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Ending violent ragging in Lanka’s Campuses

ECONOMYNEXT – Some Universities in Sri Lanka opened this morning and new university entrants walked into campus taking their first step towards higher education with much excitement and trepidation.

Excitement because they are entering into a new world and fear because ragging in Sri Lankan universities has, over the years morphed into one of the most violent forms imaginable.

Even though various attempts have been made to arrest the trend, with anti-ragging student bodies standing up to the perpetrators, and legislation that involves even prison terms introduced, nothing seems to deter the culprits.

There have been various heads of universities who at one time or another, either collectively or on their own tried to at least mitigate the trend.  Governments, including this newly elected one have made various pronouncements on the need to eradicate university violence. An on-line complaints mechanism was introduced around 2017 by the University Grants Commission, and the Yahapalanaya government showed some signs of getting tough against offenders, and then that initiative too petered out, with political developments in the country taking centre stage.

And so, violence in our universities, which include sexual harassment, continues, often leading to fatalities or life -long physical injuries and psychological trauma.

As the situation worsened, several academics, professionals and concerned citizens came together recently to form the Coalition Against Violence in Universities, spearheading various initiatives and calling on parliamentarians to commit to eradicating this menace from local universities.

Amongst its initiatives is a series of webinars discussing the causes and possible methods of enforcing zero-tolerance against university violence.

The series titled “Lifting the Silence” explored on Saturday, August 23, what students, alumni and lecturers could do to make university ragging a thing of the past.

The 1998, Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act, No. 20,  makes ragging a non-bailable offence if it involves sexual harassment or grievous injury and could lead to up to ten years in jail. Though it has not been applied as expected, participants wondered if the punishments were too harsh, with others insisting they were not.  If it is too harsh, then the same could be said, pointed out one of them, of domestic violence or child abuse, which would lead victims to believe that the crime committed against them is not that grave.

For Devaka Weerasinghe, a Sri Jayawardenepura University alumnus, it is all about empowering new entrants to universities.  As most who have studied the ragging of freshers would know, even while harassment goes on seniors also attempt to act as their guardian angels.  Whether it is befriending and sympathising with a seriously traumatised fresher to sharing their lecture notes, it is a strategy that ensures new entrants become entirely dependent on their seniors.  Once that web is cast, freshers become virtual slaves, often prodded into ragging their own batch mates and taking on that reprehensible task in the ensuing years, and also being lured into joining political parties that endorse such behaviour.

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So as a fresher, Devaka says he organized himself, preparing his own notes and obtaining past exam papers from the university library.  He encouraged others to do the same.  What’s more, he advises new entrants to live in a boarding house rather than the university hostel, at least during their first year, as he points out that as hostellers, freshers end up being subjected to more of the harassment and doing the bidding of seniors.

A group at the University of Colombo, he said had prepared an information booklet which helped new students locate affordable eateries, boarding houses and places of interest etc.  Basically, that was helping freshers find their feet on their own.  When freshers are empowered and as Dharsha Udayanga, an undergraduate at the Ruhuna University pointed out, if new entrants form a network even before they enter the campus, their dependence on seniors will be reduced.  As a group, they can become a formidable force against raggers.

As Dharsha says, it is really tragic that students who have laboured hard at their studies for 13 years, give up on their dream of higher education, simply because of the violence that awaits them at the hands of their seniors.  While cautioning freshers, especially girls from associating with seniors, Dharsha, who is a victim of severe ragging himself, states the trick is to never forgive or withdraw a complaint against ragging.

Indeed, if complaints are seen through to the end, and law-makers and university hierarchy apply the rules already in place and perpetrators are duly punished, eradicating violence from the university will not be just a dream.

Department of English Lecturer and alumnus of the University of Kelaniya, Sabrina Niles is of the opinion that the onus is on the lecturers too to find long-term sustainable solutions.  As she quite rightly points out, there is a significant change of environment from school and home life when transitioning into university and lecturers should be more involved in interacting with the freshers and also promoting respectful behaviour between the different batches of students.

As she suggests, all departments should carry signs informing everyone that this is a safe space.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea if all universities were to display notices stating ‘Ragging stops here!” or ‘We stand for Zero tolerance.’  Of course, signage alone will not be enough it must be followed through with action. Faculty members should also proactively lead a stand against the various stipulations such as dress codes and restrictions in movement that seniors impose on freshers.

Indoctrination, it transpired takes place during the first several months, when new entrants are taught English.  Should those instructors then be empowered to counter such actions, and prevent the escalation of ragging?

Should universities be closed at the first sign of violence?  As one participant observed, will not such a step point to a failure on the part of the Vice-Chancellor, who more often than not has to make compromises with the perpetrators.

Are university administrators unable to take appropriate action because they are beholden to political patronage?

A news report just three days ago stated that the University Grants Commission and the Ministry of Education is considering installing intelligence units at universities to monitor those who instigate harassment.  The authorities may believe that through such units and by instilling fear amongst perpetrators, universities could eradicate or reduce the number of violent incidents that take place at these institutions.

But is installing intelligence units in universities the way to go when legislation that carry strict penalties have not deterred perpetrators?

Would it not be better to empower new entrants so they could withstand the pressures brought upon them and ensure that University Heads apply available legislation against perpetrators, and mobilise faculty members to be proactive in preventing harassment?

More importantly, instead of intelligence units, the UGC and the Ministry should introduce victim and witness protection systems that would ensure that complaints could be made without fear or intimidation, leading towards the complete eradication of violence from our universities.

(Colombo, August 24, 2020)

Kshama Ranawana is an independent writer on social and political issues