In September this year, Defence Secretary, Major General Kamal Guneratne told the Sunday Times that ragging in Universities will be eradicated with the assistance of the State Intelligence Services (SIS) and other such Intelligence agencies. The newspaper also quoted the new chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) Professor Sampath Amaratunga as saying that the Vice Chancellors of universities had been consulted and they too were in agreement with this plan.
He had stated that the reason to involve the State intelligence apparatus to fight ragging in universities is because, despite the various measures introduced for victims to inform authorities about their perpetrators, educational institutes lacked the network to track down the culprits.
That VC’s, Deans and Marshalls and even the staff is rendered powerless in tracking down and identifying perpetrators of ragging is a sad commentary on those in authority; after all this is not a recent issue, but one that has been going on for decades with tragic consequences!
Apart from the fact that the VC of the University of Ruhuna, Professor Sujeewa Amarasena is credited to having led his team in successfully arresting this trend and taking action against perpetrators, which is indicative that if there is a will there is a way, that the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors (CVCD) in July this year, listed a whole lot of reasons for their inability to fight ragging on their respective campuses, seemed more like a reluctance on their part to take the bull by the horns.
Amongst the reasons the CVCD gave, while stressing that their aim is to eradicate ragging from universities, were the lack of legitimate complaints with proof or clues to identify perpetrators, inaction of law enforcement authorities to implement the 1988 Act on the prevention of ragging, absence of a robust system to protect victims and witnesses and a slow judicial and discipline process as obstacles in achieving a violence free environment at universities.
If the above is the case, then, would having the SIS involved, effectively eradicate ragging, unless all of the issues referred to by the CVCD are genuinely addressed?
The CVCD which states that perpetrators abuse the legal system and have the ability to take their complaints to the Human Rights Commission, with no such protections afforded to victims or university staff, also called on civil society, the government and the media to support their fight against ragging.
Meanwhile, the plan to introduce the SIS on campuses was discussed at a webinar ‘Is SIS the way to go? Implications of State Intelligence in Combating Ragging’ organised by the Coalition against Violence & Harassment in Universities (CAVIU), in its ‘Lifting the Silence’ series on Saturday, October 10.
So, is bringing in the intelligence services into the fight against ragging the answer?
Emeritus Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, University of Colombo, one of the panelists was emphatic that such action would only aggravate the situation. He was of the view that such a move is not only anti-democratic but would provoke a negative reaction from students, who may also become further radicalized. The professor also pointed out that authorities themselves could use it to curtail civil and political rights of students, academic and non-academic staff. Ragging, he says is not simply an issue of law and order, but must be understood as an institutional culture which has been in practice for decades, with victims themselves becoming the perpetrators in their second and third years of university.
He is of the view that ragging must be mitigated at first and long-term solutions also introduced, to eradicate it from universities. Students must first be made to understand that universities are not isolated places to which the law of the land does not apply, and that they are not immune from facing the consequences of their violent actions. As well, university administrators too, have for decades been living in denial of the violent nature of ragging, he added. The professor recalled that he detected a feeling of apathy to this issue amongst university higher-ups who had attended a conference on the subject in Colombo about two years ago, perhaps because they want to be in the good books of student activists.
Vice Chancellors and others in authority must also treat students as responsible adults, who must be made to face the consequences of their actions, he added.
Dialogue with students, faculty, administrators, leaders of external political groups that back ragging and parents is the way to go, he adds, to begin the process of eliminating such a violent culture from universities, not repressive measures.
Professor Sumathy Sivamohan, Professor of English at the University of Peradeniya, in her presentation also stated that the introduction of the SIS in universities is simply not acceptable because it is a violation of democratic practice in universities which has the make- up of a civilian structure. Therefore any covert or overt introduction of the intelligence apparatus in such educational institutions is repression.
It also points to something lacking in the university system, she stated, if fighting ragging has to be handed over to an external agency. It points to a university in crisis that has created the situation itself, where instead of taking responsibility, it has evolved into one that plays a subservient role to other authoritarian structures of government. Instead of identifying underlying issues, of how even responsibility towards each other, be it between senior and junior students, staff and students, faculty and administration and the UGC is shirked, this is simply washing their hands off the issue, she pointed out. What is required is a collective effort to make universities safe places for first year students.
Writer and Journalist Kusal Perera, the other panelist was critical of the entire social system where a person holding office, takes no responsibility for that position. ‘There is a lack of investment by administrators.’ Where values are lost, and universities too are more like ‘Maha Vidyalayas’ where students study by rote instead of engaging in critical discussions, only far reaching reforms of the entire education system will help. He too is of the opinion that bringing in the intelligence services to universities will only result in repression with other arms of the State using the information gathered for their own purposes.
Professor Sharmala Kumar, Senior Lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, who moderated the discussion and who had recently coordinated the ‘Study on Ragging Sexual and Gender Based Violence in the University System’ explained to Counterpoint that imposing such external measures to eradicate ragging is not the answer, as such interference will only affect the independent structures of the universities and further entrench political patronage amongst its administrations.
Echoing the thoughts of the panelists, she stated that the first step is to understand the problem and introduce a zero tolerance policy. Surveys and discussions with students reveal how scarred victims of ragging are and it is time that the entire community takes responsibility. While long-term dialogue is necessary to overhaul the system, if a broader perspective of the matter is adopted, it would be possible to bring in immediate solutions. For that, she says not only the leaders but staff, students and the broader community must be committed and resolved to stop the ragging. Bringing in the SIS will not end ragging in universities,’ rather, it would create further inconsistency, violence and transparency issues.
Attempts to eradicate ragging have been introduced over the years, though, the fact that it is still very much a crisis, indicates that either the measures adopted are inadequate or that the hierarchy lack the commitment to take a firm stand. It is indeed tragic that whenever a government changes, previously introduced strategies are simply thrown out the window, instead of improving on them, if found lacking in some way, and new committees appointed to study the same issue, and similar recommendations made.
Yet, despite all the money and time spent, ragging remains a menace.
This time around the government believes that placing intelligence service personnel on campuses is the way to go. As the CVCD admits the law enforcement authorities are lackadaisical in enforcing the Prevention of Ragging Act and the judicial process itself is slow in bringing perpetrators to book. How would installing intelligence personnel on campuses change any of those processes?
Will such measures, already being viewed as undemocratic and repressive eradicate ragging or cause further upheavals?
Only time will tell!