By H.L. Seneviratne –
This short piece is merely a footnote to the principled stand on campus ragging taken by Professor Asoka N.I.Ekanayaka in the Colombo Telegraph of March 3, 2017, and his more recent piece in the press. While fully agreeing with Professor Ekanayaka, my attempt here is to draw attention to ragging as part of a broader social problem.
Few would disagree with Professor Ekanayaka’s statement that there is no “decent” of “mild” ragging, and all ragging should be eliminated root and branch. Ragging is no different from any other form of oppression of the weak by the strong, and thus, a rag-free educational environment is a human right. We already have a law against ragging in our law books, but it’s not news to anybody that there is no rule of law in our resplendent land.
While we are a society with the trappings of modernity, in many spheres of thought and action, we are a feudal society. It is in feudal societies that the severity of punishment for a crime varies inversely with the perpetrator’s social status – the higher the criminal’s social status, the lighter the punishment and vice versa. We see this almost daily in alleged criminals who are power figures checking in to hospitals no sooner than they are remanded. Although individual students may not be power figures, the rag mafia within campuses is a power of considerable clout — it is the handmaiden of political parties — so it is in keeping with their direct or indirect power that they can rag innocent freshmen to death, sometimes literally, and still get away with it.
The culture of ragging is an extension of the political culture, which since about independence has been on a steep downward path to moral bankruptcy, dragging the society along with it towards other forms of bankruptcy. This has now become pervasive, afflicting every institution, structure and process in our society. Thus, we do find a difference in the degree of depravity between the ragging culture of about the 1950s and today. The change towards increasingly uglier ragging was gradual, but runs parallel to the enthronement of “our culture” in 1956, and more directly, to the abandonment of English as the medium of instruction, which has functioned to narrow both the world view and employment prospects of graduates.
We see other parallels that illustrate the general malaise afflicting the society, of which the ragging culture of today is a symptom. The big talk about eradication of ragging parallels the big talk about the eradication of dengue fever. Both reflect a societal illness as do many other phenomena, like the culture of the country’s highest institution, the parliament. Supposedly a forum of dignified discussion and exchange of ideas, it has descended to the status of a marketplace of fishmongers shouting obscenities at each other. As reported in the press, in addition to their salary, benefits, car permits (which they permit themselves to sell) and other perks, they also get an “attendance allowance” of some Rs. 4500 or so for each attendance in parliament, the very duty for which they are compensated with all the perks listed above in the first place. Not that parliamentarians necessarily need academic qualifications, but it is shocking that, according to press reports, some 94 or so MPs in a parliament of 225 members do not even have their O Levels. Clearly, something is rotten in the state of Sri Lanka.
The ragging culture cannot be eliminated until the society is cured of its general and systemic malaise. There was some sense that this problem was at least understood when a “good governance” regime was elected in January 2015. But increasingly it has been looking more and more like what it replaced, thereby guaranteeing itself a kick on the butt at the next election. The likely replacement can only be described as “The Horror, the Horror”.
To act, the academics and university administrators do not need to wait till the society is transformed. On the contrary, as intellectuals and leaders of thought who presumably understand that the ragging culture is the symptom and not the disease, it is up to them to act as the engine that ignites the transformative process. They can take action both to treat the symptoms, and to persuade the powers to treat the disease. The former involves carrying out the existing legal provisions to deal with the ragging mafia on each campus, and the latter the use of their collective knowledge and strength to enlighten and influence the powers.