‘Ragging’: a euphemism for sexual abuse | Sunday Observer

‘Ragging’: a euphemism for sexual abuse

Prof.Mohan de Silva
Prof.Mohan de Silva

Sri Lanka - “a land like no other”, is probably the only country in the world where parents literally dread the decision to send their child to university, even after he or she makes it through one of the toughest examination hurdles in the country, the local GCE Advanced Level.

Generally 250,000 eighteen to nineteen year-olds, sit for the GCE (AL) each year. Of that number, 150,000 obtain the basic minimum qualification for university entrance - three ordinary passes. Due to resource constraints only 30,000 of that number ( 20%), make it to state universities.

It is no secret that state universities are hotbeds of physical abuse and mental torture euphemistically referred to as “ragging”. So far ragging has claimed the lives of 14 undergraduates, not counting the indirect deaths.

“What you witness in universities now is not ragging, it is a dangerous form of sexual violence and abuse,” Chairman , University Grants Commission (UGC) Prof.Mohan de Silva says, and his discomfort with the prevailing situation is obvious.

Memories of university life, where ragging was a harmless enjoyment for both the ‘ragger’ as well as the ‘raggee’, is a thing of the past. It now involves inflicting fear and physical harm to the extent of causing psychological disorders in a significant number of students each year. The UGC Chairman says the end product of this ‘modern ragging’ is a social misfit.

Worse, it has contributed to a shocking number of students actually dropping out of University and a significant number leaving the country for higher studies.

Does the government take this problem seriously?

In the 2017/2018 academic year alone,1989 students ( or about 6.6 % of the 30,000 intake),had left state universities after registering for various degrees. “It has been said that their departure is not only due to ragging but also some of them, leave for better jobs and placements in foreign universities. I think, that is untrue. The truth is that the vast majority leave university in the early months due to ragging.”

Supporting his argument,Prof.De Silva said that foreign universities enroll students much earlier than their Sri Lankan counterparts and therefore it is most unlikely that a student would leave even after registering. If a student receives a job offer, the common practice is to complete the degree while working.

The GCE AL is held in August every year and the results are released in the first week of January the next year. By June the cut off marks for degree programs are released. After rounds of upgrading to give the student the best possible placement, the universities begin the sessions by January the following year. By contrast, foreign universities commence their programs with GCE A/L results still pending.

The Chairman said the UGC receives hundreds of letters each year from parents and university students, detailing the torture and agony the students had to undergo during ‘the ragging season’.

In a recent letter, a mother wrote, ‘My son is petrified and refuses to go back to university after what he had experienced. He was stripped naked by a group of seniors and his private parts were groped and squeezed. He told me it was painful. I fear that my son is now mentally affected,and sits all day with a blank expression on his face.’

‘This is one of the milder ones’, Prof. Silva said. The mother’s plea to the UGC was to make some arrangement for her son to complete his degree.

Nothing speaks louder of the gravity of violent ragging than the recently exposed Sabaragamuwa university student’s suicide and her parents’ reluctance to make a complaint for three whole years. The circumstances that caused them to delay their complaint, even in the face of their daughter’s distress, requires investigation, to say the least.

The professor said that due to the conduct of a tiny minority of individuals, the entire university system is tarnished. This small gang however, appropriate for themselves, leading roles in university life. They are seen sanctimoniously carrying the casket of relics before a pirith ceremony or actively organising social events, a tactic to display their clout in the community.

It was only last year a group of Peradeniya university seniors were caught in a late night raid while sexually abusing a group of freshers. The act was carried out at a partially constructed house outside the university.

It had been rented for Rs.30,000 a month for a three month period, which shows the organized forces manipulating the ‘Rag’.

The team of security officers led by the University Proctor witnessed how nine male students were forced to strip naked and perform demeaning acts inside the house. One terrified student was rescued near the hearth in the kitchen with his naked body covered in ash. The Student Union of the university was quick to claim that it was not involved in the torture house incident, but this claim has never been investigated or verified.

A total of 15 students between 21 to 27 years were charged under the Anti Ragging Act. They were released on bail after 100 days and are currently under a three year suspension from university.

This bold decision by the university authorities to affirm their authority and apprehend the culprits, has brought some stability to the Peradeniya Arts Faculty, which was earlier infested by hooligan “student leaders” who terrorized the freshers.

A senior lecturer at the Sri Jayawardenapura university explained the psychology of tactics adopted by raggers, which are similar to the “taming concepts” used against slaves. They are designed to inculcate subservience and destroy personality, he said, adding that, the result is a unemployable graduate with a negative outlook on life.

The various uncouth ‘rules’ imposed -to wear slippers, white clothes, ban on under garments, being forced to wear the same clothes for weeks, and threatening those who disobey their commands as well as preventing them from using the library, public study areas and cafeteria are such ‘taming tactics’ and certainly don’t acclimatize freshers to university life.

The notorious student leaders who mastermind the violent rituals lie low. Even the perpetrators who get caught in ragging are sometimes victims of these elusive “leaders”. The University authorities therefore find it difficult to punish the real culprits.

Within the first three months, the freshers are subject to various forms of harassment, from very innocent bunny leaps to late night sessions of physical abuse and sexual harassment, both within hostels and outside the university.

The orders to come are whispered in the ears and once an order is given no one dares to refuse. Anyone who defies the orders will be subject to severe assault.

Girls or Buddhist clergy are not spared.It is common knowledge that monks too, get stripped and beaten up in their separate hostels.

A senior lecturer at the Peradeniya University said sometimes the senior students come to the lecture hall and ask for permission to take out the freshers for an ‘orientation session’. ‘When we say ok, it is like making a ragging session official. Sometimes the lecturers are unaware, but often they know, and realise the physical exhaustion and mental agony such rituals entail.’

During ‘ragging season’, full use is made of University facilities- the lecture halls are kept illuminated, air conditioners run, while the lecturers are paid, while no education takes place at all, and funds go waste. He said, ‘Not being able to crack down on perpetrators of violent ragging is a pathetic situation for a country which even eradicated brutal terrorism.’

Why can’t it be stopped? The UGC Chairman says it is easier said than done. “The student leaders who are behind these acts take leading roles in every public event within the university including religious activities! The fear psychosis created is such that even the parents are reluctant to report any incident. Without evidence or witnesses it is difficult for the police to act. Even a help desk operating 24/7 at the UGC, a web helpline and awareness material for parents and freshers urged to report and not tolerate ragging, and a tough circular issued to the police have resulted in little progress in cracking down on this menace. The helpline has recorded 460 complaints so far.

The UGC lacks powers to take action, all it can do is refer the complaint to the relevant university. The Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence Act that came into existence in 1998, remains a “dead letter” with the university administration having to giving in to student union pressure whenever a student is apprehended for ragging. Although the offence is ‘unbailable’ in a court of law and involves up to ten years imprisonment, unfortunately not a single offender has so far experienced the full consequences of the law.

The Higher Education Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said 40 students are currently in the remand prison under the anti ragging law.

“There is a very lethargic attitude within the university system to fight abuse and harassment under the guise of ragging, leaving little option for us but to take drastic measures,” the Minister said. He said the Ministry is contemplating making the database at the UGC on ragging, public.This would mean that the perpetrators’ names will be accessible to all. “That means students who get caught for ragging will have little or no hope in securing jobs once they leave university,” he said.

The Frontline socialist party (FSP) is currently accused of having a tight grip on the university student unions, swaying them away from the JVP.Pubudu Jayagoda of the FSP denied this allegation. He said, “Ragging was inculcated on us by the British” (during colonial rule).

In fact, during colonial rule, violent ragging was non existent.

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The Front line socialist party (FSP) is currently accused of having a tight grip on the University student Unions, swaying them away from the JVP.Some students and the University administration had accused them of sustaining violent ragging.Pubudu Jayagoda of the FSP denied this allegation. He had a different view, - “Ragging was inculcated on us by the British” (during colonial rule).Mr Jayagoda is opposed to strict laws and punishments and says that the solution is “ to promote a system of ideals.Ragging was a sub culture that existed for 80 years and cannot be uprooted overnight.Replace ragging with a novel approach to acclimatize the freshers” he says.

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