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Death By Ragging

  • How many more deaths will it take before ragging is rooted out from the university system?

by Ashanthi Warunasuirya

Every parent cherishes the hope that one day their child may become a university graduate. However, at present, the term ‘university’ has been linked with the scourge of ragging, thus tainting that great hope with apprehension and fear. The recent incident of ragging at the University of Kelaniya ignited much public disgust and anger. As a result of this incident, seven senior female students were sent to remand prison and the campus was declared off limits to students until June 01.

Disturbing activity such as protests, demonstrations and clashes have become commonplace in universities but one could argue that more serious than any of these is the sadistic ragging that takes place in these hallowed halls of academia. In the past, ragging in universities was something that could be recalled with a degree of fondness. Ragging then mostly involved singing, kneeling and being forced to give flowers to members of the opposite sex while expressing undying love. With time however, ragging transformed into a demeaning form of torture and sexual harassment.

It is unclear as to with whom the blame lies. One clear factor that stands out is that with the expansion of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) within the university system, the conflict between rich and poor became more marked.

Ragging has already claimed the lives of four students and although the issue of ragging has been discussed long and hard, no tangible solutions have emerged. Although a massive media and public outcry ensues whenever a ragging fatality is reported, it soon fades away from the national psyche.

For many students who step in to a university with hopes of great future prospects, the ragging they endure en route has become a form of abuse that haunts them for the rest of their lives. Demeaning insults, assaults and even sexual harassment have turned ragging in to torture. There are forms of sub-cultures in every society. It is common in the university system as well. But the question that is being asked is, what kind of sub-culture is now emerging from the universities?

The severity of ragging has made some students suffer psychological breakdowns. There are countless stories of sexual abuse that has taken place in the guise of ragging. Recently an incident of such sexual abuse was reported from the University of Colombo. After several months of protests and discussion by civil society organisations and the university administration, that incident too has been swept under the rug.

Expressing his views regarding the incident at Kelaniya University, the chairman of the UOK University Teachers Association, Prof. Sumathipala claimed that due to the unacceptable conduct of the students, the environment that prevails at present is not suitable for the university teachers to conduct their lectures. After issuing several warnings, the lecturers had even withdrawn from teaching.

Describing the recent incident that had taken place inside the university premises, the professor said that it was not something that had happened on that day alone but the victim had faced a chain of such unpleasant experiences since the day of admission. Pointing out that inhumane ragging has prevailed at the Kelaniya University for 10-15 years, the professor directly accused the student unions of triggering such unacceptable acts. When asked about these accusations, President of the Kelaniya University Students Union, Sudesh Abeysinghe denied the allegation that lecturers did not have a suitable environment to teach. Claiming that they too are against ragging, Abeysinghe said they are actively involved in putting an end to ragging but that there could be isolated incidents inside the university sub-culture. Accusing the administration of remaining silent on incidents where lecturers were accused of sexually abusing students, Abeysinghe said that like the previous government, the present government too was using ragging as a scapegoat to suppress student movements. He suggested an open dialogue between students and teachers to solve these problems and said that so far the teachers union has not agreed to a discussion with the students. Such contrasting opinions show the division that prevails among university teachers and students. The Kelaniya University Student Union has accused its teachers of dividing in to two groups fighting over private political agendas. It is a known fact that like in Kelaniya, in all other universities too, there are different factions of lecturers.

One must not forget that student movements were in the vanguard of the struggle to overthrow the Rajapaksa regime. Accordingly the Yahapalana government had promised to allocate six percent of the GDP for education. But that did not become a reality in last year’s budget.

The majority of the student population at Kelaniya University follow the Arts stream which is divided in to the faculty of social sciences and the faculty of humanities. In the last academic year the new students who were admitted to the Arts faculty had been directed to these sub faculties based on their z scores placing social sciences above humanities. This has not been a welcoming choice for the students.

This move has created severe disputes between the student unions and the university administration. The unions have accused the administration of exploiting these isolated incidents to gain an upper hand over students.

We sought the opinions of the much talked about Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) on this issue. Its convener Lahiru Weerasekera also claimed that the IUSF is against ragging. However, charging that the Kelaniya incident was a step taken by the university administration to suppress student movements, the IUSF convener said that the administration could have held an internal investigation at the outset. The recent revelations by prominent artiste Yashodha Wimaladharma regarding the unpleasant experiences she suffered when she stood against ragging as a student at Kelaniya University is also an important testimonial as to how brutal ragging could be. As a result her father had suffered a nervous breakdown and had an untimely passing.

“In the year ‘94 I was a well known figure. When I was selected to the Humanities Faculty in the University of Kelaniya, the students at that time were heavily involved in JVP activities. My father was a senior lecturer at the Kelaniya University. When I refused to go to the university, my father said that university experience is important to an artiste. And following his advice, I went to the university. There I faced an inhumane form of ragging. Some things I cannot even reveal to the public. They harassed me claiming that I should stay at home and learn from my father instead of preventing another student from coming in to the university. I was frequently harassed by over 3000 students. Those were not ordinary acts of ragging. This caused my father to suffer a nervous breakdown and he was confined to bed for over four years. Even today when I visit Kelaniya University those horrid memories come back to me. So I always stand against university ragging,” Yashodha said.

This is a common fate that parents of many university students suffer at present. Even the parents of the students arrested for ragging said they were unaware of what took place inside the campus.

We sought the views of the present government on ragging. Responding to our queries, Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said that discussions have been held regarding the matter with the President and the Higher Education Minister. Expressing his total disgust over the issue of ragging, the education minister said the government is planning to take strong action against all sorts of degrading treatment of students.

Senior Lecturer Sunanda Madduma Bandara, Vice Chancellor, Kelaniya UniversityIt was the University Administration that directed the female ragging victim to lodge a complaint with police. We have made continuous requests to the student union to stop ragging. The vice chancellors of all universities in Sri Lanka along with the University Grants Commission and the Commonwealth University Association have come to a firm decision to eradicate ragging entirely from our universities. I invite all women’s rights organisations, lawyers unions and human rights groups to investigate the acts of ragging taking place inside universities.

 

Major Ragging Incidents

In 1974, ragging of some trainee mathematics teachers at the then Vidyalankara University (now University of Kelaniya) prompted Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government to appoint the V. W. Kularatne Commission to probe the incident. As a result, twelve undergraduates were expelled and four officials were penalised for their failure to take appropriate action. This is the first major step taken against university ragging by a Sri Lankan government.

In 1975, University of Peradeniya reported the first major ragging related incident when a 22-year-old female student of the Faculty of Agriculture, Rupa Rathnaseeli, was left paralysed as a result of jumping from the second floor of the Ramanathan Hall hostel to escape the physical ragging carried out by her seniors. It was reported that she was about to have a candle inserted into her vagina just before she jumped out of the hostel building. She committed suicide in 2002.

In 1993, Chaminda Punchihewa, a student of University of Ruhuna, died as a result of ragging.

Prasanga Niroshana, a student from Hakmana, died as a result of the ragging he underwent at School of Agriculture, Angunakolapelassa. In 1997, 21-year-old S. Varapragash, an Engineering student of the University of Peradeniya, died from a kidney failure following severe ragging by senior students.

A first year female student of University of Ruhuna committed suicide in 1997 as a result of ragging. In 1997, Kelum Thushara Wijetunge, a first-year student at the Hardy Technical institute in Ampara, died from kidney failure after he was forced to do tough exercises and drink excessive quantities of liquor.

In 2002, Samantha Vithanage, a third year Management student at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, who pioneered an anti-ragging campaign, was killed while at a ragging-related meeting.

In 2006, Prof. Chandima Wijebandara, the Vice Chancellor of University of Sri Jayewardenepura resigned from his post as a result of students failing to comply with his orders to eliminate ragging from the university.

In 2011, a female student attached to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Ruhuna, was semi-paralysed in one limb as a result of ragging she underwent at the faculty canteen.

 

Legal framework

The human rights of citizens of Sri Lanka are protected in terms of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka which is the supreme law in the country. According to this Constitution, any citizen can file a petition to the Supreme Court in terms of article 126 of the Constitution in case of a human right violation or a case closer to the infringement. The Constitution further highlights ruthless, brutal or contemptuous treatment to any party by another as a violation of human rights. University students are also considered as citizens and are subject to the Common Law that prevails in the country. Accordingly, the constitutional constraints specified above are equally applicable to university students. Any form of civil or criminal offence executed by them are liable to be punished and in an instance of violation of such rights committed by university students, they shall be produced before the relevant Court and subject to suitable punishment followed by trial.

After the series of ragging-related incidents in 1997, Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act, No. 20 of 1998 was passed in the Sri Lanka parliament. As specified in the detailed note of the Act, it is identified as an Act to eliminate ragging and other forms of violent and cruel inhuman and degrading treatment from educational institutions. The Act specifies the relevant Higher Educational Institutions coming under the Act and that includes all the Higher Educational Institutions established under the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978.

 

Anti-ragging movement

Unlike in India, there is no official anti-ragging movement in Sri Lanka. But with the situation of ragging worsening annually, spontaneously anti ragging movement is emerging in each and every faculty of the university where ragging exists. In the case of University of Peradeniya, the largest university in Sri Lanka, the anti-ragging movement emerged in the year 1996. Prior to that, there was no movement against ragging. In the mean time, anti-ragging movements started to appear in all other universities. Several faculties in several universities have become rag-free due to these movements.

Internal clashes have erupted several times due to the friction between ragging and anti-ragging movements, the best example being Samantha Vithanage, a third year Management student at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, who pioneered an anti-ragging campaign and was killed during an anti-ragging meeting.

Higher Education Minister S. B. Dissanayake has stressed that firm action will be taken against those who are found guilty of such activities in future and would be expelled from the university. In December 2011, he claimed that the levels of ragging had reduced drastically and “only Peradeniya and Ruhuna are still affected by this ‘malaise’.

 

7 Comments for “Death By Ragging”

  1. SHM

    Why authorities concerned reluctant or scared to act. Ragging is now history in number of countries and as per statistic Sri Lanka seems to be the worst place for ragging in the world. This is because thugs and uncivilized fellows have been given admission who are there to disrupt studies and disturb orderly students. Ban ragging immediately. Those found guilty should be sent to prison Authorities should act now and no more admission to the culprits in any universities in the world..

  2. trunket

    Stop the staff from involving in politics and likewise the students.

    Everything would be calmer as in overseas universities.

    It takes strength for the stupid corrupt government ban politics at campus.

  3. Lima

    IT IS VERY SIMPLE TO STOP RAGGING , THERE IS SIMPLE ANSWER , NO NEE D TO WRITE ESSAYS LIKE THE SUNDAY LEADER HAS DONE TODAY. AS THIS IS DONE BY THE BANKRUPT POLITICS OF LOST POLITICAL PARTY. THE SOLUTION IS TO IDENTIFY THE HEADS OF THIS RAGGING GROUP , ARREST IN SILENT AND MAKE THEM UNKNOWN TO THE WORLD. IF YOU DO THAT FOR THREE OR FOUR GUYS. ALL PARENTS WILL COME FORWARD TO STOP THIS AS NO PARENT WILLING TO LOSE THEIR CHILD AT THE AGE AFTER NURTURING FOR 20 YEARS. EVEN THIS RAGGING HAPPENS IN RARE CASES , SAME PUNISHMENT. IT IS BECAUSE OF RAGGING WE DENY THE FUTURE OF ONE SINGLE STUDENT. IF THE RAGGING STUDENTS HAVE A POLITICAL AGENDA WITH THE HELP OF HIDDEN HANDS OF POLITICS ONLY DISRUPT THE FREE EDUCATION . WHY NOT REMOVE THOSE UNDERWORLD RASCALS STUDENTS FROM THE FACE OF THE EARTH FOR EVER. LET THE OBEDIENT STUDENT BE A GEM FOR THE COUNTRY IN THE FUTURE. THE PUBLIC SHOULD DO THIS . THIS CANNOT BE CARRIED OUT BY THE POLICE OR FORCES. ONLY THE PUBLIC GET TOGETHER AND PLAN OUT A STRATEGY SO THAT NOBODY KNOW WHO KIDNAPPED. THAT IS THE END OF THAT UNDERWORLD RASCAL . THEN THE EYE OPENS FOR ALL OTHER RAGGERS. IF THEIR PARENTS ARE GOOD THEN THE CHILD IS GOOD , IF THEIR PARENT ARE BAD THEN THE CHILD IS BAD. SO WHY KEEP THAT UNDERWORLD RASCAL CHILD ALIVE. SIMPLE ANSWER. DO IT ONCE , THEN SEE ALL RAGGING WILL STOP

  4. Lima

    NO HARM IN KILLING THE RAGGERS ONE TIME, AS ALREADY THE RAGGERS KILLED MANY

  5. aru

    These raggers should be punished severely. No leniency or mercy should be shown to them. They have killed and maimed so many students and also jeopardized the careers of others. They should be dealt with under the law of the land despite protests from interested parties.

  6. Sylvia Haik

    As usual, our moronic university students are 30 years behind. The concept of ragging had been around several universities but thankfully they have evolved into fund raising exercises and willfully supported by the local communities, the students and their parents. In my own university in 1998, the local MP gave himself up willingly to be kidnapped for a ransom and his wife paid us even more to keep him locked up. We raised thousands of pounds and helped many of the local charities. Where the Sri Lankans went wrong was when politics entered. Please stop as you are depriving hundreds of able students from furthering their careers.

  7. Very interesting artical and also unbelievable that such things are still happening in Sri Lanka. When our son got admission to the Aachen university in Germany what we saw was amazing. All senior students were there to greet them on the first day. They took freshers all over the university to show each and every department, lecturing halls, etc. All assistance were given to them to come to know the unversity and ultimately they had a get-together in the evening.

    Siri

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