Colombo Telegraph

Understanding Ragging As A Social Phenomenon

By Kumudu Kusum Kumara

Dr. Kumudu Kusum Kumara

Understanding Ragging As A Social Phenomenon, An Interpretation: In Search Of Sociality & Leadership

Ragging of freshers in the University becomes a problem in the eyes of the collective, due to its “inhuman nature” involving a “disturbingly high degree of physical and mental harassment” as it has been highlighted. Various measures recommended by authorities seasonally to deal with the problems of ragging highlight the enormity and the gravity of the problem as perceived by the collective. All the same, the measures we adopt in “combating” it should be conceived and applied with great care, so as not to repress merely the superficial aspects of the problem while preserving its roots intact. That would cause a re-emergence of ragging in even worse forms than are now prevalent.

Ragging: Problem or Solution?

While the collective perceives ragging as a problem for which solutions have to be sought, ironically, in my view, ragging itself may be understood as a collective solution by those who engage in it to problems of a different kind.


I suggest that the issue which lies at the heart of ragging is sociality. The critics view the behaviour of those who engage in ragging as anti-social; they violate by force the self of the individuals who are ragged and therefore social norms and even the law. This is to say, basically, they lack sociality.

From the perspective of those who engage in ragging and those who approve of it, the specific purpose of ragging is achieving sociality; seniors getting to know the freshers, and introducing them to the traditions of the University which they have entered. A senior’s role then, is to lead the freshers, however unfortunately for the latter, by ragging them.

The question whether the freshers should not be encouraged to rag the seniors to get to know them is not even considered, making taking the lead in ‘getting to know’ the prerogative of the seniors. Or is it considered the entitlement of the host initiating getting to know the visitor? Also, in this case, the burden of deciding the “traditions” of society is squarely taken on the shoulders of the seniors alone.


I wish to suggest that the problem for which ragging is considered a solution by the university student population is their innermost felt need to become leaders and their inability to achieve it.

The University students are taken to constitute the intellectual cream of the country. From a young age they have been made to believe by the society that higher education is the gateway to leadership.

There is an argument that given the bankruptcy of the economy, and the control of the private sector over the job market that make the university educated youth an unwanted element, it is the privations and intense frustrations staring them in the face, that make university students take to ragging. However, to treat them as acting out in this manner is to take them as blind to their reality and thus deny them human agency whereas the interpretation attempted in this article considers ragging is perceived by the students as a course of action taken to address their plight.

However, to lead is to be able to shows the way to others, which requires first to know the way oneself, and is to be able to think for oneself. Unfortunately, this is exactly what our higher education is unable to provide i.e. the opportunity for students to draw out their potential for thinking in a discerning manner, which is the essential requirement for leadership.

Thus, lacking in the ingredient essential for becoming leaders in the true sense, refusing to take part in “pretensions” to leadership by competing for achieving higher social status, refusing to join politics, and with the lack of talent or training to express themselves via any other means such as art, drama and literature, some students choose to assert themselves as leaders mainly by virtue of their seniority. That seems to be the only means they are aware of and is available to them.

While this leadership however does not outlive their university life, for some of them it provides a means of getting noticed by politicians outside the university and thereby an opportunity to secure some form of employment or, in some cases, to enter politics outside the university.

Means and ends

Ragging is nurtured by the conception that one becomes a senior simply because one arrives somewhere first. Those who claim leadership on seniority grounds are different from others who use ragging as a means for some other end, either recruiting the freshers to their political cause, or luring them into romantic liaisons. For the former, ragging is not a means to an end, it is the end itself. And they only provide the clue to understanding ragging as a social phenomenon.

Thus, ragging is a manifestation of the failure of the educational system to provide opportunities for a socially meaningful leadership role to our students beginning with the schools level. The ragging also denotes that their chances of self-assertion as intellectuals are slim. They resort to the only mode of asserting leadership that has been made available to them by their seniors that is, teasing and punishing those of a junior status. Bullying, which is harassment, a practice among school children, is the result of children reacting against the harassment they themselves suffer in the hands of adults in the family, school and society.


Seniority, is a dominant trait characteristic in our cultures, at home, in school, in politics, in the bureaucracy and among the faculty of the University. And university students, claiming leadership on the basis of seniority, are compelled to offer the freshers a course of action, acceptable to the latter. The objective of ragging is thus made to seem to mould the personality of the freshers to enable them to face the hardships of life within the University. This orientation of the freshers, the seniors consider as their responsibility and duty, thus there is the notion of a building up of a continuing tradition in the University from one generation to another.

Unfortunately for both the seniors and the freshers, the only course of action appealing to the seniors to initiate freshers into their world seems to be that in which they have been trained from the beginning of their social life, that is ragging, which in its essence is what is called teasing in the ordinary life.


Teasing in varying forms and degrees, bordering on coercion, verbal, physical, and sexual, is,in Sri Lanka in general, an essential part of initiating the fresher into the ordinary life of the world. Children, throughout their growing up period, whether at home, school, or in the larger life of society, are teased at every turn; such teasing being regarded as appropriate adult behaviour. Teasing is quite common among adults in urbanized settings in initiating freshers into the group in work place, club etc., Even a cursory glance at many of the milder forms of ragging employed in the University would show that they are identical with many forms of teasing and harassment that children are subjected to by adults.

Pleasure and sadism

Teasing brings pleasure to the one who teases, and even to the one who is teased – though up to a point depending on the circumstances, the relationship, and the mentality of those involved.

When punishments given to children at home and in the school, for example, standing on or crouching under the chair, are repeated in the University in ragging for no apparent rhyme or reason, it lacks any shred of justification. This is because it is out of context, inappropriate for the occasion, located in the national institute set up for imparting the highest levels of education. In fact, it is the punishment that is teased here and in the parody on punishment, punishment turns into teasing and teasing into punishment highlighting an element common to both, sadism which is also a form of pleasure, at least to the sadist. The element of sadism lurking underneath teasing comes to surface in punishing someone in public adding humiliation to punishment, turning punishment into harassment.

When one considers what teasing really teases out is the desire for pleasure in the other, in the soul of the one who teases, whether teasing turns into harassment or not depends on the ability of a person to tease out one’s desires without making the other person a victim of such desires .

The limit

Hence ragging does not seem a problem to many, even to some of those who undergo ragging, simply because it involves teasing. (However, this observation should not be taken as a condoning of ragging, in however milder form, even teasing, without the consent of the other.) It becomes a problem when it exceeds the limit, when teasing is forcibly carried out and when it involves, verbal or physical harassment, particularly sexual harassment. It becomes a problem at the point where teasing crosses the border to harassment, and then becomes “inhuman” involving a “degree of physical and mental harassment” whether high or low. The words “inhuman” and “degree” themselves suggest that what is commonly objectionable in ragging is exceeding the limit from being human to inhuman, from a humanly tolerable level to a disturbingly high degree in welcoming the fresher into our midst. It is when this happens, that ragging becomes, justifiably a topic for the public, when the media, politicians and the do-gooders cash in.


In the University, among those who join in ragging, as elsewhere in society, are people who differ in the strength and weakness of their character. The specific forms of ragging would depend on the differences in character of those who engage in ragging. It is not clear whether even all those who push ragging towards the path of violence are necessarily psychopaths– given the fact that violence, and sexual repression, have been key components of our cultures. What the Sadean idea that, ‘give complete freedom to the individual, sex and violence would not be very far’, suggests is that it is one’s socialization that helps one to keep impulses such as violence and sex under control.

The Solution

The University in dealing with violence in ragging would need to enforce law and order as is done elsewhere in society. But the problem lies in getting the victims to stand up and report the culprits, which is not very effective, as is well known, not entirely due to the threat of retaliatory humiliation or further violence. The freshers also develop a sense of belonging to the group which would make them hesitant to seek redress from the authorities, the latter being considered outsiders, as compared to the seniors.

Hence, my suggestion that while the University takes necessary action to enforce normal law and order to prevent violence in ragging, it should also seriously consider the possibility that in the collective life of the University ragging is a response to the problem that the University has failed to educate students to become true leaders, to think independently and act in socially meaningful ways.

Sterility of university

That the University has grown in size over time while becoming more and more sterile – failure to realize its social aims and objectives to produce autonomous human beings is a fact well known both to University students in general and to the more discerning faculty. Hilariously retold anecdotes exist among students on the sterility of faculty in their thinking and teaching. Only a very few academics in Sri Lanka, have focused in their writings on the seriousness of this problem. This is a problem for which I am afraid no expert can come up with easy suitable remedies.

One can only suggest that an apex body like the University Grants Commission can take the initiative in leading the concerned University faculty and administrators to address their minds to the prevailing state of University teaching in its various aspects, including curricula, examinations, lectures and tutorials, teacher-student relationship, teacher training, teacher supervision, and recruitment for teaching. It is essential to involve the student population in this process through appropriate mechanisms for taking the views of the students seriously and drawing out the implications of such views. “The state of teaching in the University” must be made a serious topic of discussion among the University community, both faculty and students, if a University is to flourish; and such a discussion would make students realize that there is something serious going on in the University. Such a realization and a genuine commitment on the part of the faculty and the administration to advance the quality of teaching, would probably arouse the university students to tease their own minds to develop their own personalities, rather than resorting to the ragging of freshers with a view ostensibly to reforming them. This however would be a long-drawn process, though one which requires serious commitment on the part of the faculty and the administration.

Policy makers, educators and administrators, if they desire to “combat” ragging I suggest, would need to seriously re-consider the objectives of our educational system, beyond reforming it to overcome the problem of large numbers of educated but unemployed youth. Matching employment opportunities with appropriate types of learning, skills and crafts is undoubtedly a nationally felt need. However, acquiring a marketable skill or the knowledge of a craft is hardly synonymous with education in its basic sense, the primary object of which is to nurture good citizens, i.e. those who could discriminately think for themselves in taking part in the life of the collective. The examination-oriented, competitive, monotonous educational system that we have is geared to inculcating the capacity to collect information and opinions and to regurgitate these in an examination. A teacher can cover up her/his inadequacies by enforcing conformity with convention, wisdom or received knowledge instead of promoting creativity. Our educational system offers little scope for the cultivation of creative imagination which is essential for citizens with a concern for the world in which they live. The child whose creative imagination is aroused and cultivated tends to tease his/her own mind to bring out its creativity, rather than ragging others to humiliate and harass them.

Such a conception of education, I would argue, together with Martha Nussbaum (Love’s Knowledge), should lead to the recognition that “the core of this education will be found in the studies that we now call “the humanities”. There involve the study of human life through works of art and literature, through the study of history, and through humanistic forms of social inquiry.”

*The article above which was originally written in 1997 and submitted to the then University Grants Commission (UGC), attempts a line of analysis that has current validity as a possible interpretation of ragging as a social phenomenon. The writer wishes to thank Dr. S.B.D. de Silva for commenting on a draft of the original article when it was written first, while the writer alone is solely responsible for errors of fact or interpretation if any, found in it. The original has been slightly revised for the present context.

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