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Opinion: Onus on University staff to enforce discipline to stop ragging

Sri Jayewardenepura University dons help injured student Pasindu Hirushan down the steps on his first day back on campus after being injured in a ragging accident. Hirushan is asking the courts to ensure campus staff enforce displine/Handout Photo

ECONOMYNEXT – Pasindu Hirushan Silva, the Sri Jayewardenepura student who was seriously injured when a tyre fell on him, has gone to court, but unlike most people who would seek monetary compensation, his plea is quite different.

Pasindu and his sister, co-petitioner, Attorney Sharmala  Priyadarshani Silva, in a Fundamental Rights Petition filed before the Supreme Court are requesting the Apex Court to direct University staff to strictly apply existing laws and regulations that deal with student discipline, with the expectation that incidents such as what happened to him, will be avoided in the future.

A first-year student, Pasindu Hirushan is reported to have attended an end of ragging party at the university at the end of March this year when a tyre rolled in his direction had hit him on the chest resulting in his falling backwards striking his head and being seriously injured.  After months spent in intensive care, Pasindu is back at home now, though, life may never be the same.  For one, he has lost the ability to use his right hand.

Pasindu who still walks with difficulty, states in his petition that many university rules had been ignored that night.  According to the petition, whether the parties are organised by the campus, or are informal gatherings, they are expected to end by 10 p.m., but the incident when Pasindu was injured had taken place around 1.30 in the morning.  His family also claims that the students at the party had been under the influence of liquor.

Consumption of liquor inside the campuses is strictly forbidden.

Pasindu’s actions are laudable, but it exposes a stark reality affecting our higher education system; the inability or reluctance of those in authority at our universities, to fully commit to eliminating violence, be it ragging or otherwise.

Indeed, a statement by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Rectors issued in July this year is indicative of their reluctance to even act on the powers they have as university administrators. Rather, they are seeking the help of civil society to build a movement against ragging.

The Committee says it categorically condemns ragging and adds that no Vice-Chancellor or Rector would condone or support it nor protect any perpetrators.  It also says that the issue is a complex one requiring many interventions.

The statement lists a whole lot of reasons why Vice-Chancellors and Rectors find it difficult to completely eliminate violence from local universities; ‘lack of legitimate complaints with evidence or clues for identification of perpetrators, lack of a robust system for the protection of victims and witnesses, inaction of law enforcement authorities to fully implement the provisions of the Act number 20 of 1998 on prevention of ragging and slowness of the judicial and disciplinary procedures.’

The committee also points to the vociferous student movements that “paralyse and frustrate” university administrations from taking action against perpetrators and the external forces that interfere with the disciplinary processes.

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It also states that while perpetrators have the opportunity of taking their so-called “grievances” to the authorities, victims or witnesses are not afforded the same facilities. Perpetrators, they claim, abuse the provisions in the legal system and even complain to the Human Rights Commission against the action taken against them, while university authorities are not afforded the same support.

Interestingly, the committee, in its introduction to the statement, says they are responding to the discussions on traditional and social media and amongst civil society on the issue of ragging and violence in university, which the committee had taken up for discussion at its 431st meeting, held in early July.

Noting the need for a comprehensive strategy to eliminate ragging, the committee says that universities, political parties, law enforcement authorities, the media and civil society must work together to achieve this goal.  “There needs to be a strong movement against ragging in the civil society to encourage new students and their parents to stand up to organized groups of student perpetrators motivated by political intentions.”

The Committee also notes that the reduction of violent situations experienced in universities of late, and the near elimination of ragging at some institutions is due to bold action taken by the Vice-Chancellors and Rectors, who have risked life and limb and even their positions.

In that context, the action taken by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ruhuna, Professor Sujeewa Amarasena is noteworthy.   Acting on the complaint by a first-year student, Dharsha Udayanga in 2019, Amarasena lost no time in introducing several steps to ensure the campus he heads, is now violence-free. Amarasena refers to his initiative as the three E’s; Educating Faculty and students on the long-term negative impacts of ragging and violence,   Engineering, whereby rooms used by student unions for ragging in the university premises are forcibly opened and having CCTV cameras installed, and Enforcement of the law, where all involved in ragging or violence must face the legal implications of such actions.

Obviously, he and his staff may not be the most popular amongst those who engage in ragging and violence.  Yet, he was willing to throw caution and popularity aside and implement the regulations already spelt out, to ensure violence and ragging are eliminated at Ruhuna University.  Under such circumstances, neither students nor faculty would be willing to ignore the rules.  Would other universities follow his example?

Meanwhile, a committee appointed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) on the instructions of former Minister of Higher Education, Bandula Gunawardena to make recommendations regarding ragging has in its summary presented ten points to help eradicate ragging.

The Committee headed by Justice Dr Saleem Marsoof was tasked with addressing issues faced by students deprived of education owing to ragging in Universities and other institutions of higher studies from 2014/15 onwards.

The committee notes that  “The primary responsibility for curbing ragging in universities and other higher educational institutions coming within the purview of the UGC vest exclusively in these universities and institutions; and that the UGC, as well as the academic institutions themselves, should develop policies and procedures for the elimination of ragging and ensure due to compliance.”

The committee also notes that there must be better coordination between the police and academic institutions and that while more public awareness on the disruptive impact of ragging is necessary, the UGC and academic institutions must put in place anti-ragging measures and review and formulate better practices in managing hostels and canteens, which it terms as being “hot-beds of ragging.’   The committee also suggests periodic training for university staff to help eliminate ragging.

Indeed, the issue of violence and ragging, and paying lip service to campus regulations are nothing new.  Ragging has turned more violent in recent years. Various mechanisms, including training new entrants and staff on sexual and gender-based violence was introduced around 2018.

Even though the UGC under the then chairmanship of Professor Mohan de Silva introduced an online-complaints mechanism, which also requested the various university heads to outline action taken against complaints received, the current Chair, Senior Professor Sampath Amaratunga also directed universities in August this year, that complaints received and the action taken regarding university violence must reach him within seven days of the receipt of the complaint.

Violence on campus has, over the years, taking the lives of many, while others live with permanent physical and mental scars.  This is despite some efforts, by various heads of such institutions to enforce zero-tolerance in universities.

With each change of government, nay, change of Minister in charge of the subject, we’ve seen committees being appointed recommendations made and mechanisms set up to address the issue of university violence.  Despite all that, that various forms of violence, some sadistic, continue in our institutions of higher education, and is indicative of a lack of full commitment by those in charge to simply enforce discipline on campus according to the existing regulations.

Every single administrator in the university system must ask themselves, whether they are committed to ensuring that campus life is free of violence, both mental and physical for students.

That almost all have failed to eliminate violence and strictly observe the regulations on discipline is evidenced by Pasindu Hirushan seeking the intervention of the courts to direct Faculty members to enforce the rules on discipline that govern universities.  (Colombo, September 6, 2020)

By Kshama Ranawana