it requires the kind of creative, long-term hard work that is behind any permanent social change. In particular, our approach must be holistic and strategic. It must be holistic in the sense that it addresses the different facets of the practice; it must be strategic in that it must address the root causes behind the practice.
Human Dignity and the University
A holistic response recognises that ragging is wrong because it violates the human dignity and worth of students. From dress codes and verbal abuse to regular beatings, sleep deprivation and even sexual abuse, they are treated as objects of amusement and domination. It is one of the most serious problems they face. However, a holistic response will recognise that there are also other serious problems students face. Such a response requires us to be concerned about any violation of their dignity and worth, not just one.
For example, are students not oppressed if they have low quality food at canteens and cannot afford anything else? Are students not humiliated if they are forced by their financial situation to live in unhygienic, overcrowded university hostels? Is not their worth and potential jeopardised if English teaching programs at university do not enable them to access the international community of learning? Are they not harmed when orientation programs do not prepare them for the leap between secondary and tertiary education, handicapping them throughout their degree program? Is it not a violation of their worth if they are crippled intellectually by a system of education that does not help them learn how to think? Is their worth not violated if they are kept in poverty by the slow neglect of State education which reduces the relative value of their degrees?
Let me suggest that these all violate the dignity and worth of students in some way, and can mar their prospects permanently. Yet many who are vocal about ragging have little to say about them. This is partly a matter of “blind spots” – wealth, connections and English knowledge can mean that these other problems are not “seen”. When those who oppose ragging are silent about these other violations of dignity, their efforts are easy to delegitimise. Raggers are quick to ask: “If they oppose ragging because they care about the students, then why don’t they speak about these other issues? Why don’t they even know about these problems that so many students face?”
Any response to ragging starts with a concern for the dignity and worth of students. We cannot fight every battle, but we can raise these issues and stand with those who are fighting them. This is the first step towards a holistic response.
A holistic response also recognises that ragging is often an off-campus phenomenon. Many students are ragged long before they step into university – in some cases, as soon as their A-Level results are released. Their contact details are passed on by an area-based network of university seniors, and they soon receive a call from a senior at their prospective university. They are required to call their seniors several times a week (at their own cost) and complete various “assignments”. This is known as “phone ragging” and it is where the indoctrination begins. Sometimes seniors take things further. They summon groups of prospective freshers from their area to different places near their hometowns and rag them there. As a result, by the time freshers enter they already know they must submit to their seniors. Of course, the ragging continues once they join – either in the hostels or in rented out rooms. The long-term violence (lasting from a month to two years), submission, and indoctrination eventually turns vibrant freshers into the willing servants of seniors, and then into raggers themselves.
Such displaced ragging is hard to detect and even harder to stop. Perhaps a better feedback loop and the use of technology is part of the answer – say, a smartphone app that discreetly records and alerts authorities to ragging at private locations. Whatever we do, it is an aspect of the problem that must be cracked if we are to succeed.
Students attached to the Agriculture Faculty of the Peradeniya University who were recently arrested for ragging.
Self-Esteem vs Structural Dependence
Some argue that the answer to all this is for students to simply say “no” – that they just need to summon up the courage and self-esteem to do this. Frankly, this is a naïve view. A holistic response will realise that the real reason students cannot say “no” is not because of a lack of self-esteem. It is because of structural dependence on their seniors.
For instance, a fresher’s ability to live and study in a hostel often depends on the goodwill of their seniors, who can make life miserable if they do not submit. Students who are new to the locality of the university are extremely vulnerable. They rely on seniors for where to buy food cheaply, where to get photocopies at a low price, even for which bus to take to get to their rooms. Seniors guide them through notes and “kuppi” classes (revision classes that cover the syllabus). There are hidden dependencies as well. For instance, when I was a law student my friends told me that a failure to follow the instructions of the seniors from their areas would result in “difficulties” for them when they eventually began their legal practice there.
How can students summon up the courage to say “no” when the result will be a loss of support, ostracism from their batch and even physical violence? Only those who have the money, the accommodation, the language skills and the connections can afford to risk this.
To end ragging in Sri Lanka we need creative methods that fatally undermine this structural dependence. Already, students around the country have taken the lead. Some have prepared a booklet with key information freshers need – bus routes, train schedules, cheap places to eat and cheap lodging. Others have developed a coordinated effort to secure cheap accommodation for freshers so that they do not have to stay in hostels. Still others make notes and past papers freely available to all freshers to undermine any control seniors might have here (though ideally we need to move beyond notes-based education altogether). These are the sorts of ideas that we need to develop if our response is to really address ragging.
Indifference and Incentives
Finally, a holistic response will fight indifference among university staff. Though I have had the honour of being taught by, and now of working with, lecturers and administrators who are committed to ending ragging, there are many in our universities who could not care less. Some actively support the practice. In the Indian state of Kerala a failure to respond to complaints of ragging in a university can result in legal liability for the head of the institution (see section 7 of the Kerala Prohibition of Ragging Act No 10 of 1998). Perhaps indifference to complaints of ragging should attract some form of legal liability here as well? Maybe promotion schemes should be structured to reward effective responses to ragging? Whatever we do, there must be a system of incentives in place to stir the university staff to action.
A holistic response, therefore, involves a “zero-tolerance policy” against ragging – but against ragging in all its manifestations. This alone, however, would be to merely fight the symptoms and ignore the causes. Our response must also be strategic, reaching for the roots of the problem and promoting an effective alternative.
 LLB, Attorney-at-Law. The writer read for a Bachelor of Laws degree at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo. He is now a Lecturer at the Department of Law of the Faculty of Arts, University of Jaffna.