There has been public outcry after an appeal from a mother of a student who committed suicide after allegedly being ragged mercilessly at the Sabaragamuwa University. The complaint to the police was made three and a half years after the tragic incident, according to reports, and underscores the devastation that can be caused by this inhuman practice.
Incidents of ragging are frequently reported but even though the maximum penalty carries 10 years of rigorous imprisonment, ragging has remained a significant problem within local universities. Last year 15 Peradeniya University students were arrested for ragging while in 2016, 10 Kelaniya undergraduates were arrested after they forced a female first-year student to remove the jeans she was wearing and later slapped her. Both instances garnered much publicity but a comprehensive effort to stamp out ragging at local universities has failed to materialise. As with other forms of illegal and reprehensible behaviour, actual convictions that happen consistently would be the best deterrent.
Sri Lanka in 1998 passed the Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act, which carries hefty prison sentences, yet the country’s image remains tainted, with several world publications claiming that Sri Lankans practise the worst forms of ragging. It would be impossible for the Government to reform the higher education sector unless they tackle the issue of ragging and root it out of the system.
Statistics show 15 students have died, two have committed suicide, 25 have been disabled, six sexually abused and more than 6,000 students have left universities, all because of ragging by seniors and the failure of university and State authorities to take effective countermeasures or implement the law strictly.
Having first rejected ragging, the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) has defended it as a “subculture”, which is a gross and wholly inadequate reason to allow its continuance. Union activities, which are at their strongest in hostels, create the environment for ragging victims to suffer in silence. Students are also used to promote political ends and unfairly manipulated to disrupt the functions of universities. If organisations such as the IUSF want to be seen as genuine representatives of students, then they need to ban this horrific practice immediately.
Unions and academics have the responsibility to implement safeguards against the heinous practice. Officials of student unions need to educate their members on the physical and psychological negatives of ragging. Union members can report fellow students engaged in ragging and protect hostellers, who are often the worst-affected. Any student caught ragging should be immediately kicked out of the university and face criminal charges. Such tough measures to empower students are the only way to give victims the confidence to come forward.
Cooperating with authorities to punish offenders and eventually clean the university system of ragging will gain student unions and other stakeholders significant public approval and even increase the masses’ empathy on other issues that they campaign on such as adequate funding of State universities. If more students complained to Police and officials implement the law then Sri Lanka might finally see the end of a practice that has nothing to recommend it. Such tragedies such as what happened to this student should never be allowed to happen again.