Addressing causes of ragging in Lankan universities

by Dinesha Samararatne
Lecturer in Law
University of Colombo

Along with each new intake of students to the state universities in Sri Lanka, many universities are forced to address the issue of ragging of those students by some of the senior students. The Anti-Ragging Act of 1999 (The Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act) was introduced in Sri Lanka to penalize ragging as a specific form of criminal activity as a response to this grave issue. This law was welcomed as a progressive response to ragging but since its enactment, at least one student has died to violence related to ragging and the practice of ragging continues unabated among many university students.

Ragging as per the law includes unlawful confinement, damage to property, hostage taking and wrongful restraint. For instance, ‘ragging’ is defined in the law as ‘any act which causes or is likely to cause physical or psychological injury or mental pain or fear to a student or a member of the staff of an educational institution.’ Circular 919 issued by the University Grants Commission in 2010 provides further guidelines on how ‘forms of ragging’ should be interpreted. Any unlawful or unreasonable restriction of the liberty of a student or staff member of an educational institution is considered within those guidelines as amounting to ragging.

Regrettably, ragging presents a classical example of a law which has failed in its enforcement and as an example of a law which is observed in the breach. Within the specific context of the Sri Lankan university system, it might be worthwhile to consider (or reconsider) why such an unacceptable state of affairs has been accepted by many.

One possible reason for this tragic situation is that the root causes which resulted in the ‘culture of ragging’ remain at large and have not been addressed in a systematic way. Students who argue in defence of ragging claim that it is a form of ‘equalising’ of students who are ‘unequals’. ‘Unequals’ in their ability to use English as a language of communication, unequal in their access of financial resources and that equalises students who are fundamentally different in their lifestyles. It is argued by the same students that the practice of ragging is a tried and tested method of bringing all these students to the same level and of pushing them to identify with each other as being of the same ‘batch’ and of being supportive of each other in their times of need. ‘Times of need’ include the sharing of lecture notes, attending funerals of deaths of close family members of batch mates and participating in common events organized within the institution.

Within the context of a university, it is telling that students view ragging in this way. To begin with, expecting that uniformity and unity should be achieved at the cost of personal liberty and diversity within a student population cuts against the ethos of a university community. A university provides an intellectual space within which knowledge is shared, challenged and where new knowledge is produced. Such an exercise demands a strong emphasis on free thinking, academic discipline and the freedom within which academic excellence is pursued. The practice of ragging within any university then is a symptom of the fact that there is a mismatch between the objectives of a university community and that of raggers.

In the Sri Lankan context, the justifications for ragging also indicate the failures of the secondary and primary education systems. The gap in English language skills and the sense of empowerment different students achieve at the end of their secondary education is too wide for it to be acceptable. Such a situation will only nurture social and economic conditions within which a culture of ‘ragging’ will be nurtured and promoted. Furthermore, it is nearly impractical for a university community to address these deeps seated perceptions and realities of injustice in each student within the three or four years of their undergraduate life.

However, the different faculties within the university system need to understand the root causes of insecurity due to which students rag others and due to which students are willing to submit themselves to ragging. While some of those root causes are outside and beyond the university system, it can be argued that some are within the system.

It seems that deficiencies in the methods of teaching and sometimes in what is actually being taught are a contributory factor. If the content of the teaching in universities challenges students to think critically of their discipline and of the world around them it is difficult to see how those same students want to rely on ragging as a method of bringing about unity and equality within the student body. The lived experiences of some students, however, seem to be that lectures are a time for note taking, that the assessment systems encourage rote learning and that there is in general nothing valuable to be achieved in participating in academic activities. While it cannot be argued that observance of high academic standards in teaching, learning and assessment by itself will not eliminate ragging – it could be argued that maintenance of acceptable academic standards within universities would reduce the mental space and physical opportunities for the practice of ragging.

The equalizing and unifying effect of ragging is defended also on the basis that it assists many students in adapting to university life and to city life (since most Sri Lankan universities are relatively urban in their location). A related idea is that it orients them to the ‘culture’ within a university which is apparently based on respect for seniority and conforming to certain standards of behaviour. Through the process of bringing the students together and by inculcating certain values in them, it is argued that the senior students are in fact assisting the new students and empowering them.

Within a university where intellectual pursuits are nurtured and sustained, respect needs to be based on principles and not simply on relative standards, such as, ‘seniority’ and ‘identity’ (lecturer/student). Respecting human beings because of their inherent dignity, respecting each other in spite of espousing different ideologies and respecting each other through academic debates and discussions generally characterize the ideals of a university community that is focused on the developing and sharing of knowledge. Therefore, the practice of ragging undermines in many ways the fundamental purposes for which universities ought to exist.

In some faculties, the practice of ragging has been ignored or even worse, tacitly supported, generally for two reasons. One is that some academics within those institutions actually support ragging and believe that it brings about desirable outcomes for the university community. The other is that, sometimes academics prefer not to deal with the problem unless it escalates beyond a particular scale that is considered unacceptable. It can be convincingly argued that both justifications cannot stand. Violence, whether direct/indirect and whether overt/covert, has a negative impact on the larger community in which it takes place. It completely undermines the foundational values of a university community.

The issues of inequality, lack of skills, the need for an environment which is conducive for student interaction irrespective of their differences etc require institutional intervention. The university system and the respective faculties are willing to recognise that condemning ragging as violence (whether overt or covert) needs to take place within a larger context in which sustainable alternatives are explored with the objective of addressing the needs of sudents. Such alternatives need to be developed in consultation with students. It has been suggested that involvement of academics in the mentoring of individual students and their involvement in addressing different challenges that undergraduates face, are methods that could be adopted. While noting the value in such interventions it must be noted that specific departments have been established in universities to address these specific needs and perhaps due to increased bureaucratization and centralization of university administrations, these departments have not been effective in those regards.

This short opinion piece has sought to consider some of the arguments that come up in the context of ragging within Sri Lankan universities with the objective of stimulating the university community to consider this grave issue from a broad perspective. It is crystal clear that no one should be allowed to use overt or covert violence to influence another person’s behaviour or opinion. If it occurs within a university system it should be considered as a matter of utmost importance and addressed seriously and in a sustainable manner. But that response must be holistic and should result in challenging the ideology that leads to the practice of ragging. Measures that focus only on the practice of ragging will only provide temporary solutions. Academic communities must come together, whether lecturer, student or administrator, in finding the sustainable solutions that are needed.

(This opinion piece has benefitted from comments given by some academics and undergraduates and the writer wishes to acknowledge their contribution)

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