Oppose University Violence

Stand Up and Be Counted!

Kshama Ranawana

There’s a young man fighting for his life at the Intensive Care Unit. Even if he does survive, there is little guarantee that he will enjoy any quality of life.  He is just one of the many who have either taken their lives or endure permanent injury both physical and mental following harrowing treatment at the hands of their university seniors.

Despite that, not a single government in Sri Lanka has had the backbone to ban ragging in our universities. All they do is conduct inquiries whenever an incident is highlighted, and to continue regardless, once the first outbursts of anger against a violent occurrence or death of a student dies down.  The same can be said of almost all University heads and staff.

The most recent violent incident occurred at the Sri Jayawardenapura University, where it is alleged that a first year student, Pasindu Hirushan was critically injured when seniors rolled a tyre towards him at an end of ragging party.  Pasindu, who suffered severe injuries to the back of his head lies in a critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit of the National Hospital in Colombo. The incident sparked off a wave of anger, though with the spread of COVID-19 many seem to have forgotten him.

However, it also resulted in the formation of the Coalition Against University Ragging made up concerned academics, professionals and citizens.

Speaking to Counterpoint on the formation of the Coalition, Professor Harendra de Silva one of its facilitators debunked the theory that ragging is only a social issue and that medicine has no part in it. Nor can the issue be ignored citing an election period or that calling for action against perpetrators would be seen as being anti-government as some believe, he pointed out.    “‘Violence in a community is politics,” he says, adding that not a single government has brought in action to arrest the ugly culture of ragging in universities.  If at all, this government, owing to its very short period in office, is the least responsible, he said.

This is not just about a lone incident, there is an overall problem, and that must be addressed.  “Governments, he said, must intervene and take a firm stand irrespective of whether or not the ragging is controlled by student unions. Not doing anything now because its student politics is worse than talking against governments.”

Social and medical issues are interrelated, he pointed out, using various examples to prove his point; Child trauma could be a result of war and such children require medical help to recover or at least deal with the situation.  Individuals could be battling depression, and some ragging at a university is all that is needed to drive that person to suicide.

It’s a known fact that victims of abuse often go on to becoming abusers themselves.  It’s only a small number of victims who actively try to prevent such behaviour.

Professor de Silva has opposed ragging since his days as an undergraduate. In an attempt to prevent ragging when he was a senior, he had tried to form an anti-ragging movement.  However, only about 14 other students had joined him.  There were many others who had felt like him but had not spoken up.  He calls them passive protestors, pointing out that even today, politicians, academics and professionals holding high positions try to soft peddle the issue because, they themselves have been perpetrators.  Even though, they now know it is wrong, they will not speak up.   And where are the families of the perpetrators, he asked. “Why don’t they speak out and condemn the violence committed by their own family members on these students?”

Professor Harendra de Silva
Professor Harendra de Silva

Perpetrators of ragging can be classified under different categories says the Professor.

  • The abuser has been abused in childhood or at some point; it is justified to them at that time, similarly they justify their actions. (A study he had done in the Gampaha district revealed that those who are abused as children tend to be more violent later in life). A few become actively opposed to the violence, given their experience.
  • Enforcing a hierarchical system; the best example is that of the monkeys where the male displays dominant tendencies to control the others. Similarly, university students ensure juniors bow down to the wishes of the seniors.  Ragging them helps establish the pattern.
  • A very small number of perpetrators would have mental issues; He recalls a professor of anatomy, during Professor de Silva’s first year in university observing two seniors ragging a junior. He had had them assessed by the professor of  psychiatry, who diagnosed them both as having extreme schizophrenia
  • Sadistic pleasure; perpetrators enjoy watching/inflicting suffering on another.

Despite the terrible trauma university students’ face, a good number of them are reluctant to go to the authorities.  Professor de Silva describes this as the Stockholm syndrome, where a group taken hostage were reluctant to speak against their captors as the latter had shown various acts of kindness to the captives.  In a similar fashion, he says, seniors who torture their juniors at university, also share their notes, buy them tea, assist with their academic work etc. thus ensuring the juniors  are also beholden to them.

Apart from all that, it is also politically very important for seniors that juniors join their cadres.  It’s not only buying protection for themselves it is also pushing the idea that the unions will protect all members.

“We see this all the time says Professor de Silva, even when the judicial system fails you, your union will protect you.  A case in point are the doctors, he points out.  They are in the trade union not because they love the union, but for personal selfish reasons where they want protection.”

And, it is political; student unions are considered a strong lobby, just like medical officers. Governments’ think these groups have a strong presence, and are afraid to ruffle their feathers.  But, it’s a fallacy to think unions can topple governments; that was true years ago, not any more.  In this case too, they will speak out against a single incident, but, “do they speak up for prosecution of students for criminal activity?  They don’t; neither the government nor the opposition.”  What the leaders attempt to show, as is the case of this incident with Pasindu Hirushan is that it was an accident and not an act carried out on purpose. Ragging is a criminal act, Professor de Silva reiterates adding that university system protects the perpetrators; therefore most Vice Chancellors, deans, lecturers etc. are part of the crime and must be prosecuted as well.  “Sack them from their posts, do it for a year, and we will be able to stop it.   The government too must take a stand; some leaders may have the guts to take the bull by the horns, provided they don’t listen to their catchers.”

The standardisation of marks to enter university also has resulted in this situation he adds, stating that many students who are left out, have better merit performance than those left out.  ‘Again, that was political and all governments are culpable.  So the issue is political, medical and social.”

It is time, Professor de Silva notes for action, and a societal change; not commissions and inquiries but a movement that says enough is enough.  In the late 1990’s, he and his team of staff and supporters swam against the tide to raise awareness about child abuse, a taboo subject those days.  Today, even though the action taken may not be enough, parents, teachers and children are more aware of the dangers and taken necessary precautions.

If university violence is to become a thing of the past, then its time, says the Professor, that government, educationists and society joined hands to make it so.

The University of Ruhuna, has, since the appointment of Vice Chancellor Professor Sujeewa Amarasena in 2019 taken firm action against the violence that has been taking place there.

U of R graphicThe University of Ruhuna is currently proactively fighting ragging.  The chart above shows action taken against perpetrators, even while the Vice Chancellor and his team is being vilified for their actions, by some students.  Owing to the actions of the University administration, Counterpoint learns that the Frontline Socialist Party involved in the ragging, which has wrested control of the Inter University Students Federation, has moved its headquarters from the Ruhuna University to the University of Sri Jayawardenapura.
The incident below took place at the University of Ruhuna.
Though the incident took place in 2018, an inquiry has been re-opened following protests by the alleged raggers against the action taken against them.
In that incident a Faculty of Management and Finance (FMF) student from a well-known school in Colombo, had been targeted and ragged severely. After two months of inhuman ragging he had learnt to avoid the harassment by coming late for classes and leaving early through the back gate of the science faculty.
However, the raggers had got wind of it and had caught him in the lecture hall, soon after the lecture.  He had been assaulted by about 15 seniors until he fell. Then he had been pulled by both legs around the lecture hall and had then been kicked and rolled down the 40 steps of the stairway.
Both legs had been injured, requiring stitching and a tetanus shot. His pair of specs too had broken.
Fortunately, he had taken photographs of his injuries.
His mother, a senior government official had made a complaint to the former Vice Chancellor.
In 2019 August the University Council had decided to sack the perpetrators who had taken their case to the Court of Appeal, but had not been granted leave to proceed.   They had complained that they had not been informed of the name of the complainant.   Therefore the University has  re-opened the case and the order to sack them withheld until the inquiry is completed. They were also given the information they required.  The inquiry is expected to be completed by March 31 this year.
The Vice Chancellor of the Ruhuna University, Professor Sujeewa Amarasena told Counterpoint that it had been this incident that had spurred him to take action,(though it had happened before his time) against perpetrators of ragging.   The student in this story could have well ended up just like Pasindu Hirushana of the Sri Jayawardenapura University, who is in a critical condition after a tyre rolled at him, resulted in a serious head injury.

The question is, if the University of Ruhuna can be proactive and prevent university violence, why can’t the others?

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