Eradicating university ragging: Are we serious?
Posted on May 16th, 2016

By Professor Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka Emeritus Professor

The ‘high level consultative dialogue on preventing ragging’ organised by the UGC last month was a step in the right direction and it was encouraging to note the commitment of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to eliminating ragging as reflected in his remarks at that meeting. However, as someone who has seen it all before and can look back on a lifetime of frustrating endeavor against “ragging” (an unfortunate euphemism for human torture at universities), I may be excused for being somewhat skeptical about the outcome of such consultations notwithstanding the media publicity before the dust settles and all is as it was before. Consequently, this article is intended to set out some critical perspectives based on long personal experience resisting this abomination, for the benefit of those who may be serious about doing something about it today.

article_imageDuring 30 years of relentless struggle as a university teacher and Dean of a faculty against this depravity I have often been up against the weakness and conciliatory mentality of university authorities to whom what matters is peace at any cost on campus whatever the sacrifice of moral principle. In a world where outward appearances count more than the inner reality university authorities often share with other heads of institutions the vanity of wanting to show the world that all is well in their own neck of the woods. To frankly concede that things are bad and can only get better is not considered good for the institutional image nor does it flatter the ego of those who run it!

On one occasion I with some brave anti-rag students had to endure the stubborn inactivity of even a deputy proctor in the faculty where it is the primary duty of proctors to ensure student discipline so much so that one wonders on whose side he was. And then there was the persistent apathy ignorance and naivety of a large majority of the academic community who couldn’t care less about the problem of ragging so that the few who motivated by a deep sense of moral outrage and zero tolerance are passionate about eliminating this evil, find themselves out on a limb being resented as eccentric mavericks who are rocking the boat.

Sadly, the few who have the courage and inspiration to fight this evil far from being appreciated frequently have to pay a painful price for their convictions. In my experience idealistic ‘anti-rag’ students who bravely refuse to be ragged are compelled to be non-residential throughout their course despite the financial cost as it would be too dangerous for them to remain in halls of residence. Such high principled students are the cream of our youth with their commitment to freedom and human dignity. Yet, I have known them to be abused, threatened, and assaulted by student thugs, and even resented by the teaching staff while being persecuted in various ways throughout their undergraduate years. Many are the occasions when such fine students have filed into my office in distress seeking sympathy and support during times of trial.

Incredibly, as a professor I myself have had to endure my share of hardship for being an inveterate opponent of campus ragging. I recall the terrific explosion of a powerful firecracker being set off just outside my bungalow at dead of night followed by a nasty telephone call. My vehicle parked in the faculty premises was broken into, ATM card stolen, and the pouch containing all the vehicle documents taken and thrown by the roadside where miraculously it was retrieved by a generous ice cream seller! In 2006, the faculty was plastered with offensive posters against me with the students boycotting lectures, all because I had, on principle, objected to the sham of a blood donation campaign organised by the seniors with its subtle overtones of coercion at a time when new entrants were being ragged by seniors. Some of the posters implied that I was a terrorist sympathiser, a dicey thing in the bad old days where anybody who had been so stigmatised was fair game. It transpired that in his naivety the Dean of the Faculty had himself approved the blood donation so that when trouble broke out I was isolated with the Faculty Board looking at me as if I had been the troublemaker, a classic case of ‘victim blaming’! It did not matter that in a vote of thanks several years before a Vice Chancellor had said of this ‘victim’ when he was stepping down as Dean of the Faculty that he “appreciated the ethical and moral stand taken by him in arriving at decisions whenever there was a crisis in the university’. A decade later the sordid posters that should have been removed immediately were allowed to pollute the walls of the Faculty all day until late afternoon before they were finally torn off. That exemplifies the attitude of the system towards the problem and those who fight against it. That is why the problem persists.

Such stories need to be told and there is more. But, such examples of painful struggle point to the fact that the problem of campus torture is a malignant evil that goes much deeper and is far more complex and resistant to solution than people think. Despite much talk, pious statements and periodic howls by the media, campus torture will never be eliminated unless there is a fundamental transformation at the level of both heart and head in those dealing with the malady.

Firstly, at the level of the ‘heart’ people must be moved by a profound sense of moral outrage. There is a world of a difference between simply being concerned about something opposing it or even condemning it, and reacting to it with passionate moral outrage. Sadly that is what is missing. Soon after Black July 1983 I recall the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe controversially calling for an expression of ‘shame and apology’. That was moral outrage. I recall telling students that moral outrage is when you feel so bad about something that it keeps you awake at night. The converse is a passion for righteousness that Jesus famously referred to in his Sermon of the Mount blessing those who ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness’, where the desperate yearning for righteousness justice and truth is like food and drink to a man dying of starvation. How much sheer moral outrage about the torture of new entrants do we see in politicians, university administrators, academic staff, parents and society in general? I wonder how many well meaning participants at the UGC consultative dialogue came there with the burning moral outrage that keeps you awake at night? But, that is what makes all the difference.

Far back in 1983, I wrote to the UGC Chairman Prof. FSCP Kalpage proposing that a central task force or steering committee of people driven by moral outrage comprising ‘committed individuals with total unrelenting uncompromising commitment to the complete elimination of all forms of ragging’, be established with wide powers to study the problem, make recommendations, monitor their implementation and evaluate their impact. He responded asking for a list of persons who would fit that description! I could think of very few then. I wonder how many there are now. However, today 33 years later I hope the government would identify such a dedicated group and constitute them as a powerful task force coming directly under the President/Prime Minister with the task of formulating an effective final solution to completely eradicate ragging in our educational institutions within a specific time frame.

Secondly, at the level of the ‘head’ there are widespread fallacies and misconceptions that hinder meaningful action to eliminate ragging. Ragging is nothing but the manifestation of human torture in educational institutions. To call it ‘ragging’ rather than ‘human torture’ of new entrants is to dignify it as a form of student harassment peculiar to universities, a simple extension of bullying in schools. The reality is that both bullying in schools and ragging in universities are a clear violation of the 1984 UN Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Sri Lanka ratified this convention in 1994.

In 1997 two psychiatrists made important submissions to the UGC asking that “ragging” be re-designated as “torture” and those guilty prosecuted in terms of the UN convention. Yet nearly 20 years later “ragging” remains the deceptive terminology commonly used in both universities and society. This is not a matter of semantics. Wrong definitions denote a wrong understanding of the problem. Where problems are wrongly understood they cannot be solved. A firm directive prohibiting use of the word “ragging” calling it “human torture” instead in all documentation may be a simple step. But it may have profound implications. Quite apart from the principle involved, the international disgrace of stigmatization as an institution where human torture (not ragging) is endemic, will uniquely pressure guilty universities to do something about the problem.

Ragging is also a gross violation of the human rights of new entrants. Identifying it as a human rights issue fundamentally changes the way we look at the problem. The sting of ragging ( as in the worst forms of human rights violations ) is the way it crushes the spirit, destroys the self respect, and distorts the personality of whole batches of students, so that their self confidence and power of critical thinking in shatters they become putty in the hands of their seniors who can then manipulate them according to their own agenda. In meekly submitting to ragging ( as unfortunately nearly all students do ) intellectuals becomes imbeciles en masse – a terrible thing to say of potential graduates who will be tomorrow’s leaders. But I have seen the difference in students who were motivated to resist ragging and say “no” to it. Indeed, I can produce several of them ( now successful professionals) as living examples of independent, self reliant, integrated personalities who resisted being scarred for life by the poison of ragging. Unfortunately they are a minority.

Seeing ragging as a human rights issue also means approaching it with zero tolerance. There can be no recognition of degrees of ragging. All ragging from the most mild to the most severe must be equally condemned and carry the same penalty. That means mandatory instant expulsion and legal action in terms of the 1998 Prohibition of Ragging Act where ragging is punishable with rigorous imprisonment. One reason why ragging has never been dealt with in this manner is the continued existence of the dangerous fallacy that there is something called “decent ragging” that may be tolerated if not actually encouraged. That nearly all academic staff and professionals have fallen for such nonsense is indicative of the state of intellectual authenticity and critical thinking in academia nowadays, but that is a separate issue. The reality is that from a human rights perspective even compelling a new entrant to sing a song is a wholly unacceptable human rights violation. Try doing that with a stranger on the pavement and you are likely to get assaulted ! Behaviour deemed uncivilised elsewhere in society cannot be legal tender in the campus.

There are many other stupid but widely held misconceptions that must be jettisoned before ragging will ever be eliminated. They include the notion that peace at any price must be preserved on campus no matter if it is peace without principle. I recall the folly of a senior academic colleague questioning an imaginative initiative “Action to Stimulate Student Empowerment to Resist Torture” (ASSERT) which sought to generate idealistic anti-raggers, on the grounds that this was provoking raggers and disturbing ” social harmony”! I remember debunking this nonsense in a newspaper article titled ” Righteous conflict or sham harmony on campus ?”. Other prejudices have consistently precluded the deployment of a permanent police presence on campuses to maintain law and order as in any other part of the country. Then there is the foolish notion that new entrants have something to learn from their seniors ( who are only an year older ! ), and that the university must be proactive in enabling them to get to know each other as if they were little children by facilitating welcome parties which are themselves a proxy for ragging. Finally there is the blindness that refuses to acknowledge the complicity of student unions in ragging, and the ignorance that takes it for granted that university students who are parasitic on the tax payer for their free education have the right to strike as in the case of workers .

Clearly there is a lot of irrational thinking that needs to be corrected before ragging can be eliminated. That such misconceptions are widespread in academic circles is sad but not surprising. It is likely that a high proportion of academic staff and administrators today have themselves been raggers during their student days ! Is it any wonder that they are not too morally outraged by this problem and are easy prey to the numerous fallacies surrounding it ?

Given the above perspectives any serious attempt to wipe out ragging will necessitate a four pronged approach :

1. Ragging can be crushed tomorrow if university authorities and academic staff approach the task with a sense of moral outrage and total commitment. That they do not and have fallen prey to various fallacies and misconceptions about this problem needs to be addressed. University authorities must be made legally responsible and face public censure and dismissal for failure to prevent ragging. Ragging must everywhere be re-designated as human torture. There must be a policy of zero tolerance. Expulsion must be the mandatory punishment for ragging irrespective of degree. Attitudes to ragging must be an important criterion when academic staff are being recruited and promoted.

2. Ragging exists because new entrants tamely submit to it. It can be eliminated tomorrow if instead new entrants exercise the simple choice of saying “no” to it. There must be a powerful national plan of “Action to Stimulate Student Empowerment to Resist Torture (ASSERT)” and say “no” to ragging. Such an inspirational program involving education and motivation to say “no” to the indignity of ragging must target students in A’Level classes in schools especially those selected for university admission and their parents. This must be done before they enter university and seniors begin to brainwash them. The ASSERT initiative that has already been tested on a limited scale can be the conceptual basis for such a national programme. Stirring up mass resistance of new entrants to ragging is the key to its elimination.

3. Strikes by students enjoying free university education must be prohibited and the studentship of striking students cancelled. Initiatives to eliminate ragging invariably flounder and fail when the punishment of guilty culprits is met by widespread strikes and disruption forcing university authorities to mitigate if not cancel sentences. This is a familiar and depressing cycle. Strike action is the unique prerogative of workers who are in contract with their employers. It is ludicrous that students who are parasitic on tax payers for their free education should enjoy this privilege. Ragging cannot be effectively dealt with so long as students are allowed to boycott classes in retaliation.

4. There must be the political will to establish a permanent police presence in all universities. The 1998 Anti Ragging Act must be strenuously applied where even the mildest ragging carries a penalty of up to 2 years rigorous imprisonment.

5. The present system of university admissions allows too many rowdy students and those with a political agenda unfit for higher education to enter state universities. The system of admission must be re-designed to draw in the best and most intellectually oriented students with the right attitudes who will both resist and desist from ragging. Abolishing the district quota system ( which has now run its course ), and recruiting students on merit alone while restoring a viva voce evaluation, would be significant steps in this direction.

Such measures will inevitably be unpopular in some circles. But that is what it will take to eradicate a depravity that has defiled this country for generations while deforming the personality, eroding the independence and pulping the intellect of the cream of our youth. Given the tough measures that will be required the question is are we serious about eradicating the problem ?


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