Rage on the hallowed ground | Daily News
Multidisciplinary approach needed to combat ragging

Rage on the hallowed ground

Getting ragged or bullied in university is something every fresher dreads. The menace keeps making a comeback into universities and with the most recent update of a suicide letter penned by Sabaragamuwa University student Amali Chathurika surfacing, the topic is back in the debate.

Amali’s plight is only a drop in the ocean as many incidents go unreported. Ever since Peradeniya University student Rupa Rathnaseeli jumped from the second floor of Ramanathan Hall to escape physical ragging, was confined to a wheelchair for many years till she committed suicide in 1997, a rising number of cases related to ragging has been reported throughout the years.

Yes, people may do it for fun, but sometimes the tradition of ragging goes hazardously wrong. Many of those who have been at the receiving end, don’t always dig it. While no college permits it, students consider it integral to university life, at some level or the other. Ragging today is poles apart from how it was practised many decades ago. Rather than being limited to teasing and making the new students get on stage to sing a song or act a part in a drama or film, ragging now often includes physical abuse and sexual harassment. Recognised as one of the worst forms of human rights abuse that takes socially and legally unacceptable patterns of verbal, physical, sexual and mental torture, ragging is so brutal in some cases that the victim either commits suicide or it results in death.

According to the University Grants Commission (UGC) Chairman Professor Mohan de Silva, ragging has caused 14 deaths so far.

“1,989 students have left Sri Lankan state universities in 2016/2017. Entry to Sri Lankan state universities is extremely difficult. Out of around two lakhs, only about 115, 000 students will be eligible for university entrance. The UGC selects about 30, 000 out of the applicants. The Advanced Level results are usually announced on April 4. The UGC opens the application process on the third week of April and it will close in six weeks. The university cut-off marks are released in June or July. After a student is registered to a Sri Lankan state university he or she will never be selected again for university entrance. If you register and later leave the university, you have lost the opportunity of graduating at a state university in Sri Lanka,” Prof de Silva explained.

“Only a small minority pursue education abroad. The students also wait for a span to enter university and then leave after they have been enrolled there. Even if the student gets a job offer, he or she will still continue to study at the state university because the degree is quite valuable. A student also has a wide variety of subjects to choose from in the stream that he or she chooses. Students who have passed the Advanced Level examination well will have no problem facing these exams,” he said adding that there is no way that the students have left the state universities for private sector universities because that demands a lot of money.

The UGC launched the Center for Gender Equity/Equality last year. Professor Uma Coomaraswamy is its director. A 24-hour hotline (0112123700) has been established so that anyone can lodge a complaint. Students can also visit www.ugc.ac.lk/rag and type their complaint and send evidence.

“We have had 434 complaints during the past one and a half years. Some of them are even about physical abuse. The students are reluctant to step forward with their complaints because as soon as they do it, they are cornered in the university and assaulted,” Prof de Silva said.

He says that students from low-income families who enter the universities are brainwashed by sadistic ideologies.

Three types of ragging

Senior Consultant Psychiatrist and Kothalawela Defence University Senior Lecturer Dr Neil Fernando noted that ragging takes place in three ways: verbally, physically and sexually.

“The seniors use obscene words and instil fear and pressurize the freshers by demeaning them verbally. Physical ragging may involve the freshers being forced to perform awkward activities which are not normally performed in the day to day life. They are made to engage in these activities in front of an audience and the viewers will laugh, jeer and enjoy the scene. This may result in psychological trauma. Students may also be forced to eat or drink things which they do not normally consume like urine. The third type of ragging involves sexual abuse. Students may be forced to strip their clothes in front of an audience and perform sexual activities. Such forms of violence and harassment have an adverse effect on a person’s psychology. It may be an experience which will haunt a student throughout his or her life rather than have medium-term effects. It may even result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which results in developing fear, anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem, recurrent dreams or recurrent memories where the victim relives the traumatic experience repeatedly. It may even increase hyperarousal, show startled responses or result in sleeping difficulties. They may avoid situations which remind them of the traumatic experience such as leaving the city or avoiding other students,” he said.

He notes that those engaged in ragging too suffer from a mentality in which they derive pleasure from harming others.

“Such people may come from traumatic backgrounds or have family problems,” he noted.

Center for Gender Equity/Equality director Professor Uma Coomaraswamy said that they have launched posters and handouts creating awareness about ragging. An ‘Emergency Safety App’ too had been introduced allowing the university vice-chancellors and marshals to track the victims.

“A student can download the application for free and resister in it by using their university ID. If a student becomes a victim of ragging then all he or she has to do is click the button and a message will be delivered to the relevant parties. If the student presses the button and keeps it on hold, then everything will be recorded. You can take evidence like pictures too by using this app. All these evidence will be sent across to the authorities,” she said adding that since the app can only be logged in using the student’s university ID, this ensures that it cannot be handled by another party.

Another measure taken by the UGC to eliminate ragging is to send letters to the parents who will be entering universities stating that ragging is a criminal offence and that if their son or daughter is found guilty of ragging then he or she can be sent for 10 years of life imprisonment. A person arrested under the Ragging Act the Magistrate cannot be grant bail as well.

“Ragging is a prohibited act in Sri Lanka by ‘Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act’, No 20 of 1998. Therefore, ragging is a crime, and anyone who is engaged in such criminal activities in or outside of universities and other higher educational institutions could be brought before the law. Any person who commits or participates in ragging could be prosecuted before a Magistrate Court and could be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term up to two years. Apart from this, the court could order the guilty party to pay compensation to the victim. If an act of ragging involves sexual harassment or grievous hurt, the court could punish the accused with an imprisonment up to ten years,” Attorney-at-Law Priyalal Sirisena said.

He noted that this law also covers any unlawful obstructions caused to fellow students in a university as well as intimidations directed towards fellow students.

“It should be noted that aiding and abetting to commit such acts is also an offence. Courts have the power to order that a person who is found guilty of ragging be expelled from the relevant university or higher education institution,” he added.

Eradicating ragging, a team effort

Higher Education and Cultural Affairs Minister Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe stressed on the need to eliminate ragging from universities promptly to ensure an ideal educational environment.

“We use a wrong term in describing these behaviours. Torture and sexual harassment are more apt terms to describe them. The problem has amounted to a state where universities are unable to function smoothly.

“At times the seniors do not allow the freshers to sleep even because they carry out their ragging rituals around the clock. Going to the library and speaking in English are banned and at times they have been harassed sexually as well. Though ragging is normally limited to the first term it now continues in the second term as well. Any incident of this nature needs to be reported and action can be taken to bring the culprits to book,” he said.

Referring to some of the past incidents which have been reported in the recent past the minister said that several undergraduates including five monks have been taken to custody for engaging in various forms of inhumane activities.

“We can eradicate the ragging menace from universities if everyone works together. The staff and board of governors too were victims in the past but now they have taken matters into their hands with the launch of the awareness campaign,” he said adding that laws have been implemented to give stern punishment for ragging.

The picture, however, stands out in stark contrast to what it was fifty years ago. It was good fun, left lasting impressions and was an act devoid of physical harassment then. Deaths were not reported even when the demands were not met with. One of the most common forms of ragging was a male fresher handing over a wildflower to a fresher girl on bended knees and declaring his undying love for her.

“There is a general perception among people who have studied at Sri Lankan state universities in the past that ragging is pleasant and assort of culture practised to make everyone equal. Therefore they believe that ragging should be allowed to continue. However, that ragging method which they perceive as ragging is not there anymore in Sri Lanka. What exists is a dangerous form of violence and sexual abuse by a group of people who are a minority but extremely powerful both physically and vocally. They also control the student unions to some extent and are also manipulated by outside forces,” Prof de Silva explained adding that mafia groups have taken over the universities today.

He notes that if the entire academic and none academic staff stands against this system then ragging will cease to exist in universities. Since the situation is not so, he notes that the staff too is being controlled by the powerful forces.

External influence

Speaking to the Daily News Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) convener Lahiru Weerasekara said that the IUSF too stands any form of violence or sexual abuse imposed on the university students.

“Many point their finger at the unions regarding such deeds. Our universities still possess extreme backward activities which effects on the students. We do not engage in activities which make us unpopular among the fellow students or the public as instilling fear or torture will not win their support. Actions like passing laws, hurling false accusations and putting students in jail is not the answer to this problem,” he said adding that outside forces play a key role in fueling the issue.

“Ragging is good as long as it is not physical. But even then, there must be a limit. It actually depends on the person. If the person can take things lightly, then that’s good. Otherwise, it should stop at something mild and harmless like singing or dancing,” Dharshani, a second-year Arts student at the Colombo University said.

Prasad, another senior from Sri Jayewardenepura University feels that ragging needs to be monitored rather than banned from universities.

“Ragging as such is good as long as it is harmless. It is a good way of getting to know the seniors better and vice-versa. When there’s no one to monitor the limit, there is a chance that ragging might take an ugly turn,” he expressed.

Umali, a student from the medical faculty of Peradeniya University says that most seniors call the juniors over to assert their superiority.

“If you give in, you get undermined. If you talk back, you are stuck with a reputation for the rest of your life in university,” she explained.

Sociology of ragging

Peradeniya University Sociology lecturer Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva said, “In a sociological perspective ragging can be seen as some sort of an initiation process imposed by a section of senior students on the new entrants to the universities with a view to assimilating them to a so-called subculture prevailing among university students. This subculture is a reportedly egalitarian one where all the students are placed on a common platform irrespective of their background whether they are from rural or urban areas, rich or poor families or men or women. In a critical sense, this practice is intended to establish a certain herd mentality among students where they go along with decisions and practices imposed upon them by the so-called student leaders without debating or questioning them. In spite of the reported egalitarian ethos of the practice it actually creates a hierarchy among students based on their seniority and gender, with ragging often used by senior male students to make advances to so-called fresher girls sometimes referred to as a badu nava (shipload of goodies). This also prevents the formation of agency and independence among students in regard to politics, decision making, social mobilization and even selection of their potential love partners.”

He notes that students should be encouraged to associate with each other, learn from each other and make connections across the ethnic, religious and social class divisions.

“The practice of ragging does not seem to make the freshers more sociable at all as evident from a pattern of segregation prevailing among students by social class, ethnicity, medium of instruction in certain faculties and in various other ways,” he said.

Professor Silva notes that the remedies followed so far by the university authorities such as imposing punishments on raggers, educating new students and parents and passing legislation prohibiting ragging does not seem to have worked.

“There are some senior students who are referred to as anti-raggers who seem to be opposed to ragging on the grounds of principles but their number has remained small and they have not been able to influence the mainstream among senior students. While there should be some provisions to impose sanctions against ragging, personally I do not think punishments alone can effectively deal with this problem given the current situation in the university system. A broader dialogue among university teachers, parents, senior and junior students and the public at large must be initiated in order to identify effective remedies for this problem. The student counsellor schemes in the universities must be revisited and reorganised in ways that address the problems of students and our knowledge about the existing practices must be enhanced through further research and an informed discussion about possible alternatives to ragging as a means of welcoming new students to the universities. There is a need to mobilize sports, arts and culture, religious activities, voluntary community services by students as a means to facilitate and foster interaction, creativity and social commitment among students identified as the future leaders of the country,” he said.

Seeking help

You can complain to the Vice Chancellor of your university in writing or in person

Lodge a complaint with the Director of the UGC Center for Gender Equity/Equality (CGEE) in person or in writing or by phone (+94 11 3056885) or email ([email protected])

Lodge a complaint on the UGC SGBV complaints portal (www.ugc.ac.lk/sgbv)

Lodge a complaint to Head/Gender Focal Point of your university

Use the ‘Emergency Safety App’ on your mobile to make an immediate call for help

Lodge a complaint to the police

Student victims of ragging

1975: Rupa Rathnaseeli of Peradeniya University off the second floor of the Ramanathan Hall to avoid grave sexual abuse. She was paralysed and committed suicide in 1997.

1992: A female student was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend at Kelaniya University.

1993: Chaminda Punchihewa died as a result of ragging at Ruhuna University.

1997: A female student of Ruhuna University committed suicide after she was subjected to severe sexual harassment.

1998: The death of Varapragash in Peradeniya University due to injuries sustained in ragging.

2002: Ovitigala Vithanage Samantha who pioneered an anti-ragging campaign was murdered in Sri Jayewardenepura University when he tried to stop ragging.

2011: A female student became semi-paralysed in one limb due to physical ragging at Ruhuna University.

2011: Three students from Peradeniya University were arrested for sexually assaulting a fresher.

2013: Three second-year female students of Peradeniya University were charged with ragging a group of female freshers. The freshers had been stripped naked, during the ragging and forced to perform indecent sexual acts.

2014: The suicide of a former male student D K Nishantha in the Peradeniya University premises who had been forced to leave the university due to ragging.

2015: Suicide of Amali Chathurika due to ragging at the Sabaragamuwa University

Source: University Grants Commission




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