Posted on November 9th, 2016

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

The most precious things in human life come free, or to put in another form, the things people value least are those very things they get free. When these two phrases are equated together what do we get in Sri Lanka? It is the university education.

What are glaring in front of our eyes at present are the symptoms of the malady, which is plague-ridden within a certain section of our young university student population. Society is divided into two schools of thought. Some are in favour, while the others are dead against. Some blame the student groups for being highly irresponsible and displaying an element of anarchy and are ready to participate in strikes, picketing, ragging and demanding the right to commit offensive actions at the drop of a hat forgetting their duties and obligations and point an accusing finger for painting posters or forcibly occupying property that does not belong to them.


They accuse the student groups for forgetting their main purpose of committing for a university education and diligently engaged in studying. There are others, including the very rebellious students, who refute such notions blaming the authorities for turning a Nelsonian eye towards their grievances, and when they do protest, they are treated with police force, water cannons, baton charges, getting hurt and ending up in hospital wards without sympathising with their grievances and claims but exhibiting mighty power with force.

Picketing and ragging

The present situation in the country is that students are keen on picketing, ragging and demanding the right to commit offensive acts. The authorities equally seem to be quite prepared to use power rather than making an effort to nip the problem(s) in the bud rather than allowing the wound to pester.

Recently academic activities for senior students of Kelaniya University came to a halt; with the KUTA (Kelaniya University Teachers’ Association) deciding not to hold classes for seniors until ragging at the campus was stopped. There is a difference between student strikes due to failed attempts of claims as against strikes and protests arising after ragging incidents in universities.

Ragging is a verbal, physical or psychological abuse on new entrants to a university. Ragging in universities appears to be a regular feature in university life globally. Americans call it hazing or bullying.

Sri Lanka appears to be the worst affected country in the world. In India, there are anti-ragging campaigns. In majority of the cases, ragging implies when senior students start to mock and jester at newcomers, usually during the first few months in the university when each undergraduate is assigned to undergo some form of tormenting. This kind of ‘playing the fool’ can take place in many forms from dress codes, verbal to physical torture.

Maha Vihara

There are no historical records to prove any such acts prevailing in the ancient Sri Lankan educational institutions such as Maha Vihara or Abhayagiri Vihara. The concept called ragging came into existence during the post World War II era, a foreign influence, which was a direct upshot of the colonialism, emerging in Sri Lanka from military camps. Eventually, when military personnel entered universities, ragging lost its primary objective and became a violent and hazardous exercise.

When the late Dr. Buddhadasa Bodhinayake entered the Faculty of Medicine in the 1970s, he had been subjected to a horrible ragging session that made him fight tooth and nail against such sadistic practices adopted by the senior students to traumatise newcomers, both physically and mentally.

Consequently he has gone on record as the very first undergraduate who entered the Medical Faculty in Sri Lanka to fight against such joshing for which he received absolute support from the university youth that helped him to form the first Sinhala students union called Three Sinhale Sisya Sanvidhanaya, under the guidance of Ven. Baddegama Wimalawansa Anunayake Thera at the Sri Lanka Vidyalaya at Ode Temple Maradana, to fight against ragging. Despite every attempt, ragging continued and has been part and parcel of university life.

When it comes to university ragging the existed tradition had been to welcome new entrants to a university cordially. They are accepted, guided and assisted by senior students for two weeks or so during which period new students are made familiar with the library area and washroom facilities etc, but in Sri Lanka, the experience of a new entrant to a university can be a nightmare due to the indecent and extremely cruel raging.

Extreme cases

During what was known as the period of Bheeshanaya dangerous incidents such as “inserting candles into female genitals (as in the case of Rupa Rathnaseeli), squeezing male testicles inside drawers, poking straightened out coat- hangers into ears, striking the male genital over a long period of time (known as “bonchi kadeema“) were also reported. This was the period known where suicide risks of students were increased’ (Wikipedia).

The first major steps against university ragging by the government took place during Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s regime in 1974 followed by the findings of V.W. Kularatne Commission, which probed into ragging of a few trainee mathematics teachers at Vidyalankara University (Kelaniya University), which resulted in an expulsion of 12 undergraduates and penalising four officials for failing to take appropriate action.

In 1975, the first death due to ragging at Peradeniya University was recorded. A 22-year-old female student of the Faculty of Agriculture Rupa Rathnaseeli jumped from the second floor of the Ramanathan Hall hostel and was paralyzed. The incident occurred when seniors were about to perform physical ragging on her by trying to insert a candle into her genitals. She committed suicide in 2002.

Likewise there are many cases reported over the years from the University of Ruhuna, Schools of Agriculture, Angunakolapellessa, University of Peradeniya, and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

Legal aspect

Human rights of every citizen are protected under the Sri Lankan Constitution, which enables any citizen to submit a petition to the Supreme Court in terms of the Article 126 of the Constitution associated with any human rights violation or a case closer to the infringement.

University students too, are citizens of the country and are subject to the Common Law that prevails in Sri Lanka. Therefore, any form of criminal or civil offence executed by students also becomes punishable and they shall be produced before a Court to face a trial, followed by a punishment. In 1998, Parliament passed the Universities’ Act No. 16 prohibiting and ragging and other forms of violence in educational institutions.

Unlike in India, there is no official anti-ragging movement in Sri Lanka, but with the situation of ragging worsening yearly, there is a spontaneously emerging anti-ragging movement in each and every Faculty of the University where ragging takes place. In the case of the University of Peradeniya, an anti-ragging movement emerged in 1996. Prior to that, there was no movement against ragging, but certain individuals escaped from the rag. In the meanwhile, anti-ragging movements started to appear in all other Universities. Several Faculties in Universities have become rag-free due to the movements.

Internal clashes too, have erupted several times due to the friction between ragging and anti-ragging movements within universities. Samantha Vithanage was a third year Management student at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. She pioneered an anti-ragging campaign and got killed at a meeting while in a discussion about ragging. The Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake, at the time, stressed that he would take firm action against those found guilty of such misdemeanor by expelling them from the university.

The parents of university students tend to believe that the reason behind university student suffering is due to their (students) inability to look at a situation in its larger framework and giving undue importance to minor issues or incidents.

General consensus

By the same token the general consensus is that it would be worse if students are allowed to get away with inappropriate behaviour such as stripping newcomers of their rights, their dignity, their self respect including their clothes whenever they attempt to disregard all forms of authority. What seems to be a strange factor is that each student signs a document promising that they would not rag, prior to gain entry into a university, and if caught they will accept the responsibility and the consequences.

The unfortunate aspect appears to be that majority of the senior students do not seems to have a mindset that ragging a new comer to be a wrong act. Instead they are inclined to believe it as their right as senior undergrads. So, when they are subjected to punishment having ragged they naturally tend to deny their vicious acts. They also may deny threatening lecturers. This trend of shirking responsibility for their own actions develops into a serious problem, as these young and intelligent undergraduates are the ones who will one day come out of the university and will be holding key positions in the country.

If this is the type of stock and brand of thinking we are going to experience and produce out of our education systems and universities, how long can the authorities and the public afford to permit a few distorted mind-sets to cripple the future of thousands of other students for the sake of a few irresponsible ‘politically motivated’ selfish students?

“Intelligence is more important than strength, that is why earth is ruled by men and not by animals.”

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