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.
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
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