Ragging in universities :
Poor commitment, administration to be blamed -Senior Student
Senior Student Counsellor and Head, Department of Sociology,
University of Colombo, Prof. Premakumara de Silva says with the
commitment of the academic staff and administration, ragging in
universities can be made a thing of the past.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: What can be actually categorised as university ragging?
A: In short it can be defined as mental and physical abuse of
In a sociological sense it can be defined as a kind of a deviant
behaviour. It is not a form of behaviour acceptable within society. In
universities, ragging has become a subculture. The university system as
well as society at large will not accept this kind of behaviour. Ragging
result in a minor incident or even the death of a student.
Q: Apart from various 'innuendos' offered to justify their
actions, what is the real intention behind ragging and of raggers?
Prof. Premakumara de Silva
A: Ragging happens outside universities as well. There was a
recent incident in a school. The raggers mostly want students to get
accustomed to their subculture. They use this as a weapon to force
children into accepting their subculture. This is in a way, a kind of
If you look at the history of universities, in the old days,
universities were confined to and dominated by the influential upper
class. The majority of the students were from the upper crust and wanted
to force their specific norms on the minority who came from less
This trend changed after the introduction of free education. Now most
of the university entrants are from the middle and lower classes, from a
multitude of backgrounds.
They constitute the majority in universities and other educational
institutions. The minority today is the upper class. There are language,
attitude and lifestyle disparities, as well as cultural markers and so
The majority want freshers, particularly the above category, to
adhere even for a temporary period. Raggers think that ragging is
necessary. They think they need a mechanism for freshers to start
different relationships in their subculture. They also want to recruit
party loyalists and members for different groups that exist within the
system, for example 'hostellers' and 'non-hostellers'. It is also a
means of picking their next generation of loyalists.
Q: A mild form of ragging should be permitted within the
universities, that this is healthy to build relationships among freshers
and seniors, do you agree?
A: Not at all. We must go for zero tolerance when it comes to
ragging. We must ban it within the universities or any other institution
for that matter.
The 1998 Act, prohibiting ragging and any other forms of violence
within educational institutions has been introduced for this purpose.
This has become the law of this country. Nobody can say ragging in
whatever form is good.
There should be some sort of mechanism where seniors can basically
get together and welcome the juniors. A kind of a cordial meeting. They
should think of a different mechanism, maybe together with university
staff and administrators, to create a friendly atmosphere to welcome
But I am against ragging. This is a practice that has to be
Q: You spoke about long-term psychological effect and even
life threatening situations for victims of ragging. What are your
personal experiences as a student counsellor?
A: The university of Colombo we have not come across such
serious situations in the recent past. We have a network working 24/7
within the university. There are 60 odd student counsellors from the
academic staff working under me. Students can make complaints anytime of
I receive a few complaints from freshers during the orientation
We need to first accept that there is a problem like this. And try to
identify the issues. We cannot be in denial. When a case is reported we
immediately probe and initiate disciplinary action. We start with
warning letters and proceed to suspend of the student if necessary to
prevent continuity of this behaviour.
Q: Is there a pattern, or some sort of similarity in students
who engage in ragging?
A: The majority of students are against ragging in
universities. Only a handful of people support or engage in ragging.
This could be sometimes due to personal reasons or due to common
In order to stop ragging, academics and administrators in particular
must get involved and act immediately when an incident is reported. We
have to take ragging seriously and pay attention to what is going on. If
you turn a blind eye, and allow seniors to behave as they wish, the
situation gets out of hand. Looking after juniors is a key
responsibility. We must focus on what needs to be done to handle the
The university should not be a playground for unruly elements.
Discipline is integral, we should never condone such behaviour.
Q: The Colombo University is relatively calm in terms of
ragging incidents. How did you make this change?
A: As the juniors come, we distribute a student guide called
'Athwela' printed in all three languages. We have given a helpline, to
reach in case of an issue, it spells out the ways to make a complaint
and everything else that is needed.
There are contact details of the Vice Chancellor, Deans and Student
counsellors. Once we are contacted on a ragging incident, we immediately
get to work. Even for a trivial offence we meted out punishment. There
are many cases like that.
Sometimes students try to frame fellow students on personal grudges.
A complaint has to be thoroughly investigated. As soon as we get the
report we don't delay punishment. But students have not been expelled
under my tenure.
We create awareness among students and engage with trouble-makers, to
make the code of conduct of the university, known to trouble-makers what
sort of action is taken if they go against university norms, rules and
regulations. This message has to be conveyed with clarity and certainty.
Even the Anti-Ragging Act is included in the student guide to
familiarise them with the law. From day one they are well aware of the
risks. I am happy to note that we have student leaders who publicly
proclaim that they are against ragging. In a recent press conference
they made this announcement and the University was proud that such
announcement was made in the open.
I think in most instances students are unaware that they are breaking
the law. They speak abusive or harsh language and think that this is
acceptable within the university culture and that it is not ragging. But
of course it is ragging. According to the law no one can be harassed
Q: Recently a secret video exposed a mass ragging 'ritual' in
a university. How come these things go unnoticed by university
A: I don't know. I am not actually qualified to comment on
other universities. But I must emphasise that such behaviour should not
be tolerated at any time under any circumstances. Where were all the
staff members doing at the time? That was conducted publicly, It was not
in a hostel! Why couldn't the authorities intervene and stop it.
The news of this incident should have passed through to the student
counsellors, marshals and the administration immediately. That rapport
needs to be developed urgently.
If the situation is out of control the police should have been
summoned. Turning a blind eye to this is a serious thing.
University students tend to be unruly. They are emotional and
provocative. I have been ragged as an undergraduate in the Colombo
university in the early '80s. But I never did it as a senior.
I was in Panadura then and I remember seniors taking us hostage from
the bus stop at Bambalapitiya junction itself to be escorted to the
campus grounds to be ragged. We were subject to severe physical
At that time ragging was a serious issue in the Colombo university.
As a senior I was one of the members in a group which fought against
this practice. But now we have managed to bring it under control.
Everyone, within the university system, needs to be seriously
committed to combat this menace. It is not impossible to make that
Q: Sexual harassment is now often talked about along with
university ragging. Is it a new trend or has it always been there, but
been out of sight?
A: Sexual harassment can happen as part of ragging, or it
could be individual targeting. This is unacceptable. I have not come
across any incident as a student counsellor but it is alleged that a
letter sent to the Higher Education Minister from one of the woman
undergraduates of the Colombo University complaining of sexual
harassment. We have handed the letter to the CID for investigation.
We have a good counselling network. That particular incident was
never reported to the university. It's not easy to act on anonymous
letters since it is difficult to verify the authenticity of the claim.
We encourage students to come forward and make formal complaints against
such actions. We have women counsellors and my phone is working 24 hours
a day. They could do it confidentially.
Q: How can this issue be addressed - sexual harassment of
A: I am not going to justify what is happening in
Universities. But if you look at society at large, everywhere we see and
hear evil - murder, crime, rape and sexual assault, Universities are
part of this society.
Our students are intelligent, they are the essence of society, but
their minds, too, get corrupt by these external forces.
We teach them to be different, to show their uniqueness but
unfortunately the evil within larger society will reflect in the
Having said that, we do not consider sexual harassment within
university lightly. If incidents are reported, we will definitely take
tough action. We can expel students according to the existing laws and
they can be put in jail for up to ten years if sexual harassment is
proved in a court of law. If the perpetrator is a member of the academic
staff, he too would be dismissed.
But the only thing is that the incident has to be reported to the
administration. A complaint can be made confidentially but unless there
is a formal complaint, it is not easy to take action. We have a good
network of student counsellors, comprising a number of women staffers.
In the case of Colombo University students can even approach the Vice
Chancellor Mrs. Kshanika Hirimburegama.
Q: The Anti-Ragging law was passed and came into effect in
1998. This subculture of ragging in the university system existed long
before. The law seems to have done little to deter this inhuman
A: As I said earlier the fight against ragging is a collective
responsibility. In isolation, no one can do anything effective. The
academic staff, administration, marshals and senior students must get
together to fight this menace, or else the effort will be futile.
Lecturers should not turn a blind eye to what is going on in
Universities. Commitment matters a lot. If they confine to lecturing,
this fight against ragging will get nowhere. We have to make an effort
to maintain close relations with students, to understand their problems
and make it a 'give an take affair'.
I have always maintained that commitment as the academic staff is not
enough to stop ragging. Our distance is too much.
Building confidence, trust and respect among students is vital.
Confident, trusting and respectful students will not engage in ragging -
if they are aware that what they are doing is illegal.
It is always easy to resolve a problem at the outset, before it grows
into a major issue. I believe students are ready to open up if we give
them a chance.
Q: What type of students engage in ragging. Have you seen a
pattern, are they from troubled backgrounds?
A: It is a good question. We have so far not done a proper
research. I might actually guess that having a troubled background would
be an underlying reason for this kind of unruly behaviour. Probably they
would have had troubled childhoods. Some of our students face a lot of
hardship in the home front. Sometimes they are forced to become
They face a lot of personal issues. I believe we need to focus on
these issues as well.
In the Colombo University if we find students with hardship, we offer
scholarships. When approached they open up and speak of their problems.
They need to be given support. It's not correct to outlaw them as bad
people. We should first identify the problem and address their issues.
These issues sometimes could be personal. Sometimes we call parents and
discuss. It has helped a lot.
We must exclude these students from the mainstream and try to make
some concessions to facilitate their existence within the university
Q: What do you think about the influence of political parties
A: I am not against any student doing politics in the
university. Some of the prominent political leaders today were student
union leaders in the past. Students should engage in politics but
democratically. You must learn to tolerate other people's political
views. No one should try to suppress those who hold opposite views. This
is wrong. And violence connected to politics cannot be tolerated within
At the moment there is no democratic political culture within the
university system. The students unions are dominated by one particular
They despise different political ideologies and attack events
organised by opponents. But in the University of Colombo we have broken
that culture. We want to make it a model for all the other universities.
For the past three years, the Colombo University did not close due to
The administration assists students in any cultural or religious
festival that is being organised. We encourage such positive
But violent politics is banned from the University of Colombo.