‘Ragging’ is dragging Sri Lanka down

Wednesday, 10 June 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Interestingly, many English dictionaries do not carry the word ‘ragging’. Wikipedia describes it as a practice carried out in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Academically, this is not prestigious company to be in. It gets even worse – Definitions.net describes the practice in similar terms, but ends the paragraph with the damning words “Sri Lanka is said to be the worst affected country in the world” – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara



Mr. Padmasena Dissanayake’s Letter to the Editor published in the Daily FT on 27 May prompted me to review the interviews given by Senior Professor Sujeewa Amarasena and Dr. Sudantha Liyanage. These two gentlemen hold coveted positions that shape the future of some of the cream of our country’s youth. I thank Mr. Dissanayake for opening the subject of ragging for a public discussion. 

The two interviews were like chalk and cheese. Whilst one was talking solid facts exhibiting a clear vision, with a steely determination to protect the rights of his charges, the other was a pale shadow of an educator, laboring under the misconception that an empty rattle could pass off as confidence and competence. 

As stated by Mr. Dissanayake, Dr. Liyanage’s interview is not worthy of a second glance, but I found it very disturbing. 

Dr. Liyanage, an acting Vice Chancellor, has unfortunately chosen to criticise a fellow Vice Chancellor in social media exposing himself to the whole world. Such an act, especially when done without solid grounds is particularly distasteful. His attempt to distort the statement by Prof. Amarasena that there may even be rape in SOME instances, to say that it implied that ALL female undergraduates are raped, would make even a Sri Lankan politician blush. In most respectable universities in the world, such actions would have earned him a summary dismissal. 

Dr. Liyanage criticises a Senior Professor who has rendered yeomen service to Sri Lanka and the one and only Vice Chancellor (VC) who has addressed the issue of ‘ragging’ in a Sri Lankan university at considerable risk to himself, including physical harm. To Prof. Amarasena’s credit, the University of Ruhuna is now free of this menace. Despite all his achievements in the field of medicine, I would rate eliminating ragging from his campus as the preeminent achievement of Prof. Amarasena thus far. 

The University of Ruhuna was a hotbed of ragging – even Buddhist priests were not spared. About two years ago, a new entrant monk was ragged overnight in the Bhikku Hostel, even being subjected to sexual torture. By morning, he was wandering about in his underwear (‘anndana-kada’) with suicidal ideation. A passer-by took him to the Gandara Police station where he made a statement and 15 monks from the senior batch were arrested. 

Anyone who alleges that someone who has achieved what Prof. Amarasena has ‘needs treatment’ would do very well to turn the light inwards. 

However, that was not what I found disturbing about Dr. Liyanage’s interview. 

He mentions a ‘subculture’ (‘upa-sanskruthiya’) in the universities without describing what it means. Eerily, it reminded me of the interview given by the leader of a student union in the aftermath of the grievous head injury sustained by Pasindu Hirushan, that would probably be left permanently incapacitated. Hirushan was a promising student who was injured during a ragging related incident. The student leader mentioned this word repeatedly in that interview. Ironically, the incident happened in the premises of the university where Dr. Liyanage is the chief executive. 

It goes further – he insinuates that Prof. Amarasena is mentally deranged – what is worrying is that this was exactly the by-line of the posters that appeared all over the country against the VC Ruhuna. It is extremely disturbing to see a person in a high position echoing the lines of the student union that are responsible for ragging. 

Why should we be worried about ‘ragging’? 

Why should we be worried about ‘ragging’? While we are made aware of resulting deaths and suicides that occur sporadically through the media, most people consider it as a benign ‘rite of passage’ or initiation practice. Most people would have a mental picture of something like asking a new student to make a proposal to a random member of the opposite sex. Today, it is different.

Is it a way of extracting revenge on people who have come from more privileged backgrounds? Resentment of societal disproportionalities certainly does play a part in ragging and is referred to by various terms meaning ‘equalisation’. Essentially this is a process of pulling down people who are perceived as being more privileged. 

However, current trends show that while ‘equalisation’ is a prevalent mindset, ragging is far from these – it is now taking an overt physical and sexual nature. Worse still, it is well organised, well thought out and well prepared for. It is meant to psychologically ‘break’ the new students with the main aim of obedience and conformity. 

The demand that fresh entrants conform to a dress code alluded to in Dr. Liyanage’s interview, it is only one stage of this process of gaining control of the thinking processes and this is often their first taste of the coercive tactics of the ‘raggers’. It is disappointing to see a senior academic trivialising these practices. There is nothing called reasonable ragging – every act of coercion is an infringement of rights and constitutes a harassment. 

Rigid conformity goes against the core principles of university education, which is meant to promote free, independent thought. Ragging is a slick operation that would put military techniques of ‘breaking’ people to shame. Gaining control of the thinking process is the name of the game. The practice is ruining the futures of thousands of promising youngsters, stifling their potential and pulling our universities and the whole country down. The direct deaths, suicides and permanent maiming of students is merely the tip of a massive iceberg that is threatening our university education. 

‘Equalisation’ even acquires a more academic façade in some faculties, most prominently in the medical ones. Students who are bright, who interact more with teachers and are forthcoming with answers in tutorials and small group teachings are taken to task as trying to attract attention and betraying the others who are weaker. These are aimed at stifling good students who in the end, comply. 

Sri Lanka therefore has reasons to be deeply worried about the menace of ragging. 

Pledges to eliminate ragging: Empty rhetoric?

Successive governments and ministers for higher education have propounded that they would eliminate this menace. The present Minister Bandula Gunawardena is no exception. He made a similar proclamation in January this year, adding that elimination of ragging was part of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto. 

However, elimination of ragging is not mentioned in the Terms of Reference of his Task Force to establish a disciplined society, although it is an act of indiscipline that has deep ramifications. It may however, qualify under “illegal activities of social groups which are violating the law which is emerging as harmful to the free and peaceful existence of society”. The Minister also referred to the nearly 2,000 students who leave Sri Lankan universities annually, being unable to withstand the pressures of ragging. Is it going to be empty rhetoric yet again? 

During the tenure of the previous University Grants Commission (UGC), a 24-hour hotline and a smartphone application to report ragging and other acts of harassment was introduced. Incidents were to be reported to the highest in the administration, including the relevant Vice Chancellor by these mechanisms. Reports and action taken were reviewed as an item of the agenda at the meetings of the Commission. A high-level stakeholder meeting and Training of Trainers on preventing ragging was held in 2016. Among the attendees was the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Prof. Raj Kachroo, whose son died due to ragging. He set up a mechanism to monitor the ragging situation in India. The UGC drew heavily from his work. 

The Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act of 1998, makes ragging a criminal offence, punishable with a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. 

These must surely act as strong deterrents against ragging in universities. Why then, does the practice remain almost the norm despite the wishes of successive governments, an Act of Parliament and measures by the UGC? That question is certainly worthwhile exploring. 

Ragging in Sri Lanka is controlled by student unions

It is well known that ragging in Sri Lanka is controlled by student unions, which are in turn controlled by a political party. This is probably the single most important factor for the menace to become an intractable problem. The sexual and violent dimensions probably crept into ragging in the late 1960s. From then on, it has now morphed into a sophisticated and professional operation. 

Senior students go to the extent of approaching new ones even before they have set foot into their assigned university. They are identified from the lists of students due for Registration prepared by the UGC. Typically, those approached are from an extremely poor background, perhaps because presumably, they would be more malleable to the behaviour patterns expected by the seniors. They are invited for ‘classes’ purportedly to introduce them to the first-year subjects but what is taught is their ideology. 

By the time they start their courses, they are converts. The recruits give information to the seniors about those with dissenting ideas, to be targeted for severe treatment. The newcomers are totally unaware as to who is giving the information, adding to their distress. Some of these recruits are paid allowances and honoraria for the support they give to ensure their colleagues are given a full dose of the ‘rag’. The seniors sometimes introduce one of their own to the fresh batch to gather information about objectors. The extent to which the perpetrators go is surprising.  New entrants are introduced to ‘buddies’ in the senior batch to supposedly help them in everything they need in their new life. This comes with advice that academics and administrators are unhelpful people and that unless they are accompanied by a responsible senior, their requests will not be acceded to, creating a ‘mother goose’ phenomenon. 

All this sophistication – for what? One may ask. 

In 2018, the UGC commissioned an in-depth study on ragging, funded by the UNICEF. It showed that ragging exists in every faculty of every university in Sri Lanka, only varying in degree. According to the findings, the largest group (26%) complained of mental and verbal ragging. This includes getting female students to use abhorrent and crude language on others. Sri Lankan parents would shudder at what their daughters are forced to repeat. 

The second group (21%) complained of physical ragging, including being forced to perform extreme physical exercises. 16% reported sexual harassment, while 1% reported sexual violence. This latter group represents the extreme incidents mentioned by Prof. Amarasena in his ‘Chat with Chatura’. I had the occasion to speak with one of the researchers of the UNICEF-funded project, who was shocked by what transpired in the focused group discussions and even told me that a person hired to type the transcripts was so traumatised that she required to be referred to a professional counsellor.

While this is the only authoritative study that has been carried out on the problem in Sri Lanka, it could be surmised that the severity of ragging may have remained the same over the past few decades. So, what is different about modern-day practices? 

Two features stand out – the process is carried out throughout most of the first year and sometimes even beyond that, whereas customarily the rag period was limited to about the first month. Second, the group that is targeted mostly for severe treatment are students from less empowered backgrounds. This goes against what has been the traditional motivation for ragging, which is ‘equalisation’. 

Indeed, students from less empowered backgrounds predominate those dropping out of university being unable to withstand severe ragging. For them, it is a double tragedy – they desperately need a good education to improve their lives. When they walk out of the university, they abandon the only chance of achieving their dream of a degree, being unable to afford a private education. This indicates the severity of what they have to face. 

The reasons for these changes in ragging practices can be gleaned from Prof. Amarasena’s interview – once total compliance is achieved, the students become very useful for the unions. For example, they are used as collectors of funds from villages in remote parts of the country. As revealed in the interview, each could be expected to return with a couple of lakhs of rupees. Very handy funds to support further activities of the union and even the party machinery indeed. 

It becomes very easy to use these students in protest marches and rallies. Journalists who interviewed students participating in some protests found that many weren’t even aware as to why they were there. These are the fruits of the slick, well organised modern day ragging. 

While the disruption of education throughout the first year is geared towards the propagation of the dubious cause of the unions, undoubtedly, it will have a telling effect on the new students. This is the time they are given lectures on the basics of their chosen field, English and IT. These would lay a firm foundation for a good quality undergraduate. On top of these, there are intimidations and disruptions that continue. These include demands by the seniors to complete their assignments or to copy notes for them. These must often be completed at night, denying the new students of sleep. 

Students who do not participate in protests and other activities organised by the union are forced to sign the attendance registers on behalf of those who are, instead of against their own name. Sans a good foundation, the victims of these new mechanisms will fail to achieve their full potential. Besides, they will carry the scars and bitterness resulting from these humiliating and degrading treatments for life. It is probable that such people will be incapable of providing our country with a quality leadership, or even evolve to be useful citizens. 

Many parents who can afford a private university education either here or abroad are now opting not to educate their children in State universities in Sri Lanka. Who would want their children to endure what is happening? 

What can be done to curb or eliminate this menace?

What can be done to curb or eliminate this menace? The answer is simple – follow Prof. Amarasena’s example. The magnitude of the task he has accomplished becomes clearer when we consider what a VC of a Sri Lankan university must face when trying to eliminate ragging. With money, the machinery of a political party and a willingness to sink to any depths to achieve their objectives, comes massive power to the student unions. In some universities, elections for student unions have not been held for almost a decade because no group has been able to come up to challenge the current ones, for obvious reasons. In the power of the student unions, lies the problem for the VCs. 

Emeritus Professor ANI Ekanayake who describes himself as an ‘inveterate opponent of campus ragging’, writing in the national newspaper ‘The Island’, pleads for the word ragging to be replaced by ‘campus torture’. He laments the conciliatory attitude of university administrators as an important contributor for the persistence of ragging. He also mentions the reluctance of universities to address the issue for the sake of the institutional image, for “the vanity of wanting to show the world that all is well”. 

In the recent past, we saw an example of how a dedicated group of academics from Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya raided a house rented specifically for the purpose by raggers. A complaint was lodged with solid evidence in the form of video recordings. Perpetrators were office bearers of the student union. However, they were served with only a suspension, despite hails of protests from the Faculty and other academics of the university who demanded expulsion. Some academics were of the belief that this incident was being used to lever for less trouble from the student unions. They now command a major clout in the way universities are run.

However, we could take some comfort in the fact that at least some academics demanded expulsion – might we be seeing a speck of light at the end of this deep, dark tunnel? There has been another instance in the University of Colombo where the Council decided for a suspension, despite some of its members pressing for expulsion. The matter was decided by a vote. In the case of the perpetrators of the violent attack on a student in an incident widely believed to be related to ragging that went viral over social media, arrests have been made and apparently, students have lodged videos of the incident as evidence. Even students are standing up despite the dangers involved. 

In some of these instances the decisions of authorities are swayed by the tears of parents of perpetrators and consideration of the future of the perpetrator. It is disappointing and disheartening that the scarring the victim suffers is overridden by sympathy for the perpetrators. The damage that was caused to the victims and the system are forgotten and it is unfair that justice is not served. There have been occasions in which suspension has been decided on in preference to expulsion saying it would preclude a chance to ‘reform’ the perpetrator. A rather contorted logic, isn’t it? 

The system is stacked against the victim

What about the “Prohibition of Ragging Act” of 1998? India has a similar legal provision, and there have been numerous convictions made for its violations. However, Sri Lanka has not achieved a single. Against the backdrop of weaknesses in victim and witness protection in Sri Lanka, some of these prosecutions become difficult, so it is important that the ones that come with stronger evidence are dealt with decisively. Unless the law and rules are applied properly, ragging will continue to harm our system and students. 

Is the problem persisting because victims fail to come forward? Unfortunately, the system is stacked against the victim. Complainants could continue to be victimised for the whole of their undergraduate career, instigated by student unions and even academics who approve of campus torture. There is a mechanism to offer victims transfers to other faculties, but there is no guarantee that they are not identified as ‘troublemakers’ and subjected to further torture. 

The latest suicide of an undergraduate was one such, having been granted a transfer from Jaffna to Moratuwa. Therefore, authorities must consider complaints with utmost seriousness – these are students who have endured extreme distress that overrides the drawbacks of making a complaint. 

VCs have a major responsibility to eradicate this despicable culture

VCs have a major responsibility to eradicate this despicable culture from Sri Lanka. They are the chief executives of the Sri Lankan universities and they are responsible for creating an environment of safety and one that is conducive to achieving his or her full potential. If a student must come into a university feeling a threat to safety, we could consider that the VC has failed. 

Prof. Amarasena in his interview describes how the lecture halls became filled after the union leaders were taken into custody on the charge of an assault. There is no doubt that students suffer intimidation and coercion that prevents them from pursuing their education in a free and peaceful environment. The fundamental right to education is being violated. The VCs must not sacrifice that for convenience. 

We could continue this argument further and say that it is the responsibility of the VC to ensure a safe and enabling environment for students and should be held liable should a student sustain any injury during ragging. Any form of harassment of students in a university is a failure on the part of the VC, who heads the Council, which has the power to deal with the perpetrators, as deemed fit. 

The stellar achievement of the VC of Ruhuna is due to good leadership and courage of his convictions. He took the perpetrators head-on and abolished the practice from his university altogether, with support from his staff. 

Considering campus torture from the societal angle

It may be worthwhile considering campus torture from the societal angle as well. Sri Lanka seems to have a problem with how people deal with hierarchical relationships with the person occupying the higher position entertaining ‘a perception of entitlement’. 

This is demonstrated in many facets of our society from domestic violence, to corporal punishment of children to sexual abuse of women in public transport. These are often trivialised and even taken for granted. Research data shows that these are very prevalent in our society and that they have long term effects that are more profound than what meets the eye. Numerous studies have shown that those who suffer childhood abuse will tend to exhibit violent and abusive behaviour during adolescence. Is campus torture interconnected with these? 

Interestingly, many English dictionaries do not carry the word ‘ragging’. Wikipedia describes it as a practice carried out in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Academically, this is not prestigious company to be in. It gets even worse - Definitions.net describes the practice in similar terms, but ends the paragraph with the damning words “Sri Lanka is said to be the worst affected country in the world”. 

In conclusion, it is apparent that ragging in Sri Lanka, better referred to as campus torture has evolved into the depths of depravity. Every university and every faculty in Sri Lanka is affected by ragging of varying severity. While resentments generated from social inequalities do contribute to the processes, those targeted for severe treatment are often from less empowered backgrounds. 

The practice now seems to be targeted at creating an undergraduate who would be malleable for demands of the student unions, to carry out their orders unquestioningly. The unions are in turn controlled by a political party. Undoubtedly, these approaches will demean the quality of the education imparted by the university and the end products will not have achieved their full potential. Many will end up being scarred for life mentally and sometimes even physically. 

All this destruction of the individual and the whole system of tertiary education is just for the sustenance of a few misguided student leaders and their bankrupt political masters. They feel no guilt about riding on the shoulders of hapless university students. Are we going to allow this to continue?

VCs have a huge responsibility to lead the fight against this abhorrent practice. We must be grateful that at least one VC has shown it can be eradicated. This was done despite the dangers to his own personal safety and that of other staff who helped in the process. Given what Prof. Amarasena has had to endure from the student unions and from his own colleague, it is not surprising that others will opt to toe the line of the student unions and pretend that all is well, while our universities are being ravaged. It must be emphasised that the severity of ragging varies between faculties and universities but it does exist in all. There should really be no ragging at all, since even its ‘mildest’ form involves intimidation and interfere with the freedom of education. 

The reputation Sri Lanka has acquired for campus torture as the country worst affected in the world seems justified, judging by the evidence. It is probable that the public is not aware of the magnitude of the problem and its implications for the future of Sri Lanka. It is time for Sri Lankan society to demand that a safe and enabling environment is created in our universities. This is an important return administrators must provide for the billions spent on tertiary education from taxpayers’ money. 

Our universities were once the pride of our country. Unless something is done urgently, their value will be lost. 

(Hemantha Senanayake is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Colombo. He was a member of the University Grants Commission from 2015-2019. He holds memberships in the Committee on Human Rights, Refugees and Violence Against Women of the International Federation of Obstetrics & Gynaecology Societies and the Technical Advisory Group of the South-East Asia Regional Office of the World Health Organization. He is a Trustee of Stop Child Cruelty 2020; an organisation that is advocating eradicating corporal punishment. He can be reached via email: [email protected])

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