By Kumudu Kusum Kumara –
If Sri Lankan university academics turned a blind eye to ragging and student violence as they are accused of by some, the reasons for that could be complex. Ragging and student violence in Sri Lankan universities have been linked to student politics to which the teachers’ politics also has been linked at certain times and varying levels. Students and teachers in the universities shared an interest in politics from the early days of university, when the traditional left parties such as the Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party dominated the university political scene. There was a healthy atmosphere of political activism mainly among students. Teachers adhered to ‘Queensbury rules’ of staff politics that kept staff politics away from students. However, these rules were discarded soon even before the end of the first decade since the University of Ceylon was shifted to Peradeniya. In the 1958 tar brush campaign against Tamils at Peradeniya, university teachers influenced students. Students were manipulated more openly in politics during 1970-77 period where both the manipulated and those who manipulated them received rewards, in terms of political patronage and protection.
In the history of Sri Lankan universities ragging has been traditionally interpreted as a measure to level out the influence of class element among students in terms of economic and social background and habits, the school one attended, and whether one was rural or urban. At the beginning at Peradeniya University the difference was identified as one between the ‘cultas’ (the cultured) and the “hara” s (the rustics) and the ‘cultas’ claimed superiority over the hara s in terms of “culture.” Consequently the hara s ragged the culta s presumably to even out the class and social differences. The idea of using ragging as a means of levelling out which would have been acquired from the Oxbridge model got heightened in the universities established later to teach in the swabhasha which were dominated by students from rural areas and lower socio economic backgrounds.
In the context of student politics, ragging would have been used as a means of “getting to know” the freshers and thereby recruiting them to political groups. It is with the entry of the JVP into student politics in the late ‘60s that ragging and student violence takes the pernicious form that the Sri Lankan universities have experienced since then.In 1970s Sri Lankan universities turned out to be strongholds of the JVP, signalling the end of an era dominated by mainstream left politics. The JVP led Samajavadi Shishya Peramuna (SSP) dominated university student politics since 1970s and violence associated with their radical politics has affected the universities negatively. The JVP led SSP used ragging as a means of recruiting cadres to its student movement and then to the party. In the post ‘77 period with the UNP coming to power in national politics the UNP led Samavadi Shishya Peramuna sought to challenge the JVP domination by using state power. In the 1980-81 period at Peradeniya University there were violent election clashes between Samavadi and Samajavadi student groups, which were re-enacted in other universities as well where the JVP had a stronghold. Later in the 1989-91 period the Minister of Higher Education in the UNP regime Shaul Hameed followed a policy of what has been termed ‘craven appeasement’ of the JVP led SSP which unleashed violence.
At Peradeniya University teachers have opposed ragging and the violent JVP student politics and in the 1980s have supported anti ragging and anti-violence moves taken by the university administrations. Such opposition to ragging and violent JVP student politics has not been uncommon among the academics in other Sri Lankan universities.
University academics who are themselves products of Sri Lankan universities tend to be affected by their involvement in ragging during their student days as either perpetrators or victims and therefore tend to hold views on ragging influenced by their own experience. One such view that prevails among some academics is that ragging creates a mind-set that is conducive to collective action of students and university academics that are recruited from among the ranks of such students. However, university academics as a collective cannot be said to condone ragging especially in its harsher forms or student violence.
In their efforts to counter ragging and violence carried out by JVP led student groups in the university, the governments in power have created pro-government and pro-administration student groups who continue to engage in ragging and violence. Under the Rajapaksa regime, it was reported that attempts by university academics to stop ragging and student violence were hampered by the pro-government student groups who get the backing of the political regime and university administrators. By now, the mantle of leadership of university student politics led by the Inter University Students Federation or the Anthare as it is popularly known has been passed on from the JVP to its breakaway group Frontline Socialist Party whose leadership is fighting shy of admitting the involvement of its student groups in the universities in using ragging to recruit cadres to the party fold, just like the JVP did previously.
One major factor contributing to the perpetuation of ragging in Sri Lankan universities is that there has been no demand for accountability on the action of students in terms of absence from class flouting the required levels of class attendance, undemocratic political acts, violence on fellow students in the form of ragging, and other forms of violence. Due to this absence of demand for accountability, students have learnt they could get away by violating rules as long as authorities pay only lip service to applying the rules and the political authorities turn a blind eye at the best and at worst, they themselves sponsor student groups within the universities for political gain.
( In writing this brief note, I have borrowed some material from the book The University System of Sri Lanka, Vision and Reality edited by Prof. K.M. De Silva, and Prof. G. H. Peiris, International Centre of Ethnic Studies in 1995. )
*The writer is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo.