Ruhuna University VC confronts Student Union raggers : From rag to radicalism | Sunday Observer

Ruhuna University VC confronts Student Union raggers : From rag to radicalism

The administration of the Ruhuna University has locked horns with the campus student union leadership while the University and radical student leaders battle for the souls of the incoming new students. “ If it is the last thing I do!” an outraged University Vice Chancellor declared while promising the news media last week that he was determined to fight the hold that the student union leadership has over the junior students via a vicious ‘ragging cult’.

In doing so, the clearly frustrated Vice Chancellor, Professor Sujeewa Amarasena, must confront the highly organized campus Student Union body which has been led in recent years by the radical Left student followers of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), the hardline Marxist political party that broke away from the JVP a few years ago. Originally, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna had long dominated all campus student Bodies, but when they broke away from the JVP, the FSP hardliners managed to wrest control of the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) which controls most State university student unions.

The Vice Chancellor claims that the FSP uses the cult of ragging to indoctrinate each new student intake and also mobilise the ‘freshers’ for student politics and agitation, in support of its political stances on education and student issues. Following a ‘declaration of war against violent ragging’ within the Ruhuna University campus by Vice Chancellor Amarasena last week, the university’s student union surrounded the administration building on Thursday in an attempt to take the VC hostage.

On Thursday, Ruhuna University sources said a group of students instigated by the student union surrounded the administrative building and attempted to take Vice Chancellor Amarasena hostage but fortunately, the attempt was foiled.

During an emotionally charged press conference last week, Prof. Amarasena, said he would fight the intimidation of freshers to turn them into “slaves of political thugs”. “I will do that if that is the last thing I do,” he declared.

He pointed a finger at the FSP for forcing the freshers to peddle a political ideology, hijacking their studies, and manipulating their mental state through the ragging cult. Although the ‘ragging season’ in universities usually lasts only three months, the Vice Chancellor said the ‘season’ here is dragged on for one full year and during that time what happens most is hauling the freshers outside for ‘protests’.

“It is not out of choice but due to extreme pressure they take part in violent protests in Colombo and elsewhere, including within the Ruhuna University. The kids have to join at least two protests a week, I’m not exaggerating. How can these students concentrate on their academic activities?,” Prof.Amarasena asked.

The student union protests more often than not, end up violently and the students who unwittingly get caught up, sustain injuries when they clash with riot police.

“Our investigations have revealed that the freshers are easy prey during the ragging (season) as they are so frightened. The seniors instructed by so called student union (leaders) don’t hesitate to beat them up or even harass them sexually”, (an inside source who works closely with the students and therefore wished to remain unnamed), said. This violence is carried out even at night.

The Vice Chancellor said he has a large collection of letters sent in by the parents of harassed students but the parents are prevented from going to the police, fearing more harassment to their children - because the raggers maintain such a fearsome reputation.

The Ruhuna University Vice Chancellor said he forcibly opened rooms maintained as torture chambers by the members of the Student Union backed by Inter University Student Federation, within the University premises. These were located near the ‘Upper Canteen’, allegedly a territory used by the Union. The place was fortified with iron doors, a disfiguring, ugly, addition to campus architect Geoffrey Bawa’s original, serenely simple, architecture of the University.

“Amazingly, none of the student union members have spoken a word about this action so far,” he said. For the past 15 years, no member of the academic staff or the non-academic staff had gone anywhere near the upper canteen, let alone the highly fortified enclosures near the upper canteen which is sometimes a sleeping bunker for the Union thugs.

It has also been found that 250 first year Ruhuna undergraduates were forced to attend a protest in Colombo in 2018 and the university administration says not a single senior had taken part.

They keep this going, and our investigations have found that such campaigns are well funded. “The students are transported to Colombo and well looked after. This involves money. Such money will not come by with a mere till-collection,“ the Vice Chancellor said adding that the government must look into their funding sources.

“We think these campaigns are targeted to disrupt the state university system and higher education of our children, to chase away students from State education institutions to the private sector.”

Nearly 2,000 entrants dropout of universities allegedly due to ragging each year, this is an alarming situation, the Chairman University Grants Commission Prof. Mohan de Silva told the Sunday Observer in an earlier interview.

According to him in the 2017/2018 academic year, the number of drop outs stood at 1989.

He said the argument that these students leave state universities for foreign placements and better jobs, did not hold ground. The foreign universities commence degree programs early and most students who land jobs try to complete the degrees while hanging on to the job.

“The freshers are so petrified of the raggers, they don’t even take part in cultural programs or a movie screening organized by the university, if they are told not to go. So strong is the grip that the student union has on the new comers,” Prof. Amarasena said.

During the first three months the undergraduates follow the English and IT orientation programs, an important segment of their degree program. “When this is prevented due to ragging, the result obviously is a misfit in the job market,” he said trying to explain the gravity of the underlying issue. Already the private sector is very reluctant to employ the state graduates with the exception for Engineers and Doctors - who are indispensable.

Due to the culture of this extreme violence in universities many students have dropped out and another group have become social-misfits or lifelong mental patients, a disturbing number have lost their lives.

It is not a secret that the raggers maintain torture chambers even outside the universities. In February 2017 such a place was raided by the Peradeniya university authorities and 15 students were arrested by the police. What happened thereafter?

The Vice Chancellor Prof. Amarasena said that the universities and the UGC, (and Minister of Higher Education), must take strong action to banish this evil practice and violence (in the guise of ragging), from the university. He said the government has the biggest responsibility and the (mainstream) political parties should lead this campaign. “It is the future of our children and our country which is at stake,” he said.

The Vice Chancellor said the student union, backed by the Frontline Socialist Party is conducting a parallel administration at the Ruhuna University.” Without their permission, not even a film can be screened within the university,” he said adding that he had the documentary proof to show how the student union is controlled by this party.

However, despite allegations the FSP has always denied that they have strings attached to the university student unions. “If there is a torture chamber in the University and if the VC did not know about that, the administration should be blamed for that not the student union,” Inter University Student Federation spokesperson said. The IUSF convenor said, “Someone should check the VC’s mental state.”

The Vice Chancellor said he will fight this grip, because he wanted the children to have a free environment to concentrate on their studies and recreational activities within the university premises, without the fear.

“There will be death threats- I have been warned, but someone must break this vicious cycle,” he said adding that since the politics behind the student unions are now exposed, it was up to the government to take action.

The Vice Chancellor said his jurisdiction is restricted to the Ruhuna University, and that he cannot go beyond that. We have evidence to connect the IUSF to the Frontline Socialist Party, I can produce the evidence to anyone if needed.

Despite this fresh ray of hope, all previous attempts since 2002, since the death of Samantha Vithanage - (a third year management student of Sri Jayawardenapura University), to keep violent ragging in state higher educational institutions in check, have failed. Samantha’s death compelled the then Education Minister Richard Pathirana to push for tough anti-ragging laws. But the laws are a ‘dead letter’. For the raggers , its ‘businsess as usual’.