The Sunday Leader

Ragging: A Student’s Nightmare

By Maryam Azwer

Dissanayake Meets Akashi - Public Management Reforms Minister Navin Dissanayake met Yasushi Akashi in Tokyo on January 1, 2012.

A first year student from the University of Peradeniya was recently  hospitalised after allegedly being ragged by his seniors. According to Peradeniya University Student Council President, Mahesh Lanka, the victim was identified as Rajitha Lakshitha, a student from the Arts Faculty, and is reported to have been physically and sexually assaulted.
Although legal action is being taken against the second year students allegedly involved in the ragging, Mahesh Lanka told The Sunday Leader last week that Lakshitha had stopped attending University, and that the Student Council had been unable to contact him.
“The thing is, he hasn’t even lodged a complaint with the University,” said Lanka.
Cases as serious as Lakshitha’s may be rare, but the fact that they do take place, speaks for itself about the culture of ragging in local universities. Although many of those within the University system itself argue that the ‘rag’ carried out against freshers is a rite of passage, or a means of creating equality and solidarity among students, there is no denying that this trend can leave behind wounds that won’t heal.
Interestingly, student union leaders have been quick to declare that the ragging has been brought under control, and is not as terrible as it has been portrayed to be.
“Ragging has become a way of initiating new students, and since it first started, it has changed a lot; there is more control over ragging now,” said Convener of the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF), Sanjeewa Bandara.
He went on  to claim that, through this control, by the IUSF, for instance, what was once known as ragging is actually now an organised way of bringing students together.
“They say that you can’t wear certain clothes, and that you won’t be allowed to speak English, that’s what they call ragging. But that does not exist,” said Bandara. “Through the IUSF, when freshers come in, workshops and cultural programmes are organised to promote interaction and build relationships,” he added.
Meanwhile, Mahesh Lanka, of the Peradeniya University Student Council, said that although first years were subjected to lectures on the University’s code of conduct by their seniors, incidents of violence were rare.
“We don’t usually have such serious issues, like what happened recently,” he said, referring to Nilakshitha’s case. He also added, when asked whether his council had enough power to prevent potential violence, “Yes, we do have the power to put a stop to it.”
In the past, student councils have been blamed for contributing towards ragging. Despite what student council leaders have claimed, not all students find their first-year experience as one that brought them together, or created any sort of harmony.
Getting Ragged – And Then Ragging “During my first year, some girls were slapped for refusing to wear skirts, as per the dress code for first years,” said Kaumadee, a student of the University of Colombo, presently in her second year.
“We were also seriously harassed simply for coming from Colombo schools, or being in the English medium. I think it was worst in the Arts Faculty,” she added.
Traditionally, it is the second year students who rag the freshers, she explained. “There are people who move on to second year, and decide it’s alright to carry on the rag, even after they’ve been through it. Their theory is that it creates equality, so they think it’s essential. I’m totally against it, but I can’t stop others from doing it, because it could get me into trouble,” said Kaumadee.
Asanga*, a second year student at the University of Kelaniya, also noted that some of those who had endured the rag, went on to become perpetrators themselves. “Some of us do feel sorry for the new students, but others see it as a rite of passage. Their reasoning is that we got ragged, so we’re just returning the favour. Others get involved in ragging the juniors because they are forced into it too. There is definite peer pressure,” he noted.
According to Asma*, a second year student from the University of
Colombo, ragging is often carried out separately for Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim students. “The Sinhalese would rag the Sinhalese, the Tamils would rag the Tamils, and the Muslims would rag the Muslims,” she explained. “In my case, our seniors made all the girls wear the abaya (cloak) and a black lace scarf for the first few months. I wear the abaya anyway, but I didn’t wear the black scarf. I was the only one who didn’t. I know they were breaking rules by forcing us to do anything. They say this ragging is for ‘relationship building’ but I honestly don’t see how,” she added.
Cracks In The System

The Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act, No. 20 of 1998 exists to eliminate ragging, yet, year after year, this menace gets in the way of people’s higher education.
Complaints about ragging in Universities have ranged from annoying dress codes to intimidating seniors. Some  feel this is something that simply has to be endured, just for one year.
Every now and then however, something  happens to draw attention to the seriousness of the issue. People get hurt. Students drop out of university. And sadly, authorities don’t – or perhaps won’t – take enough action.
In the recent case involving the student from Peradeniya, twenty-five second year students were produced before court. Three of them are now in remand. The details surrounding the incident itself, however, are not very clear.
According to Student Council Leader, Mahesh Lanka, the victim had allegedly been beaten up at night, at his hostel.
The IUSF’s Sanjeewa Bandara, meanwhile, said that the student’s claim that he was sexually assaulted, was a complete lie.
Bandara even went on to claim that there was more to the issue. “He was presented as someone who was victimized by the university system.
They are using this to bring disrespect to the local university system. If he was sexually harassed, he would  have lodged a complaint, but he has not,” he said.
When contacted, Vice Chancellor, University of Peradeniya, Prof. Sarath Abayakoon, said that he could not comment on the issue, because investigations were still ongoing. “I have appointed an inquiry committee, and police are also doing investigations,” he said.
When questioned on the issue of ragging within his University, he said, “All I can say is that things are being done, things are being forced on people. We notice there is some sort of dress code; the first years all wear the same kind of dress for some time. When we ask them they say they are doing it on their own, but we believe there is some form of harassment going on,” he said.
Prof. Abayakoon also noted that incidents involving violence were very rare, and that authorities did take action in such cases. “Every year we do deal out suspensions and expulsions, depending on how severe it is,” he said.
However, he also had this to add: “There is a problem in the education system in general, but Universities aren’t entirely to blame. It is usually the second years who carry out the rag. They have been in University for only one year. Is the blame totally on the University, or on the system through which the children have been brought up? The education system, especially at O/L and A/L stages, is very competitive. In my opinion, that takes values out of children.
Universities can’t be blamed for changing a person within one year,” he said.  His  argument does perhaps make sense. Reports of ragging among school children are, sadly, not unheard of. As the Vice Chancellor pointed out, “We take in students who have done well in their exams, but this does not mean that  they are ‘educated’” – an issue that authorities, hopefully, will notice, and act on.
*Names have been changed

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