Exposé

The Criminal Mental and Physical Abuse in Our Universities Has Reached Crisis Proportions

You find them along pavements or near markets or even on trains, till in hand, raising funds to assist undergraduates and other students who cannot afford to even purchase an exercise book. However, the monies thus collected don’t actually go towards the purpose they tell you about, rather, it’s a ruse to raise money to build “thoran” (pandals) or even rent places to rag new batches of university students.

For instance, one such Thorana had cost nearly Rs. 7 lakhs, a source who wished to remain anonymous said. It is conducted under the guise of “social work.”  Another source confirmed that they are capable of raising more than a million rupees at times in this manner.  “They are good at raising money in many ways, public money,” the source said.

This was confirmed by several people Counterpoint spoke to, who pointed out that the students are quite good at finding methods to obtain public funds to carry out the ragging of freshers’.  The ‘Thoran” are put up to welcome the freshers.  But freshers are expected to memorise whatever is displayed on the Thorana, and recite them when demanded to do so.  Being unable to recall them would mean paying a heavy price.

So, is it actually ragging that is going on in our universities or something more vile? Some insist that  it is just a mild form of teasing to break the ice, or a necessity to preserve the university culture, while others, including the Minister of Higher Education, the Chairman of the University Grants Commission, (UGC) and lately even President Sirisena claim that it is far more than that.

Professor Mohan Silva, the UGC Chairman told Counterpoint,   “I can tell you, we do not have ragging in the universities, what we have is a dangerous form of violence and sexual abuse.”

He pulls out a file at least two inches thick with letters of complaints the UGC has received.  “There are more such files,” he says, adding,  that the in the past one and half years since the anonymous complaints mechanism has been set up, they have received around 480 letters.  Students and parents have written in, while others have visited the Complaints Centre.  “These, he says, are the few brave enough to complain.   He picks a few of the letters; ones he hopes would not shock us too much, and reads some para’s.  One student had been hit in the stomach, and when things got out of hand, taken to hospital by another batch of seniors who had threatened him with death if he told the medical authorities how he came to be injured.  But the medical report had shown that the boy had been assaulted.

Another complainant spoke of the nights he had been taken to the beach and raped, repeatedly.  He had been ordered not to wear his under cloths and only allowed to be in his sarong and vest. The student was unable to pass urine, froze whenever touched and was also joked about, on campus.

The Centre for Gender Equity and Equality of the UGC operates a 24 hour help line to assist students who are undergoing the physical and mental trauma they are subjected to.

This sign was carried in a March calling for the end of corporal punishment in schools. The message applies to universities as well. The hallowed halls of learning should be a warm and welcoming place, instead of instilling fear in our undergraduates.
This sign was carried in a March calling for the end of corporal punishment in schools. The message applies to universities as well. The hallowed halls of learning should be a warm and welcoming place, instead of instilling fear in our undergraduates.

Prof. Silva states that in the past year 1989 students, registered with the UGC and enrolled at universities, have dropped out. They are not students who have gone abroad to study or joined private educational institutions he claims, explaining that the UGC calls for registrations soon after the Advanced Level results are out.  The admission process takes about a year.  The UGC follows up with the relevant universities twice, once soon after the list of students is sent to the Faculties, and again three to six months later.  It is during the second round of checking that they find out that some students have not turned up for the courses, he says, explaining that a child who has spent 13 years of his or her life preparing to enter university, would not miss out on that opportunity on a whim.  Those who go abroad for studies do so soon after their results are out, and even those who join private educational institutions do not wait out the year.  And that number is minimal, he points out.

The so-called “social work” is a cover up to get the freshers to do their bidding, he says, adding that the April 1998 Act, “Prohibiting of Ragging and other forms of violence in Educational Institutions,”   carries a two year term of Rigorous Imprisonment if found guilty by a Magistrate, for committing or participating in ragging, and 10 years RI where sexual harassment or grievous hurt is caused during ragging to students or staff. However, it is not the intention of the UGC to prevent any student from achieving their dream of higher education or send them to jail, but to create a safe and conducive learning environment for all. Many methods are used to inform students and their parents about staying safe and of the outcome if they are found to be in violation of the Act.  It is an unbailable offence.

The police have so far been reluctant to enter universities, as the Marshalls are expected to handle the situations, but of late, the Inspector General of Police has written to all DIG’s explaining the Act and urging them to be pro-active in helping to curb this problem according says Professor Silva.

Unlike popular belief, those indulging in these acts are not always from socially underprivileged backgrounds, explains Professor Silva, adding that the undergraduates involved in the recent violent acts of ragging of Peradeniya University students, were not from underserved or rural communities.  “We all have an animal within, he states, and that comes to the fore when pulled into such acts.”  There is myth about these actions ensuring equality in universities, which makes all Sri Lankans happy, he says, but it’s a sub-culture in the university to break down anyone who shows some spirit, “seniors have to be addressed as Uththamaya.”  It has come to a point, where first years’ are being picked by the seniors to rag their own batch; they keep a look out and choose students with their own mindset to carry out the ragging, the Professor alleges.

A student who opposes ragging and wished to remain anonymous described his experience, where at his campus too, newcomers are barred from eating at certain canteens, walking along some paths etc. “On one occasion, I was made to stand for six hours, before I was allowed to leave; my legs were shaking by that time.” “After 8 p.m., they take first year students, one by one to the front of the room and ask them to do disgusting acts. Most are to imitate sexual activities or singing “kunuharapa kavi”. It’s a total mental abuse.” Students are not allowed to display any religious symbols either.

One first year student had talked against these stupid ragging rules with his friends in a first year whatsapp group but somehow seniors had found about it. More than 50 seniors surrounded him and 5 of his friends near the canteen and attacked them in public. And that first year student left the campus for year.

This happened about two months back and 20 students were suspended.  But now, I see every one of them attending lecturers like nothing really happened. The one who is really missing the lectures and the degree is that first year student who spoke against ragging.

The pathetic situation is that most of the lecturers know these things happen at the university but do not take any action. Actually some lecturers support these actions, because they believe we must face what they faced, and others want it to preserve the culture of the university.  The Senior Student Counsellor, who is a member of the Faculty, usually advises them to carry out their actions in a manner that they would not get into trouble.”

Dr. Wijaya Jayathilake of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya says what goes on now is extremely violent and hostile.  There was physical violence previously too which was not condoned in any way, yet  when compared to what is happening today, at least there were some checks and balances at that time,  he points out.   Super seniors would openly intervene and reprimand the seniors if any unacceptable methods were practiced.  Hitting or certain forms of sexual violence were taboo.  When the JVP student unions were in control, ragging of students stopped. But now, it’s a different story.   It’s the rule of the forest, says Dr. Jayathilake, who pointed out that the form of violence used now, has resulted in spinal injuries, broken limbs, burst ear drums, extortion and sexual harassment. The anonymous complaints system that was introduced a little over a year ago is helping students come forward with their stories, he added.

Historically, we are a violent society says Dr. Jayathilake, and the war has justified violence and triumphalism.  Even within families or religious institutions we lack the ability to show remorse, mediate and negotiate. In schools, the principal is king, and no-one can be questioned.  That attitude continues into university.  When there is no accountability at the top, and the young are trained never to question, it is easy to perpetuate such unacceptable behaviour and get away with it, he pointed out.

What takes the form of ragging today, explains Dr. Jayathilake, is beating out the spirit of the individual. The dynamics and rationale has changed, and new undergraduates must conform; be it the dress codes, not speaking in English,  not performing well in class or interacting with lecturers, using the canteen or library.  Four years of that and the end result is a mediocre graduate.  Anyone who stands up to it is ostracised and their spirit broken; most students give up their education, he says.

He confirms Professor Silva’s assertion that students are dropping out of University.  According to data received by the Anonymous Complaints Centre, more than 1500 students enrolled at various universities have dropped out in the last one and half years, says Dr. Jayathilake.  While it is suspected that inhuman forms of ragging may be the cause, Dr. Jayathilake said a study is currently underway to determine factors that result in students giving up on their chance for a higher education. The study involves all universities, but focuses on 8 in particular.  The study, while triggering more questions, would also help determine the reason behind the intensity and prevalence of this violent behaviour, and is expected to be completed in three months.

RAGGING

The zero tolerance policy declared by the Minster of Higher Education, Wijedasa Rajapakshe is a good move, he says, because university administrations too would be required to be pro-active in discouraging this ugly behaviour.

Unfortunately, in instances where university administrations have taken a tough stand, more often than not, political pressure is brought to bear, negating the action taken.

Treasurer of the Federation of University Teachers Union and management lecturer at the University of Ruhuna, Rohana Laksiri points out that the situation has come to what it is today because of political interference.  Successive governments have seen it as a political tool, and when it suits them, when they need the support of minor political parties, they turn a blind eye and allow those parties to establish their power within the universities.  That is how student unions are controlled, he explains.  While he commends the introduction of an anonymous complaints mechanism, he points out that most students may not complain, because they may want to perpetrate the same acts when they are seniors.  As well, he advises that a scientific analysis is necessary to determine whether all those who have dropped out, did so because they were ragged.  “Second, third and fourth year students drop out too, and some go to Korea to work as labourers instead of completing their degrees,” he points out.

Professor of Gynecology at the Colombo Medical College, Hemantha Senanayake told Counterpoint that there have been instances where freshers have pushed aside the protection given and asked to be ragged.

Ragging is a well thought out modus operandi.  He explains that while one group carries out the physical and mental attacks on the fresher, another group then befriends him or her, sympathises with them and uses that to lure them into being compliant and conforming to their demands   Mentally and physically broken, the victim sees no way out, but to do the bidding of the other, not realising both groups are in this together.

While the Colombo Medical Faculty has been free of this menace, Professor Senanayake states, this is not the case in most other Faculties.  With the online complaints mechanism set up by the UGC, and more students and parents coming forward to report incidents, there is hope this menace could be eradicated for good.

Students of a particular university are claiming that Marshalls enter their dormitories etc., carrying poles to hit them with, but investigations have revealed that the students have trained a dog to attack on command and that is the reason the Marshalls are carrying poles to protect themselves, Counterpoint learnt.

Retired Professor Sumanasiri Liyanage has a different take on the whole issue.

“Ragging needs to be eliminated from the university system. Ragging was basically a Western concept (bullying) that crept into Sri Lanka’s universities. So this has a history of about 60-70 years.

“Everyone is in the understanding that ragging should be eliminated but no one knows a proper way of doing it. There is no proper mechanism to tackle this matter.

“And what the government is trying to do now is to eliminate student unions in the guise of fixing the ragging issue. This should not happen. There is no direct link between ragging and student unions.

“The government is trying to kill two birds with one stone, he told Counterpoint.

J. Yogaraj, a, lecturer in computer science and media communications who teaches at several institutions including the Kalutara Police College, sees it differently. He believes some ragging is important to break the ice and for freshers to form bonds with the seniors.  The latter can be helpful in giving useful tips to the juniors, and even help with financial assistance if required. With many students also opting to work while studying, there is little time to indulge in ragging, he opines. What is lacking in the university system, he says, is a mechanism to determine a person’s eligibility, apart from their educational qualifications, to enter university.  Perhaps, a screening mechanism, where students are examined by a medical professional, and if necessary counselling recommended, would help stem the violent forms that are being practiced, he says.

Hansa Jayarathne, Lecturer in the Arts Faculty, University of Colombo explains that “There are two key student bodies in the university. Most often there is a clash between these two unions. They try to recruit students to be in power, so they are not very harsh on students. There is an app to tackle ragging. But there is a practical issue about it. Not all students use this technology. They don’t even check their emails.

“I think it is alright to ask new students to wear certain clothes, make them sing a song. These are not violent. There is a sub-culture in universities. Something like a tradition that makes university experience unique.”

Tharindu Neranjan, a second year student of the South Eastern University disagrees.

“Ragging should be eliminated from the university system. Even harmless ones such as giving freshers a certain dress code should not be allowed. Universities need to be places where students are safe, he says.

At Lipton Circus in Colombo, a group of students from the South Eastern University have been taking turns to sit under a makeshift tent in protest of the suspension of some of their batch mates. The students have been taking turns to sit under the tent, for the past 305 days.  When Counterpoint asked why they were protesting they said it was against the cancellation of studentship of their fellow-batch mates. They explained that they were cancelled by the university management who had made different allegations. When Counterpoint queried what those allegations were, they were unable to explain, and tried calling someone to get the information. However, that person did not answer the phone.

The UGC claims more than a 1000 students have dropped out of university. If inhuman forms of ragging is the cause it’s time authorities exercised legal action against perpetrators.
The UGC claims more than a 1000 students have dropped out of university. If inhuman forms of ragging is the cause it’s time authorities exercised legal action against perpetrators.

Dr. Jayathilake says, that it is not that students are without genuine grievances; food is one, and accommodation another, though the latter issue has been adequately addressed.  Their inability to function in English, and the poor quality of education, where students entering university lack many skills must also be resolved so they can compete with others in the market place.  University Councils must be pressured upon to ensure we produce quality graduates Dr. Jayathilake states. Professor Senanayake concurs, stating he recently received a message which said, it’s not an atomic bomb that would destroy a nation, but a lowering of educational standards. “What we now see are qualified people, but not educated, it’s an education, free of education,” he quipped.

Alumni don’t see the reality. The case of where an undergraduate Buddhist Monk attempted suicide is a case in point, where there was hardly any coverage even in the media. It is possible that some of the journalists were raggers themselves and are reluctant to raise the issue.

Primary prevention is the need of the hour, emphasised Professor Senanayake, “we must make the violence in universities a talking point, bringing it to the fore, make witness protection more accessible, and sanction the culprits, even if they are faculty members.  Ragging is only the tail of the animal; all of the issues must be addressed collectively.” With the new complaints mechanism the Vice Chancellors, the Deans, the Marshalls all have to be pro-active, he pointed out. Dr. Jayathilake agrees, “There is some conversation taking place already on social media, and even if it’s about unpleasant stories, people are taking note.”

Professor Silva added that some Vice Chancellors are committed to arresting the trend, and it is clear that student protests take place in universities where the administration is strong and don’t make compromises. Where the Student Union has the upper hand, it’s a different situation.

Though some may still argue that ragging is good, or it is not as bad as it is made out to be, the number of complaints received by the UGC, the number of students who have opted out of State Universities and the despicable acts being perpetrated are a clear indication that this is a beast that must be caged without further delay.  The perpetrators of these unspeakable actions will be the country’s future leaders; therefore it is imperative that we do not look askance and allow more student lives to be destroyed.

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