15 undergraduates of Peradeniya University, Faculty of Agriculture being arrested for ragging a group of first years became national news last week. The Inter-university Students’ Federation, was quick to disassociate themselves from the incident, and so were the university officials; the Vice Chancellor making a statement to press that the proceedings should be conducted by the Police, followed by a suspension of the same students until investigations were over. The accused arrived at courts covering their faces. Why cover your faces? Why now?
Finally, I would say, some kind of attention is being drawn to the topic which has been infecting the university system for decades. University of Peradeniya celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Neither the glorified history nor the picturesque beauty often photographed do justice to the thousands of undergrads who have walked through the imposing corridors, fearing for the seniors, self-doubting your decision to come to university, humiliated both mentally and physically.
Back in 2005 when I received my entrance letter to Pera, I didn’t expect the call that came after it. A senior from my school spoke to me about the ragging situation and prepared me with the dos and don’ts in order to avoid it. Apparently there existed an Anti-Ragging movement, small in number at the time, yet prepared to go to the length of helping first years get through the first days of university.
On the day of the Orientation only two of us girls were in trousers, drawing much looks from the seniors who were ‘on duty’. The whole of our first semester was about surviving; you come exactly on time for lectures, and leave the university as soon as lectures finish. We would randomly be confronted by seniors who would try to stop us and talk to us, for which we always had an excuse and managed to scoot off. This would be followed by a barrage of verbal filth directed at us. One thing about our batch was that we stuck together at ALL times. Detailed plans would be made every evening for the next day where those coming from Kandy would meet at the Mahakanda bus stop and to get off at Galaha junction and join the others who came from the opposite directions; Gampola, Peradeniya etc.
A year later, as ‘seniors’, we were the ones making calls, meeting ‘juniors’ at bus stops to escort them to the faculty, getting scolded in filth (by now a common experience) for ‘protecting’ the first years, being thrown eggs and tomatoes at for doing so. We took, or tried to take the movement further; to be Anti-Raggers as opposed to Non-Raggers.
Many were the stories we encountered; from verbal to physical abuse, from randomly being shouted at in filth to being punched and bullied, to sadder disgusting experiences in the hostels. Many were the students who came to us asking for help, and even more were those who could not openly reach out to us because they had to continue in the hostels. We would speak to the Faculty Counsellors, the Heads of Departments, and even the Dean. Some students were questioned as a result, we were given hope that something at some point would solve the issue. But the infestation went too deep, too deep into the system. Eventually the authorities would turn around and say that they do not have enough evidence to do anything further. We were informed that getting evidence at a situation such as ragging is very important! We had camera phones, so we were supposed to photograph or video the incident! What baffled me was that how a student, being confronted by such a situation would have the sense to pull out the phone and ‘capture the moment’. It didn’t help that most of the times, the Raggers would confront a lone Anti-Ragger in groups.
Over the years the Anti-Rag movement grew in numbers. We had the likes of Ashan Weerasinghe who opted to follow English as his minor subject while specializing in Sinhala, an act which required much courage, which he possessed in spite of his stature, and Menaka Premachandra, who openly claimed he was against ragging at a Sinhala lecture, the Sinhala Department which was seen as one of the strongest ‘Pro-Ragging’ departments. By our final year, we were overjoyed to see that not even a quarter of our batch attended a Union meeting for Final Years’. But the affliction of ragging continued, they continue to have strength in numbers, in the power drawn through the Student Unions. Mostly, they are strengthened by the helplessness of the first years, straight out of school, miles away from homes, naïve and impulsive youthful minds into which a created inferiority complex is fed, which will benefit petty political agendas of a handful.
However, finally the issue is getting much media and public attention it should have got many years ago, unfortunately at the expense of the 8 first year students. Whilst reading that they were discharged from the hospital, now I fear for their safety even more, because I know they will not be left alone by the rest of the ‘seniors’ for what happened to their batch mates. I also wonder if this attention is only because the ragging took place out of University premises. What if the same happened inside a hostel, just like all the other ragging acts do? Would the officials and unions disassociate themselves as readily as they did? Would the incident come into light at the first place? For some fortune the students decided to commit the crime out of university and thanks to that decision now we have national level dialogue about it. Whether this would lead to completely eradicating ragging from the university system, or be just another case which will be swept under the carpet of political influence and time is yet to be seen.