Psychology and Sociology of Ragging


By Prof. Susirith Mendis
Senior Professor of Physiology Faculty of Medicine & Former Vice-Chancellor University of Ruhuna


I have been reading and digesting the many articles that have been appearing in the media in the recent past on the topic of ragging. I believe that they touched upon many important points; in particular I refer to the excellent article by Prof. Hennayake in The Island. Some commentators from outside the university system are unfortunately not privy to the reality of the situation and therefore, understandably, were unrealistic in their proposals to stop ragging in the universities.

Let me also join the chorus and place before you another perspective. A perspective derived from 36 years of experience in the system as a medical academic.


Psychology of Ragging

My premise is that in any population sample, there are sadists. A study titled "Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism" published in ‘Psychological Science’ (2013) has this to say in the abstract:

"Acts of apparent cruelty were captured using two laboratory procedures, and we showed that such behavior could be predicted with two measures of sadistic personality. Study 1 featured a bug-killing paradigm. As expected, sadists volunteered to kill bugs at greater rates than did non-sadists. Study 2 examined willingness to harm an innocent victim. However, only sadists were willing to work for the opportunity to hurt an innocent person. In both studies, sadism emerged as an independent predictor of behavior reflecting an appetite for cruelty. These findings support the construct validity of everyday sadism and its incorporation into a new "Dark Tetrad" of personality."

So ‘everyday sadism’ exists. There is no record of the percentage of the identified sadist in the above study.

I may not have searched enough, but I could never find a study that determined the % of sadist in any given population. But we know that sadists exist in any population. And a batch of students who enter university each year is a sample of the general population and therefore must consist of some % of sadists.

During my ‘lecture’ on the ‘Psychology of Ragging’ which I gave my students yearly for over 25 years, I used the story of the ‘Premawathi Manamperi’ murder to illustrate my point about sadists lurking undetected in society until they expose their subliminal psychological states when opportunity for sadism is created. Those of us who are old enough to remember the 1971 JVP insurrection will remember this story.Lieutenant Alfred Wijesuriya was found guilty of attempted murder of Premawathi Manamperi" by shooting her with Sterling sub-machine guns and causing serious injuries to her". She was only 22 years old and had been the ‘Avurudu Kumari’ of Kataragama the previous year. The shot that finally killed her was by "an unknown army gunman".

Here is an excerpt from the Judgment of the Court of Appeal (C. C. A. Appeals Nos. 34-35 of 1973, with Applications 38-39 – page 7). The 1stAppellent is Lieutenant Wijesuriya.

"The deceased was being questioned by Wijesuriya at the Army Camp and Oliver Silva got the impression that she was being asked about her complicity in the insurgent activities. Wijesuriya then asked her to remove her clothes and in spite of her protests and pleadings she was compelled to take off all her clothes. Wijesuriya then asked her to walk along the main road with her hands held over her head exposing her nakedness reciting the words "I have followed all five lectures". The two appellants armed with Sterling submachine guns and another soldier walked on either side. When she had proceeded about 200 yards along the road she turned towards the post office. The 1st appellant then kicked her on the hip and opened a short burst of fire on her. The girl fell down. She crawled some distance and again got up and walked and fell again. The appellants then returned to the camp. Then one of Wijesuriya's men mentioned that the girl was still alive whereupon the 1st appellant ordered the 2nd appellant to go and shoot her. The 2nd appellant then went up to the place where the girl lay fallen and opened another short burst of fire on her. Aladin who had been asked by the Army personnel to dig a pit and bury the girl reported twice that she was still alive and it was only thereafter that an unidentified soldier went up and shot her through the head with his rifle. She died immediately and was buried with her clothes in a pit."

Who was Lieutenant Wijesuriya? He was an army volunteer. In civilian life he was a Director of a tyre retreading company in Colombo. A well-respected member of the firm and Colombo society. Several of his friends gave evidence on his behalf at his trial stating that he was a good friend, a good family man and a kind father to his children. Lieutenant Wijesuriya was a sadist who led a decent, respectablelife in society until he found the opportunity to reveal his true self – the Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll was left behind at home in Colombo. There must be many more such examples of Lieutenant Wijesuriyas during the 30-year war who were never brought to trial; and perhaps, will never be.

It’s the Mr. Hydes that come out in plenty when new students enter universities. Students from average homes become marauding sadists. But I have found from cursory surveys that many of them do come from dysfunctional family backgrounds. It’s the thrill and joy of inflicting physical and psychological pain and torture that drives them. The same pain and torture they themselves had to endure in their home environments and then again as first-year university students. The "rag season" is the time when they can become their true subconscious selves – and give vent to all their subconscious motivations and pent up aggressions.

The whole ‘Abu Ghraib’ prison scandal and revelations from the Iraq war is another illustrative case in point which I will not elaborate on now.

As much as there are sadists in society there are masochists as well; those who derive pleasure by enduring pain. The converse of sadism. Therefore, there are masochists among university students too. In the survey I did on "Attitudes towards Ragging" over a period of 3 years in the 1990s among new entrant students while they were being ragged during that period in the Ruhuna medical faculty, I was very surprised to find that a significant number of students agreed with statement such as "I like to be ragged";"Ragging helps make new friends"; "I will rag when I become a senior" and "ragging is an important tradition".(see (i) Mendis S. (1992) Attitudes of preclinical medical students towards ragging in the universities. Abstracts of the Annual Sessions of the Galle Clinical Society, 51: 17 and (ii) Mendis, ALS. (1994) Ragging in the universities: Attitudes of medical students. Proceedings of the Golden Jubilee Sessions of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, F-01, 263).

I concluded that masochism is not as rare as I had thought. Unfortunately, it showed that there isa segment of students who enjoy being psychologically and physically humiliated. I realized then that an important impetus to the continuation of ragging in universities (or anywhere else for that matter) is this significant number of sadists and masochists in society. Within this cohort is a spectrum of individuals from those with sexual psychopathologies to sociopaths and other milder forms of disturbed personality. This is a hidden aspect of ragging that has not been adequately researched. In fact it has been completely ignored.



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