6 August, 2020

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A Call To Solidarity! A Call To Eliminate Ragging In Our Universities: University Teachers Against Ragging

From its early years, the Sri Lankan university system was infested with the practice of ragging, which despite repeated efforts to eradicate or curb it, has continued unhindered in various forms. Pasindu Hirushan, a student at Sri Jayawardenepura, was the most recent victim. In April 2019, Shanilka Wijesinghe, a student at the Institute of Technology, University of Moratuwa, walked out to the backyard of his home and hanged himself unable to cope with, as he noted in the suicide letter he left behind, the psychological trauma of being subjected to ragging. The same year, Darsha Udayanga of the University of Ruhuna, used social media to describe in graphic detail the inhumane sexual and physical violence he underwent as part of the ritual of ragging. These are simply the most recent victims of the most public reports of ragging; they are preceded by those of Rupa Ratnaseeli (University of Peradeniya, 1975), Chaminda Punchihewa (University of Ruhuna, 1993), Prasanga Niroshana (School of Agriculture, Angunakolapalessa, 1997), S. Varapragash (University of Peradeniya, 1997), and Kelum Wijetunge (Hardy Technical Institute, 1997) and countless others who remain unnamed in this history of violence.

Ragging is mistakenly dubbed as a subculture in academic and university circles and thereby has won a certain amount of legitimacy. Ragging is a part of the unjust hierarchies that abound in society, and rather than being a student sub culture that challenges dominant norms, it operates securely within the ambit of dominant structures of hierarchies and discriminatory practices. While in the public domain, only the more egregious instances of ragging are known, the impact of ragging can be felt in the daily lives of the students and the university community, more broadly. 

Ragging is unethical and inhumane; it is also unlawful. Unknown numbers of graduates and current students live with the physical and emotional scars of being subjected to ragging. Restricting the freedom of movement of undergraduates carried out by other undergraduates, for instance, in a canteen, force feed other undergraduates or compel them to comply with a dress code are acts that cannot be condoned. Dropping a tyre on a fellow student or subjecting a student to verbal assault are clearly inhumane.

Those who inflict ragging on others are also a part of this psychological trauma, and carry its scars forever. This is a malaise in our university system that has no easy solution, but we seek a solution, for we need to bring about a complete halt to its practice.

Across time, academics and students in Sri Lanka have condemned and resisted ragging in their universities. Some progress has been made but these efforts are hardly adequate in eliminating this horror from our universities. The Universities should adopt a truly ‘zero-tolerance’ ragging policy. Although many of us in the university system have intervened to stop the practice of ragging in our respective institutions and continue to openly condemn it, we recognize that as long as this practice continues in our universities, we are implicated and bear collective responsibility for it. Ragging has no place in a democratic, progressive and free system of education. To cure ourselves of ragging, we as university teachers must play a central role in forming a national and concerted effort, through which to address the problem of ragging.

Failures of law and the state:

Art 11 of our Constitution guarantees the right to be free from torture. This right is absolute. The Prohibition of Ragging Act was enacted in 1998, following the death of a student, Varaprakash, of the University of Peradeniya in the same year, criminalising ragging. 

These constitutional and legal prohibitions have established a legal foundation, but have remained insular within a legal framework, disconnected from participation by civil or political society. They have not been given life to by political parties, university systems, student bodies, parents, the polity in general playing a role. The Universities were not a part of the enactment. Thus, recourse to the act by aggrieved parties has been minimal or even none. The Anti-Ragging Act has been seen as draconian by many and its one size fits all model does not discriminate between the egregious commissions, like rape or physical scarring and the mundane like asking a student to sing a song; and therefore, the severity of the act has been used as a reason for not invoking it. The problem of ragging has to be confronted and combatted politically, socially and pedagogically. 

Democratic Principles, Universities and Pedagogy

As centres of higher education in this country, Universities are or should be committed to the principles of democracy and democratisation. Our first need in that respect is to demand that the university upholds the principles of freedom, democracy, justice, the freedom to dissent and be different, and the freedom to question undemocratic practices. 

For too long and far too easily we have turned away from the inherent injustice of ragging. We have said we are helpless. In cherishing democracy, we in the university system and academics should adopt a stance that is unequivocally critical of ragging and all forms of harassment and undemocratic practice in the system. This traverses a range of positions and practices in the university. 

Universities do not exist in a vacuum. They are a part of the larger society and our larger political culture. Universities exist within a system of hierarchical relations. The relations between students, teachers, and University authorities represent these hierarchical relations of broader society.  The larger society is racked by anxieties and insecurities, competition and rat race, and discrimination and empowerment based on class, gender, ethnicity, abilities and disabilities, among other things.  The University system functions within this hierarchy, and experiences and acts on these same anxieties, social divisions and marginalisations. They are reproduced within the university system at all levels. Ragging is a complicated form of social relations in the university that acts upon hierarchies inherent in the university system and in the larger society. For instance, the sexual nature of verbal and physical harassment and the othering of women and sexual minorities  mirror forms of othering and discrimination one finds in other institutions and in broader society; the student from  a far flung place living in the hostel and  confronting a set of unfamiliar administrative and pedagogical norms is doubly insecure in her first year, making her  vulnerable to the pressures of ragging carried out in the name of camaraderie and leading to verbal and physical abuse in the end. The distance between university authorities, teachers and students, real or perceived, the pressure of academic achievements, the lack of resources that are barely adequate in catering to a large number of students contribute to the sense of social isolation one faces in the first year. 

Our task ahead

  • Ragging can be effectively combatted if the struggle against it takes place at different levels and takes on different forms.  The general body of students need to be supported from within the university system to do so.  Organized student groups, like student unions, must make an open and sincere commitment to stopping it. University authorities, particularly those at the highest levels, must make sweeping changes to the way it is handled now. We can no longer be insular, protectionist of our reputation. Instead, we need to make an honest and on the ground commitment to say, NO! NOT IN OUR UNIVERSITY! Academic staff are key to bringing about a culture that challenges itself, and ask questions about its role in the university. We must have dialogue and spread the principles of democratic practice all round. The public needs to be engaged in this debate. The divisive University as “us” and the public as “them” notion should be broken and we must build a sense of solidarity with the public and students, and make sure that there is solidarity across the board.  
  • We must engage in a process of research and reflection regarding institutional structures and norms that promote ragging and other forms of harassment. Such discussions should be built on a broad and empowering notion of the purpose of education. Through such a process, we will improve life in the universities for all concerned. 
  • We must also allocate resources to develop healthy learning environments, with adequate security for students, effective maintenance of student accommodation, good academic support services, and support for student well-being including mental health. Such resources are currently either not available or only available in pockets in our systems. Healthy learning environments, free of harassment, should be nurtured, and student teacher relations should be built on mutual respect. The individual student will thrive in an empowered situation and will feel confident about standing up to ragging and other forms of harassment/discrimination. 
  • We must insist that the silence on ragging ends by having regular discussions, debates and events that allow students and staff to discuss this topic, rarely discussed widely and with honesty, for too long. We must also investigate and improve on existing ragging related laws, inquiries and appeals processes so that there is transparency and consistency and that justice is meted out speedily, in a manner that is fair to victims, witnesses and alleged perpetrators.
  • In our experience, ragging is sustained through political interference. The supposed sub-culture of ragging is in some cases connected with party politics at the regional and national levels. At times, powerful external forces, such as influential politicians, government agencies, external student bodies, influence ragging practices  and the inquiry processes surrounding ragging. If universities are to resist ragging and eliminate it, universities must enjoy a large measure of institutional independence, free of political interference. Also, importantly, political parties that student unions and other student bodies are affiliated to must make a concerted and genuine attempt to express their critique of ragging publicly and take some preventive measures. However, we note that student politics is also integral to campus life and this is not a call to halt student political action by any means as some quarters understand it.  We must strive for an environment where all students feel free to express their political views without fear of consequence. 

We wish to stand in solidarity with all victims of ragging and other victims of harassment, injustice and undemocratic practice in our universities and outside. 

Signed

Fazeeha Azmi, University of Peradeniya

Priyan Dias, University of Moratuwa 

Kasun Gajasinghe University of Peradeniya 

Camena Guneratne, Open University of Sri Lanka

Farzana Haniffa, University of Colombo

Chulantha Jayawardena, University of Moratuwa

Wijaya Jayatilaka, University of Peradeniya (Rtrd)

Viraji Wathsala Jayaweera, University of Peradeniya

Ahilan Kadirgamar, University of Jaffna

Ranga Kalugampitiya University of Peradeniya

Manikya Kodithuwaku, Open University of Sri Lanka

Ramya Kumar, University of Jaffna

Shamala Kumar, University of Peradeniya

Hasini Lecawasam University of Peradeniya

Sabreena Niles, University of Kelaniya

Arjuna Parakrama, University of Peradeniya

Kaushalya Perera  University of Colombo

Nicola Perera, University of Colombo

Ramesh Ramasamy, University of Peradeniya

Athulasiri Samarakoon, Open University of Sri Lanka

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, University of Jaffna

Sumathy Sivamohan, University of Peradeniya

Mahendran Thiruvarangan, University of Jaffna

Ramila Usoof, University of Peradeniya

Gayatri Wijekoon, University of Colombo

Piyanjali de Zoysa, University of Colomb

*Please email skumar@agri.pdn.ac.lk if you would like to join and participate in future activity

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Latest comments

  • 5
    0

    Yet another call to eliminate ragging in our Universities with Historical and Sociological analysis of the issues.
    But has ragging been contained let alone eliminated? NO!
    It continues every Academic year with increasing ferocity.,notwithstanding legislation in Parliament.

    Why not appoint a Task Force? A few white van rides for the culprits could go a long way to at least contain it! I am not sure about complete elimination. This could take a few years like the Covid-19 Pandemic!

    • 6
      0

      As one who faced srilanken uni ragging to all untold stories, I hate the mentality of the batchas.
      :
      We were made naked and were forced us to move around to the man gorillas would do it naturally. THere, they enjoyed it schadenfreude. These seniors should have gone through all the hardships in their life being discriminated by born to a lower casts.
      :
      Looking back I feel, the ragging culture was only unique srilnaken people. Even today the same mental problems to continue says almost everything about the human developement and its level to all of us.
      :
      What have the elected ministers of education/high education contributed to save the youth from ragging-infected bitch ‘ sons `?
      :
      Why cant srilankens as a whole bring any tiny level reforms to the prevailing law and order in this small country ? They talk high about becominga INFO hub or a singapore, but not having done their home work properly ???????????????????ß… self overestimation of the leaders have ruined this country pushing us from Frying pan to the fire. I dont see the light at th eend of tunnel regarding the rise of our nation..

      • 1
        1

        Leelagemalli, it is not unique to Sri Lankans. It happens all over the world, in India, Pakistan, the US has its hazing, Russia has Dedovshchina. Even in the military one finds this savagery. In the British army, female soldiers have been routinely raped. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/rape-army-every-two-weeks-11225432

        • 5
          0

          Dear Stanley,
          thank you for your feedback. But I beg to differ your thoughts. I did not compare srilanken undergraduate ragging with that of army, navy or police.

          My elders were thinking that even army men to marching an area could create unnecessary anxities becuase they were scared of getting their females raped. Army had no good reputation also in SL. But these means know that every head in Army would necessarily be a rapist.

          we should compare srilanken professors with those of other universiities- if we would compare the Prof. JAYASUMANA or the FAKE title holders with that of european profs. .. it is really no right. ?
          .
          We should compare srilanken undergraduate ragging with that of any other uni s in like minded countries. For example, I never faced sorta ragging at overseas unis. But Dr Nalin De Silva is proved to have faced a lot during his PhD at Southhampton. And not to forget, he is also not a balanced thought bearer. He is abusive by his gentics from the begining on. The guy the manner he holds lectures is similar as if he is the only mathematician/physcist who knows all.

          We should compare srilanken politicians and their knowledge with that of like minded countries.
          We should not compare army men and their behaviours with that of srilanken students …
          .

    • 0
      1

      Plato, I have a different take on the subject.
      Ragging has, over the years, lost its purpose. That has something to do with the quality of the students, Seniors/Freshmen, we get nowadays.
      Ragging, in the (G)olden days was meant to be a quick familiarization.
      I am sure that many of the University Dons who have co-authored this would have some nostalgic memories of their own freshman years.
      What needs to be arrested is the vile conduct of the few brutes. That could be stopped (not in a hurry, now that the disease has spread to the bones) by the lecturers themselves, educating their wards, during the months prior to the arrival of the fresh batches.
      University students, after all, are intelligent enough to see the rationale behind that plea.

  • 10
    2

    I have had the privilege of studying at Queen’s University, Canada. As far as I knew, ragging was an unknown phenomenon in any of the North American institutions providing higher education. Rather, there were Senior Students’ volunteer groups to help and guide the freshers. In Sri Lanka, “Yatha Raja Thatha Praja” ( As the Ruler , so the people ). Students represent a cross section of a sick society, where ill-educated criminals and savages rule the roost, with the blessings of Prelates, Priests and Cardinals.

    • 2
      0

      Karikalan: You are absolutely correct. I have seen it in Canada. The “Seniors” are formed into a “Volunteer Group” to help the “New Comers”. starting from the entrance gate to the settlement into the “Domme” (Residence) All those activities are handled by the “Senior Volunteer” group and that assignment has been arranged by the University Administrative Machinery. Will the “Authorities” in the University Administration of Sri Lanka Universities come down to that level of “Magnanimity” and organize the “Seniors” to actively participate and carry out functions related to student affairs. NO. Why? Those “Authoritative Figures” will never come down their pedestal, because they are a “Law Unto Themselves”. What is required is a “CHANGE” of that “Glorified Culture” still prevalent in the seats of Higher Education. This note is a reminder to the very “Signatories” to this essay. Start the “CHANGE” from the “TOP” and spread it to the “Bottom”.

  • 6
    0

    Excellent to to know that we have got many in support on lobbying against ragging, including our own members. We need action, being a passive supporter is not enough! Let’s join and forge ahead Harendra de Silva The Coalition against Violence & Harassment in Universities

  • 4
    1

    This is not the first time that activists have asked for ragging to be ended. What is needed is public outrage and mass demonstrations because the politicians will do nothing until they are pushed.
    .
    Where is the highly disciplined take no nonsense Gota? Where is the upright outspoken Hirunika? Where are Ranil and Padman? Has anybody heard them raise their voices and say that they will pursue this matter to the end?

    • 5
      0

      Political leadership is not whole hearted about bringing laws against brutal ragging actitivies yet today.

      I think the politics of Rajapakshes are also an another form of ragging. The manner they they get on with the vulnerable and less fortunate people in the country are no different to that conventonal university ragging dont you think you guys ?

      I heard Rajaakhes nodding his head yesterday before a press gathering… what they want is ” 2/3 mandate”:

      Thoese journos seemed ot have no balls to cross question ” bastard, you did have 2/3 mandate and plus during your second term and what did you do with it ? “.

      WIth all these in mind, I get only upset when looking at the MARA being live yet today before such press briefings.

  • 1
    1

    Dear CT thank you for the article. This uncivilised act, inhuman act violates human dignity/rights at a place we call it an educational institution in a Nation that has gone to war over not everyone getting access to fairly and adequately for an ”educational future”??, had JVP revolutions and various other wars of this nature too…tells us something about who we are as a Nation?

    It tells me we will be bystanders (there are several thousands of other students knows this and watch it happens to a fellow student/citizen of their Nation says it all…….it is not the abusers who are guilty but the entire university population for its entirety??? How we tax payers fund this act where these scums commit such hideous crimes where even their family/parents are not answerable???

    There should be some president set where we nick few and and make them “disappear” will pit an end to this trashes who should have allowed into the spaces in the first places??

    This could be done by the GOSL or should be left to the vigilante groups?? Time we have revolutions for the right reasons in our Nation??

  • 2
    1

    Dear Sir

    perhaps a public event at the respective town centre where all the citizens are invited to watch the same acts performed by the state on these scums will put an end to this overnight??

    We shouldn’t be wasting our time/resources of the state and University staff over this as we need this lot to carry the Nation in their shoulders tomorrow after completion of their studies??

    Perhaps a compulsory army service will alter this criminals minds for good and bring some ownership to the Land/responsibility of a citizen etc?

  • 2
    0

    Students came to college with high hopes of bettering their life, not to endure this stupid tradition. They think as they have gone through the same scenario so it’s their right to also have this so-called stupid fun which sometimes ends with some student’s psychological issue and they don’t get their sHattered confidence back. Protect your future sons stop them now. inherent injustice of ragging

  • 1
    0

    If the Vice Chancellor of Ruhuna University succeeded in eliminating ragging, he should be made the head of University Grants Commission and entrusted the task of eliminating ragging from all our universities. It is better to keep universities that allow ragging closed even for one year and get rid of this menace, which has made our universities concentration camps.

    • 2
      1

      It is mainly the cultural gap between urban dwellers and rural masses let the ragging be non-stoppable at the unis in SL.
      To my days, in late 80ties, if anyone came from popular schools were teased and attacked on and on by the gang leaders who mostly came from far poor areas such Nochchiyagama, remote areas in Gampaha. Girls that trust open minded male students were seen as manamalayas but that was misinterpretations looking back.

      Mostly urban students seem to have balanced thoughts while those who come from rural corners being not open enough, come with totally introverted culture.In contrary to that, rural students would not open their views but harbour to them. They are seen as good obeying sons to rural families.
      .
      Rural studens exteriorly look though that sober, but their thoughts and minds are hidden. Most that entered from Gampaha district were culprit minded looking back.

      All because ” athi naethi paratharaya – economic gaps between peoples” reflect in those ragging events. My shirts, troucers and all other belongings were taken away by force and they used them as if I allowed them to wear – can you guys imagine ? No privacy was respected by bastard sons born to poor backgrounds.

  • 1
    1

    Dear CT

    Is it possible we can ask the GOSL to set up a task force to “filter” the students after they are granted admissions or even better as part of their admission process that records all their past/background correctly and the interview recorded for future use and analysis we can improve on whom we let and whom we reject etc?? Sitting for a a/l exam can not be a adequate qualification why an individual should be allowed into further education????? Basic human rights course/consequence of the crime need to be given and perhaps a written test/video of the violence and the consequences to the victim all need to be put into these children’s head before they embark on the next stage of the journey?? At least for the time being they be told should they found to commit any crime not just the ragging they be sent to a boot camp and never to return to the studies again??

  • 1
    0

    I see people in this space who attribute noble motives for what was the ‘rag’ where it originated.
    The rag started with bullying at schools. Things changed by early mid 20th Century and university rags evolved into charity events that were fun for the freshers.
    In this country ragging in the University College was reportedly introduced by a leading scholar, later politician, for ‘rapid familiarization’.
    Allowing a senior student power over his junior is deplorable.
    Why does a well built and emotionally mature fresher submit to verbal and physical abuse by a senior? : It is fear that life could be hell if he/she defied ‘authority’, that of the senior.
    Physical violence made a quantitative leap after the JVP insurrection. Experience at police remand cells gave some seniors ‘bright ideas’, which like all bad things caught on better than any decent idea.
    ‘Ragging’ was an after class activity for long, but had entered lecture rooms and Faculty canteens by 1980.
    Freshers are debarred from talking in English (in the months that they are taught to communicate in English), talking to lecturers, and asking questions in class.
    A fresher refusing to comply can suffer ostracism by not just the seniors but even fellow victims.
    (contd)

    • 2
      0

      I knew a Tamil student so ostracized by fellow Tamils. (For quite some time ragging has ethnic boundaries, to avoid communal riots I guess.) Lucky him. He made a few Sinhalese friends and became fluent in Sinhala in the process. I knew a few other defiant characters, but not many enough. The anti-ragging students group gave some moral support to them, I should say.
      Sadly, anti-ragging student groups have allowed themselves to be seen as elitist, pitting the majority against them.
      Among staff, only a committed few openly identify themselves as anti-ragging. But they are shown to juniors in a bad light. Prof CLV Jayatilleke, for example, known for his strict anti-ragging line was kind to students in need (including psychiatric assistance) and helped many. But the image cultivated by ‘seniors’ in the 1970s was that he was dangerous and should be avoided at any cost, so dangerous that if he smiled at a student the student was in trouble.
      Many academics, at least privately, make excuses for ragging, and talk of ‘mild’ ragging and severe ragging. My question has always been: What right has anyone to hurt another not just physically but even emotionally by harsh words in the name of seniority. I know a student who was insulted with harsh reference to caste and suffered a breakdown.

  • 1
    2

    Dera SJ

    Thank you for such an insight. therefore all I said does not apply mostly.

    The Seniors are the ones we suppose to look up-to but then again if they are the ones waiting to abuse the Juniors in an educational institution what are the chances we have in the future of SL??

    The education is also for the networking they do now to be the future shoulders carrying the Nation be it in any institutions they will work in the future??

    Should not all the political parties discuss this in a “civilised way” in the parliament without party politics?? come up with a special task force to look into tis matter holistically (not just the “fear” factor) so this sets a good president and perhaps a regular TV adverts by the GOSL with the phone numbers to contact anonymously etc.

    It is difficult for the tea hers to deal with etc?? Retired parents/elders be allowed into the university compound for moral support/guidance?? It is not the education at stake it is also all over activities people participate sports/volunteering/personal hobbies and we will loose special talents too having worked so hard to get these youngsters to the University as Parents/Society??

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