Ragging in the university system: A collective mental disorder | Daily News

Ragging in the university system: A collective mental disorder

Campus students in a discussion. File photo
Campus students in a discussion. File photo

Fifteen university students were arrested last week (Feb. 20) for ragging 8 juniors. A torture chamber was discovered in an abandoned house: But the problem of ragging is by no means a new one, and neither are these isolated incidents.

Many parties over the past several decades, including the university authorities, have grappled with the problem of ragging, in numerous ways: But even while there is a common acceptance that ragging is wrong, none have been able to formulate a lasting solution to this recurring problem.

As a result, thousands of new entrants to state universities are harassed, bullied and abused by their seniors. Some of them sustained physical injuries, some ended up with severe depression, some bid adieu to their tertiary education, and some, even lost their lives:

Rupa Rathnaseeli was a young ‘fresher’ at the Peradeniya University’s Faculty of Agriculture in 1975, when she jumped off the second floor of the ‘Ramanathan Building’ and sustained severe physical injuries. It was later revealed that Rupa jumped to escape ragging that entailed inserting an object into her vagina.

Rathnaseeli was critically injured in the escape attempt and spent the rest of days in a wheelchair. Rupa, a young girl in perfectly normal mental health until then, committed suicide in 1997, marking the existence of serious and unresolved dark side to Sri Lanka’s university system.

Ovitigala Vithanage Samantha was a third-year student at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura’s Management Faculty, who pioneered the ‘anti-ragging campaign’ at the university. O. V. Samantha was brutally killed on 7 November 2002 by a mob of around 200 JVP supporters.

The JVP supporters, armed with clubs and stones had stormed into a room in which a discussion on the practice of ragging was being held, and viciously attacked Vithanage and others in the room. Pro-ragging students had also blocked the vehicle carrying the injured to the hospital, delaying proper medical treatment.

O. V. Samantha Vithanage who had sustained heavy injuries to his head, died two days later. His death is a landmark incident in the anti-ragging movement of Sri Lankan universities that provoked many students and academic staff of universities to act against ragging.

These incidents are but only the tip of the iceberg, but they were a clear manifestation of the brutality involved in the raging issue. Unlike Rathnaseeli and Samantha, many students underwent the trauma silently, as they didn’t have the gumption to resist those who engaged in ragging.

Political ties

Ragging is linked to politicized student bodies – such as the Inter University Students Federation – that operate within the tertiary education sector. It is used as a device to sift through and absorb ‘tough’ members into a highly politicized university ‘culture’ that perpetuates the ideologues espoused by these bodies.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna held sway over the Inter-University Students Federation for many years. Some prominent JVP parliamentarians including its current leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, parliamentarians Sunil Handunetti and Bimal Ratnayake were stalwarts of the Inter University Students Federation in the early 90’s.

They are well aware of the inner workings of the organisation and the unacceptable methods used to absorb new members into the membership. After the JVP’s split in 2012, the breakaway party – The Frontline Socialist Party – consolidated their position in the IUSF.

Former IUSF seniors, Chameera Koswatte and Duminda Nagamuwa, became leading figures of the FLSP and the student body began toeing the breakaway party’s agenda: But the same methods they used to attract new members continued despite these internal changes in the students’ organisation.

It is for this reason that the political parties both overtly and covertly back these student bodies cannot be excused from culpability in this crime. It is precisely because of political involvement that this barbaric tradition perpetuates from generation to generation, despite resistance from the public at large, and many other parties pushing for reforms.

Sadistic tendencies

While it is clear that political agendas contribute to ragging at state universities, it is also manifestly clear that unequal power structures create an environment in which a psychological illness – sadism – the desire to inflict pain, or humiliation on another, is manifest.

‘Freshers’ or first –year students at the various universities are relatively young, disoriented and unprepared for the social aspects of higher studies and the power, or perceived power held over the first-year students by their ‘seniors’ lead to a sadistic abuse of power.

The oft-quoted Stanford Prison Experiment, by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in 1971, found that both situational and dispositional attributes led to an abuse of power.

His experiment, an investigation into the psychological effects of perceived power was centered on the struggle between prisoners and prison guards. Zimbardo and his team handpicked 24 males – 12 of whom were assigned the role of prisoner, while the 12 others were assigned the role of guards.

The experiment was designed to induce disorientation, depersonalization, and de-individuation in the participants – a reflection of the situation many of the ‘freshers’ or ‘juniors’ find themselves in as new entrants to the state university system.

The ‘guards’ in Zimbardo’s experiment were asked to inflict punishment on the ‘prisoners’ – with the exception of bodily harm and withholding of food and drink. Zimbardo notes that with time, the roles were internalized by both the prisoners and the guards, with the ‘prisoners’ becoming increasingly submissive and the guards, increasingly cruel.

Zimbardo notes that approximately one-third of the guards exhibited genuine sadistic tendencies and that most of the ‘guards’ were upset when the experiment concluded after only six days. His experiment has been used and re-used, to illustrate the power of authority.

Zimbardo’s experiment, which was planned for two weeks, was discontinued after an independent observer objected to the morality of the experiment and the conditions within which the ‘prisoners’ were being held, which Zimbardo himself noted as having ‘deteriorated rapidly.’

While ragging is clearly a criminal offence, there has been no authority willing or able to wade in and object to the manner in which ‘seniors’ in the university system exercise and exert their authority over ‘juniors’.

While ‘juniors’ have every right to complaint against the abuse and lodge police complaints against the perpetrators who subject them to this verbal, emotional and physical abuse, fear forces new entrants into silent submission.

Students ad infinitum endure the abuse for fear they will lose their chance at higher education, and so the system perpetuates infinitely, spurred on by a combination of disorientation, fear, political meddling, sadism and a lack of authority at the highest levels to curb this crime.

Top-level intervention

It is clear that the time is ripe for top-level intervention to eradicate the scourge of ragging and restore sanity to state universities: It is with this in mind that President Sirisena has instructed Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara to adopt a comprehensive framework to eliminate ragging from state universities.

However, bringing the culture of ragging to an end through Police intervention will not be an easy task: Not only have previous efforts failed, but even attempts to set up temporary Police posts in certain universities to prevent clashes was vehemently opposed by university students, heady on independence.

This is why the government must enter into a dialogue with university heads and the law enforcement bodies on sustainable ways of addressing this problem: A comprehensive programme to enlighten new university entrants on their basic rights and to encourage them to seek the assistance in an event of ragging must be organized and implemented.

The University Grants Commission, last week launched a new service on its website in an attempt to curb ragging. The online form encourages students being bullied, harassed or ragged to report the incident and promises recompense.

The UGC said complaints lodged on its website will be investigated by university authorities, who will also offer counseling and support.

It said Vice-Chancellors, Senior Student Counselors, Deans, Heads of Department, and the staff of the Gender Equity Centre would be responsible for responding to complaints, and warned against false complaints – saying those students would face disciplinary action.

While these attempts must be lauded – and indeed they are, sporadic responses to isolated incidence will not achieve favorable outcomes: Instead university officials, with the state intervention at the highest level, must clamp down on ragging within the university system and apply sustained pressure to ending the cycle of abuse.

Miscreants must be punished: Ejection from the university system ought to serve as a strong deterrent. Students must be told that any student engaging in physical, verbal, emotional or any other form of abuse, or outright ragging, will be punished with dismissal from the university.

Although the road will be long and arduous, if university authorities, with the backing of the state, enforce ejection from the university system as punishment for ragging, the cyclic rote of abuse can be stamped out and put to a final end.

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