Ragging, as a general term is understood to be a systematic form of abuse and a violation of rights. However ragging in major state universities of Sri Lanka is widely accepted as part of the university sub-culture. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to remove ragging from state universities, and is also why anyone who stands up to it is aggressively shutdown.
In order to explain how ragging operates in state universities I must narrate some of my personal experiences during my first year at university. Ragging usually happens at various spots inside the university premises, and the most famous location is called the ‘thel bamma’. What I noticed at first is that almost everybody who engaged in the ragging came from the most rural areas of the country and not a single one was from a prominent national school. They spoke their own dialect, which included newly coined phrases such as ‘carrot paththi’, ‘lambert ekak’ and also the occasional filth in Sinhala and Tamil.
I have examined the psychology behind ragging and have often had empathy for them due to the fact that these undergraduates have been deprived of material comforts and the dignity of being in famed national schools, and on entering university on these grounds, they develop an inferiority complex which then manifests violently in the form of ragging which includes physical and verbal abuse. It must be noted that ragging continues non-stop for months during which it becomes systematic abuse because the intention is to disrupt the students from attending lectures and prevent them from them obtaining “a different experience” as an undergraduate than the experience generally concerned to be within the “accepted subculture’’.
On the very first day I entered university the ‘Maha Sishya Sangamaya’ ( The Student’s Union) gave me a token, a clear plastic file, the student handbook, and some refreshments in the gym. There was also a power point presentation on the ‘Heroes of the Student Union Movement’, which included names I’d never heard before. There was also a heroic song sung in their praise. The first month of ragging was focused on reciting those names by heart and singing the song. Along with that we were also asked to memorize chapters in the student handbook and on entering the university premises we were stopped at various points and quizzed on the subject. I still remember how I used to strive to keep those in memory without focusing much on my actual lectures and university work.
Students were also asked to adhere to a strict dress code or uniform of sorts, which signified solidarity, and this ‘uniform’ was scrutinized at various intervals and anybody not sticking to this dress code or those who refuse to follow these rules were humiliated and abused systematically. There were students who adopted the thoughts and behaviors of the students engaged in ragging in the very first few months and they were encouraged to point out those in their batches who went against the code. The first years were intimidated into attending pickets, protests and political meetings usually headed by some obscure politician of the JVP or a Marxist party. These students are violent in the way they speak and behave and I have witnessed this many times.
Recently a student made a complaint to the police regarding a ragging incident. However the grounds on which the arrest was made was widely contested as some stated that the defendants did not violate the Prohibition Of Ragging And Other Forms Of Violence In Educational Institutions Act (No. 20 of 1998). The act makes ragging, criminal intimidation, hostage taking, wrongful restraint, unlawful confinement, forcible occupation and damage to property of an educational institution etc. legal offences. However violations of each of these happen on a daily basis for which no action is taken. This is because many students do not step-up to make complaints as they are made to believe that ragging is part of a sub-culture, which is important for ‘solidarity’ within the university. Others are scared that they will be given the silent treatment from their whole batch.
The response of the university’s administration regarding the ragging changes according to the political climate and the universities Vice Chancellor. For example when I started university in 2014 the Center for Gender Studies launched an anti-ragging campaign, which was supported by the then incumbent Vice Chancellor but after the leadership changed the activities were suppressed. Before the dawn of recent events I wish to bring to attention one isolated event that took place in 2015 when a lecturer was attacked and one student from the Management Faculty was hospitalized due to an injury to his eardrum. This, according to Sri Lankan law is a grievous bodily harm for which a judge may sentence the offender to a number of years in prison. However, there were no complaints made to the police.
According to the student handbook, restricting the movement of a student within university premises is an offence for which the offender may be imprisoned for 7 years (citing the 1998 Act). However, this is an offence that occurred many times to quite a few of my friends who did not respond to this by way of complaint because they feared their whole batch along with seniors would turn against them. One of my batch-mates got arrested in connection to the recent event of ragging but was granted bail just a few days ago. There are many students in my batch who hail this particular person as a hero. The parents of those who were arrested commented that they are heroic because they are the real advocates of human rights. This mind-set will not change for years to come unless Marxist politics are removed completely from the University sub-culture.