21 June, 2024


The Politics Of (University) Violence

By Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

Dr. Suren Rāghavan

The Greeks had no single term to express what we mean by the word ‘life.’ They used two terms that, although traceable to a common etymological root, are semantically and morphologically distinct: zoē, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods), and bios, which indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group” – (Gerogoi Agamban 1998)

The news that a section of the faculty of University of Colombo had decided to stop their academic engagements to bring an end to the on-going rather inhuman ragging within their university (and other higher education institutions) is disturbing and welcoming.

Disturbing because ragging of such cruel nature should still exist, welcoming as the faculty members have decided to address this seriously.

Universities are not only about earning a degree or helping towards that. They are centers of societal citations and (re)form process within the context of knowledge gaining and transferring. Passing exams and achieving a degree is considered a core element of that process aimed at the discipline of systemic thought analysis. Yet the full objective of university education is severely undermined if the advancement of essential nonacademic person building sphere is non-existing or deliberately dismantled.  In such definitions, Sri Lanka universities have a checked history of individual and collective violence. I am not certain if a thorough going research has been ever undertaken to examine the culture of (physical, sexual and social) violence within the universities of Sri Lanka. If not, it appears an urgent necessity.

The nexus of violence

When we explore the issue of university violence, it robotically gravitates around the question as if the epicenter of such phenomena is correlated to the waves of political power struggles outside of these universities. As all universities in Lanka are still state funded and operate under the political sub structure, such cross fertilization of state power politics and normativity of violence cannot be separated. Lanka’s postcolonial history is fractured with junctures of direct body politics of violence. 1971 JVP armed struggle showed that by then Lankan universities had become the ideological cradle of legitimization of collective violence. Such process and their historical weight crushes the thin layer of social fabric within universities.   In a Foucauldian sense, Lankan university politics quintessentially submerges with the biopolitcal dynamics outside. For Foucault (1997) “biopolitics is a new technology of power for violence [that] exists at a different level, on a different scale, and has different bearing areas, and makes use of very different instruments within the state governing structure”. In Lanka, indeed such biopolitics and sovereign exceptionalism  often constructs the primary filed of politics. Under biopolitics, life, society and power become indistinct. Violence against the new comers by the seniors -who ironically were ragged by their seniors when entering university, then becomes the recurrent dynamic connected to the nature of politics at large.

The idea of positions – ascribed or achieved – as an instrument of oppressive power- is an intrinsic feature of Lankan politics. Over four centuries of colonial oppression and the historical feudal and monastic control over the peasant citizenry that is romantically memorialized as ‘ideal’ type of governance in the popular discourse have moralized a power game of violence. The struggle for control is deeply dichotomized and sharply projected as elitist versus non-elites or the peripheral rural versus the urban center. On the foundation of such mindset, a violence political culture is normalized by structural political operation. Such illiberal undemocratic behave had become the norm of elected politicians in the recent history. When the state concretizes such patterns as privilege of rule, while a wider civic society became willing spectators, violence for power and particular display of power over the layer immediately below is inevitable. It is a fact the J R Jawawardane , Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickramasinghe are representative of such elitist power circles in Lanka.  For the same reason in a comparative sense, the level personal corruption of the above three are marginal as witnessed in Premadasa and Rajapakse eras. Both Premadasa and Rajapaksa are still considered as representatives of the oppressed class, who in my analyses in turn became super oppressors. What operates within the universities also travels on a parallel trajectory. It is safe to suspect that the culture of violence on campus attracts students from rural background.  It is for this reason from Daya Pathirana to Sanjeewa Bandara are either victims and/or part of that violent political process. It appears that all university of Lanka from Jaffna to Ruhuna has an equal level of potentiality to produce such violence. Demographical, socioeconomic and pre university experience of violence of the leaders of this ragging culture may shed some valuable sociological keys to unlock this paradigmatic process of internal /external violence.

A challenged academia

As I have argued elsewhere it will be an imperative moral example when the academia can first lead the campaign against such ill democracies within them.  This will then earn the right to be heard when they moralize their demands before the wider society and then finally with the state. Lankan academics are a special group of individuals working under absolutely challenging conditions. Lack of reward or recognition, lack of physical and monitory resources for desired researches, constant party politicization, and the looming fear of extremely unionized students who carry an instant capacity for violence are some constant reality they are called to deal with. Nevertheless academic integrity does not stop at ethics of paper marking and moral relationship with students.  That is the minimum currency. In fact the by-laws. Constant example of personal development for intellectual assentation and to play the role of an agent provocateur for positive changes within the campus  are a part of the ‘internal social contract’ that faculty members of universities can aspire to. While most certainly such practices may prevail, they are mostly based on individual worldviews. What is needed now is to make such a part of the overarching academic faculty culture.

Three decade of LTTE terror politics and equally or deeper state terror have only legitimized the acceptance of direct biopolitics on campuses as normal. Ragging that humiliates and seeks to control the newcomers is homophobic and stems from a subterranean heteronormativity mindset. Ragging also displays deep crisis of understanding of individual and collective power and the politics behind them. The majority of the present regime – have become the monopoly of such oppressive power mobilization. Such has become the popular culture. The idea of militarizing the universities has only future deepen the crisis.

We all wish Lanka achieves its full academic potentiality which is no doubt world class. We can demand the state to make higher education an independent but interdependent zone of democracy and intellectual free thinking. For this end, constant vigilant to safe guard the free education system and its democratic influence on the wider society is fundamental and not negotiable. However, what is a pure summation of such freedom and democracy if the first population of the university- the students don’t not appreciate and conduct themselves as representatives of such aspirations. Humiliating ragging and physical violence against the newcomers diminishes all such ethos. Ragging of all forms must be stopped. Immediately and without apology.  The collective action of the faculty members is a positive first step in that direction

Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press pp 1
Foucault, Michel (1997). Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press. p. 242

*Dr. Suren Rāghavan is a Sri Lankan academic- currently visiting professor at University of St Paul – Ottawa and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Buddhist Studies – University of Oxford. raghavansuren@gmail.com   

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  • 2

    Several women students have attempted suicide after ragging. Ragging in the medical faculty is especially cruel, degrading and perverted. Ragging has now spread to schools and even some businesses.

    There is no political will to implement the obvious solution. Expel the raggers and arrest them for assault and other crimes. There will be no change without a political decision from the top.

    Is there a politician who wants to go down in history as the man who put an end to this for once and all? Let him step forward.

    • 1

      We all complain that our politician are corrupt and their level of corruption & foolishness has gone up linearly or exponentially with time (after SUDDA left)
      Who are these uni students in these videos, most intelligent group of young Lanka adults? How young Uni students behaviour changed in the last 50 years? Isn’t that degradation very similar to SL political leadership degradation?
      Can’t you see the similar affect on professionalism/sincerity of doctors and nurses? How about other professional and non-professional service personal in Lanka?
      We doctors/nurses/teaches/Gov workers/Uni Student/Uni Staff/unemployed …. all get together and criticize our political leadership and their corruption level.. That is good… But do we look back at ourselves? Aren’t we, our sons&daughters are corrupted & uncivilised as same as political leaders? Effect of MR stealing/misusing Rs/100,000 has the same effect as you and me stealing/misusing Rs/10.

    • 2

      My days at Pera in late 80ties were reminded me by watching these videos. Who is the guy commanding in the video ? Cant the authorities take action against the culprit: All these prove our uncivilized societies are structured from the beginning on to breed violence against humanity. Brutal ragging days were the brutal days of my past – also not forgetting insurgency held in the country towards late 80ties. Jeshta uthamayas were like rabid dogs. We just left and ran away not being able to face it that brutally. If I stayed in srilanka, I would ahve taken any actions to change the system. On one hand it is nice to have moved away from uncivilized societies – and in the same time, we failed to take action even after 3 decades against brutal ragging(human right violations) in universities.

    • 1

      These are great videos to show the world the actual stand of human rights violations in this island nation. For me those who made these videos are heroic.

      Sinhalaya baluwela… Rajapakshe Rajawela… apita buduma saranai

      • 1

        It is the athi nethi paratharaya – gap between rural and urben in terms of langague skills and general knowledge make this ragging this brutal.

        I still rememember, we were brutally attacked in Sarasawi uyana.. we were thrown to the canal with all our belongings.. we the 20 year olds knew nothing but to obey their commands… it was very inhuman. I would never ask anyone to attack our freshers anywwere. Those who joined Pera from rural areas had an inborn hatreds against those coming from urban schools. This is kind of psycho problems that those schools have been having from day 1. I thought since the IT opened and connected the world together, things have worked to the bettermenent of the youth, but watching the added videos I felt myself, nothing has changed for the benefit of the freshers. I can imagine my niece to have joined lanken uni today.. though I rejected her thoughts about ragging telling the the other way around. So what we have acheived over the past 2 decades is nothing … that is proved and verified by this videos. Nothing like this nature of ragging I have heard from any where even not from far poor afro countries. They treat their freshers with love and kindness.
        I dont think that Tamils batchas got this right .- the way we anti raggers felt then, becuse of the langague barrier in exchange the views – we still remember almost every weekend durnig that freshers days we hide somewehwere in Heerasagala.. since knwoing the brutal activities being practised by senior batchmates of the faculties. I can write a lot about these incidents though it was 3 decades ago. I hae left behind my belongings in the hostels and ran away escaping the life and ended up in Europe and proceeded my studies. Today we work for entire world being a part of civlized world.

    • 1

      Cleaning up this mess must come from the top. That is the only way, given our dictatorial politicians.

      Look at China. There is massive corruption in all parts of Chinese society but the leaders are trying to remove it. The expensive watches have disappeared from the wrists of the powerful mandarins, their limousines have been traded in for more modest vehicles. Several have been arrested and charged. So, although corruption persists at least the politburo are trying to do something about it and the only deceitful practice visible among them is the uniformly black hair dye.

      In a country like Sri Lanka with our comparatively small population it should be very simple to solve the ragging problem. Other forms of corruption will continue from top to bottom but at least young students will be spared the attention of vicious sadists.

      Where is their saviour? Let him announce himself.

  • 5

    You are a senior research fellow at Centre for Buddhist Studies – University of Oxford.

    You were accepted to the Centre for Buddhist Studies on the basis of your dissertation on “Federal Possibility” for Sri Lanka. Your current research area is Post-War Militancy of Sinhala Saṅgha.

    I don’t know where to begin really. How did you convince a Centre for Buddhist to accept you on the basis of a political dissertation?

    Secondly, your current research again in political sphere. My question is how are you adding value to Buddhism given your obvious political and ethnic prejudices?

    Has anyone reported you to Oxford University management? I think someone should report you as a fraud whose intent has nothing to do with “Buddhist studies”.

    • 1

      Anyone could add value to Buddhism (or any religion) by exposing/critiquing the devaluation of Buddhism (or any religion) by the “official” Buddhists (or any religionists) in Sri Lanka, or elsewhere.

      • 2

        Oh I see! That would be similar to exposing/critiquing Hindu religion using Prabarakan as an example.

        Critiquing a subject is distinct from critiquing its users or followers don’t you agree? Then again I suppose you could make a case where Hindu religion would have improved if not for Prabarakan.

        But then you are missing the important tree in the forest aren’t you?

  • 0

    [Edited out]

  • 0

    Dear suren, The popular belief that Ragging leads to political indoctrination is not really true, at least in my personal experience. People who severely ragged me never involved with politics and most of them were sadists, and pretty disturbed people themselves. They lacked social skills and very primitive in their though processes as well as beliefs. People who invoveld in JVP politics hardly engaged in ragging and they feared( iinflicityly and explicitly) that resentment from students will impact on their political stronghold. IN a personal note, i refused to be ragged and resisted any attempts at physical excess if i felt it violates my choices. This resulted in gaining respect from my fellow colleagues and seniors. However, in reflection, this was due to my strong political views that i expressed and withstand different ideological attacks in public. What happen with new, junior students was that, the vulnerable were explored by group of psychopaths. Violence does not originate at the university, its just a reflection of wider communal problem, erupts in a place where suppression and pressures crack due to lack of control and rejection of their ideas by the academics who look at the students on suspicion and do not give any consideration to their grievances. But times changes as we all know, this is 1990-1996.

  • 1

    This is a re-post from a comment to a different, but related article:

    The ragging phenomenon is a deep-seated and antiquated tradition that has no place in the 21st century. “Hazing” as it’s known in the US is a crime and people are convicted and expelled from universities as a result of a guilty conviction.

    In Sri Lanka it seems these violent criminals are given at worst a slap on the wrist. There have been multiple egregious instances of ragging that have ended in either murder or suicide of the victims of such ragging over many decades, but it seems the authorities are impotent in preventing and prosecuting these crimes.

    Why is that the case? My parents who went to the University of Peradeniya in the late 50′s tell me that ragging then was a much less violent phenomenon meant to break the ice between freshers and seniors. Fro example,re-enacting a movie song between 2 first-year students. But then, it is often pointed out, that most of the students who went to university came from urban and middle and upper middle class families, due to the dearth of advanced-level teachers for rural schools among other factors.

    Now, thankfully that is not the case. We have better rural schools than ever before that produce some of the best talent in the country. So there is a much bigger diversity on campus than before. Especially diversity in socio-economic class. It is said that nowadays only a small minority of university students come from English-educated urban families and the vast majority are non-English speakers and quite a few from rural backgrounds. People allege that the violence perpetrated has a strong tinge of class-warfare, i.e. the ragging season is the one time when the lower socio-economic classes have to lord over the middle and upper socio-economic classes. This is the only oppurtunity to sock it to the priviledged classes, it is said, becuase most of the rest of the time the middle and upper classes control the economy and most of the other spheres of life in Sri Lanka.

    The reasons behind the deterioration of teasing of freshers to violent assault has deep-rooted social causes such as petty class jealousy to bullying to intimidation of political opponents. Ragging is very closely tied to politics since as any Sri Lankan knows there is a big divide between the urban and rural dwellers in Sri Lanka, as there is between the middle and upper vs. the lower classes. So politicians being the corrupt lot they are, are either afraid to challenge the powerful student unions, or are in fact sympathetic to whom they term as the “underdogs” – the lower classes, who make up the majority of Sri Lankans.

    Unless and until all people affected by ragging face up to these truths, ragging will continue to destroy the lives of the very people whom this country needs most – educated and talented youth willing to live and work in Sri Lanka, especially given the trends in population decline and brain-drain. The unfortunate reality is that even though victimized the urban and English-educated will have a relatively easy opt-out: they can go abroad for higher studies (and end up emigrating), or they can find a job in Sri Lanka due to their language skills in English. It’s the bright, non-English speaker who gets both ends of the stick – ragged by shameless seniors and discriminated by the priviledged classes.

    Psychologists often point out the the biggest bullies are those with the greatest mental problems. Their bullying is a means to compensating their real or perceived inadequacies. If one uses those conclusions to understand the ragging phenomenon in Sri Lanka, one would find a trove of social ills that the WHOLE society needs to deal with and help eradicate, starting from class discrimination and sexual exploitation.

    Is the society ready to deal with it?

    October 8, 2014 at 9:55 pm

  • 0

    Thank you, Dr. Raghavan, for this perceptive analysis of suffering within the Sri Lankan university system.

    Contrary to one of the commentators here, I do not think that only isolated individuals who are pathological carry out such despicable violence. Ordinary people are capable of extraordinary violence, when they are followers of unscrupulous leaders and ideologies. The universities in Sri Lanka are a training grounds for the terrible governance and violence that is reproduced in the political sphere and government of the country, as much as they mirror these. Student leaders, many of whom are in the JVP, are fully complicit in this system of inflicting pain on others. The distressing result is that not only does the university system here lack academic excellence but it is entirely deficient in moral integrity. That is why the graduates who go on to become “public servants” also lack moral integrity.

    It is a sad situation in a country and society that is supposed to practice Buddhist values – such as metta, karuna, muditha, upekha. I think you are doing very relevant work at a Buddhist studies center by analyzing how adherents actually practice (or perhaps in this case does not even attempt to practice) Buddhism in a country whose aim is to safeguard Buddhism in the world.

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