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Ragging in universities :

Poor commitment, administration to be blamed -Senior Student Counsellor

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 another person.

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 maniacal behaviour.

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 affluent backgrounds.

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 on.

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 them.

But I am against ragging. This is a practice that has to be eradicated.

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 the day.

I receive a few complaints from freshers during the orientation phase.

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 objectives.

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 situation.

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 even verbally.

Q: Recently a secret video exposed a mass ragging 'ritual' in a university. How come these things go unnoticed by university authorities?

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 harassment.

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 change.

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 students?

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 university subculture.

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 practice?

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 premature breadwinners.

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 system.

Q: What do you think about the influence of political parties in ragging?

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 the university.

At the moment there is no democratic political culture within the university system. The students unions are dominated by one particular party.

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 student protests.

The administration assists students in any cultural or religious festival that is being organised. We encourage such positive developments.

But violent politics is banned from the University of Colombo.

 

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