Ragging in Sri Lanka’s higher educational institutes | Sunday Observer

Ragging in Sri Lanka’s higher educational institutes

At a time when almost everyone on the planet has their receptors widely open to focus on COVID-19 and working as a team to stop the pandemic, I felt duty bound to use those opened receptors of Sri Lankans to bring another pandemic called ‘ragging/hazing/bullying’ to their notice. Yes, I used the word ‘pandemic’ since it is widely spread in many countries, not only in the institutions of higher education but also in facilities such as military training and teacher training facilities and even in some monasteries. 

Abuse of new entrants, verbally, physically and psychologically, by the senior students of the university is commonly known as ‘ragging’ within the Sri Lankan state university system. (There may be similar situations in some of the private higher education institutes in the country too.

However, here, I am mainly focusing on the state university system of the country.)It is similar to the American phenomenon known as hazing or bullying in high schools, colleges and universities. Whether it is in Sri Lanka, the USA or any other country in the world, it is a brutal violation of the human rights of one group of citizens by another group and therefore, should be treated as such and the relevant authorities together with the citizenry of the country have a responsibility to take necessary action to stop it as soon as possible.  

If we are genuinely interested in eradicating a disease, we should not only study and treat the symptoms and characteristics of the particular organism which causes the disease but also find out the origin of the organism and take necessary action to destroy the possibilities of its re-appearance.

In the case of ragging, looked at as a disease, the incidents such as the one investigated by the ‘Kularatne Commission’ in 1974, the suicide attempt by a student in 1975, death of students at Peradeniya University, School of Agriculture at Angunukolapelassa and the Hardy Institute in Ampara can be seen as the extreme cases among countless other victims who were psychologically damaged or who dropped out of the university due to the unbearable trauma they experienced.

To treat the current cases or to take action against the perpetrators, Act. No. 20 passed in the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1998,  says ‘Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions’. This, together with the current legal framework according to the Constitution of the country are more than enough if (this is a big IF) the relevant authorities are ready and able to implement them as they are intended to be implemented. 

According to recorded history, it is hard to find any evidence to say that rragging’ (or any behaviour similar to that) is an indigenous phenomenon. But in  world history, one will find that similar phenomena existed especially in the military camps and military schools. These techniques were used to destroy individualism and selfish ideologies and inculcate the group mentality and subordination which are vital characteristics in a military setting. I would leave it to the reader, if interested, to check into the post World War II era to find out whether this behaviour is yet another gift we got from  British colonialism in Sri Lanka. If that is the case, then the perpetrators themselves are so blind to their own contradictory behaviour, since most, if not all, of them are the very same people who lead the herd against the so called westernisation of the Sri Lankan society.  Though the current cases can be dealt with under the legal framework, I think, we should try to understand the root cause(s) of the problem since the perpetrators themselves  were  victims of the disease just one or two years ago. The average age of a student entering the university system of the country at present is 21 years. Therefore, we,  their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and neighbours should try to think why and how a 21-year-old from our household or neighbourhood became a monster who is capable of torturing or even killing another young human being of the same age. Some of the common statements we hear from the parents and others around these perpetrators are: “He (she) never hurt even an ant when he (she) was at home going to school and we cannot even believe that he (she) is capable of doing something like this.

He (she) is certainly wrongly accused because our son (daughter) will never do such a thing”. If we assume that those statements are true, then wouldn’t that mean that this monster was created during that one year he (she) spent in the university? If yes, then the universities have a very big responsibility to make sure that they are not the breeding grounds for such monsters.

If not, meaning, if the university did not create the monster, then the monster has been dormant within this innocent looking human waiting to come out after one year in the university. If that is the case, then when and where was this monster created? Well, the first 21 years of this young person’s life was mostly spent at home and school and perhaps in some cases partly even at  a temple, church or mosque. Therefore, the environment(s) in which these young perpetrators grow up  should be studied carefully to find out how a 21-year-old person’s thought process can become so blatantly inhumane. 

Now, the other side of the coin is the victim, the new entrant. Why are they ready to accept these torturous abuses without any resistance? Is it because those 2-year-olds coming from similar environments do not have a backbone to stand up for their rights? If so, who is responsible for creating such spineless young adults? I think the readers probably remember the incident that took place in 2002 at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura,where a third year Management student, who pioneered an anti-ragging campaign was killed by a mob  which came from outside.

 This shows that there are links between these perpetrators in the universities and some other groups of people outside the universities. Who are these people who manipulate and use these university students for their gains? If these senior students in the universities get involved in these types of criminal acts, torturing new students, to satisfy their manipulators outside, then aren’t those senior students themselves victims of those outside manipulators? Aren’t the outside manipulators responsible then for what the victims of ragging have to go through, including suicides? 

Therefore, in eradicating the ragging virus, short-term solutions and long-term solutions both have to be implemented simultaneously. Implementing the laws to the fullest could be done as a short-term remedy and intervening at appropriate times and places to influence the behavioural patterns of young Sri Lankans starting from birth could be  a long-term solution.

The process should look at both parties, perpetrators and victims, and find out why they behave the way they do and make all the stakeholders aware of the consequences, cause(s) and the origin(s) of those corresponding behavioural patterns and implement necessary changes at appropriate times. 

(The writer has served in  the higher education sector as an academic for  over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]