(Pic by Rukshan Abeywansha)

Outrage over inhumane offences in Sri Lanka’s universities swept the nation as details of recent appalling atrocities brought more pressure on the authorities to find a sustainable solution to the age-old plague of ragging.

In the latest revelation, according to reports, senior students had set up a ‘torture chamber’ outside the Peradeniya campus.

The campaign against ragging is not merely a kill-joy crusade against innocuous orientation traditions in our higher seats of learning. Indeed, the old initiation rites of a bygone era had been jovial, prankish and by and large harmless affairs. At most, they were confined to welcoming and making at ease first-year students with traditional fraternity larks such as demanding humorous skits, which included song and dance routines and good-natured raillery.

Lamentably, that custom is as defunct as the quality of scholars who once entered our groves of academe. In fact, ragging has just gone worse from the time of baby boomers of the 60s. Those were spacious times when students were subjected to harmless  fun activities meant to have a good start between seniors and juniors but all that has been taken over by obscenity and sexual perversion.

That is because over the years some aberrant idiots have gone too far. The student old-guard has been replaced by motley packs of cold and intolerant anti-social forces who under the cover of the traditional induction observances have been subjecting their first year  contemporaries  to some of the most shameful and cruel indignities imaginable. Among the casualties of such inhumane degradation have been students who have been physically maimed for life for resisting, some sexually violated and others driven to suicide or brutally killed.

It was reported some years ago that authorities were investigating complaints that four female ‘freshers’ were sexually molested inside the Colombo University.

Besides, the   psychological consequences have also been traumatic. Many students who have been ragged have suffered severe depression and are sometimes even convinced they are worthless. However, it is quite apparent that the  sociopathic victimiser and not the victim is the more troubled individual.

For the perpetrators, every one of these obscene acts has been just another stunt in their long chronology of perversions. Sadly our campuses have degenerated into ghettos of scholarship for the lowbred scum of society.

Indeed, the majority of undergraduates in our society are basically respectable, law-abiding citizens and are imbued with commendable values. But they are assailed by everything to do with incivility and loutish conduct in all its varied forms. I am referring to the mean-spirited, ignorant, envious breed of individuals who cannot adjust to any genteel social environment. Hardly surprising then, that people with inferiority complexes, are often well, just that, inferior.

The overreaction and crude and obscene behaviour of this violent student minority is obviously triggered by their own sense of inadequacy and compounded by spite. This is perhaps the only way many of them believe they could compensate for their own social inadequacies and emotional instabilities. What our campuses are harbouring then is a small yet malevolent group which has adopted a system of institutionalised envy to vent its frustrations on everything that is normal and decent.

The swell of violent ragging incidents which had been reported over the years has always raised a public outcry but has been sidelined by the media with the passage of time and transcending events. For many years the law did not provide for stern action against such perpetrators who had subjected their victims to sexual harassment, abuse, assault and other degrading acts. Analysts then called for stiffer laws and law enforcement to curb the obscene plague. The general feeling up to now is that successive governments had not been firm enough with the offenders and had been adopting a wishy-washy attitude towards ragging and violence.

True. But it would be apt to jog the ailing national memory  that a previous People’s  Alliance government had decided to get tough with students who harassed, intimidated and brutalised their colleagues under the guise of initiation ceremonies. In late 1997, all police stations in the country were directed to take action under the new Anti-Ragging Act which had been introduced to penalise those found guilty of indulging in such activities in all educational institutions.

Under the legislation, those accused of ragging face jail terms with hard labour for five to ten years if convicted of causing sexual harassment or severe physical harm. Make no mistake about it, the purported extreme ‘ragging’ in Sri Lanka, is criminal assault, no less. The perpetrators must be dealt with as such.  Just because the offenders happen to be students they are not above the law. Being senior undergraduates they are regarded in the eyes of the law as adults. There can be little debate about that. Besides ragging is a punishable offence under Act No. 20 of 1998.

A great tragedy of the current campus crisis is that too many Sri Lankans would like to leave it to the governments to deal with student extremists and violence. Admittedly, it is a duty of a government to find out all that has happened, to bring the culprits to book and prevent it from happening again.

But the academic community too should also be committed to fostering an atmosphere that actively discourages bullying and ragging through explicit rules and adequate supervision. But again there have been several cases where university staffers have been intimidated when wading into the fray to stop such incidents. Ragging and violence have become the most enduring and underrated problems on our campuses today. Analysts say it had been easy for the authorities to spot the trends, when campus violence and cruelty first became an era of gloating merriment for these fanatic forces. The campus moderates call the student radicals the “Upstart Brigade” and rightly so.

The nation remained stunned in November 2002 when a young undergraduate of the Sri Jayewardanapura University was brutally battered to death by a gang of student radicals. By all accounts, the young victim Samantha Ovitigala Vithanage was among a small band of student moderates who had rallied to restore a sane, orderly academic climate, free from fear, thuggery and barbaric ragging inflicted on new entrants.

The youthful undergraduate Samantha Vithanage died for a cause he believed in. He had stood up courageously for all that was decent and ethical. Above all, he displayed those great attributes of decency and gallantry. What he fervently desired was to be able to get on with the business of getting an education for himself and his peers. He was a trail-blazer among non-violent student groups who moved to defuse the radical climate of hysteria and isolate the extremists.

For that, he paid the supreme sacrifice. His killers, on the other hand, are bullies and cowards of the most despicable extraction.  But now, tired of being denied their educational and civic rights by these violent extremists, moderates at universities across the nation would do well to fight back.

There has been a call for more campus police to preserve order. And yes, the student goon squads will predictably protest “against fascist police invasion” and call for a strike to shut down the campuses. But the prospect of facing other organised moderate students will deny these extremists the opportunity to provoke the police and would place them in the position of initiating the violence themselves.

The time is opportune for non-violent students to be inspired by Samantha’s heroism. It is about time they continued his commendable campaign to turn the violent insurgent tide. To do that, they must organise themselves to confront the vicious radicals. After all, there is strength in numbers. And by all estimates the conservatives outnumber the extremists ten to one.

Deaths by ragging

• In 1974, ragging of some trainee mathematics teachers at the then Vidyalankara University (now University of Kelaniya) prompted Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Government to appoint the V. W. Kularatne Commission to probe the incident. As a result, twelve undergraduates were expelled and four officials were penalised for their failure to take appropriate action. This was the first major step taken against university ragging by a Sri Lankan government.

• In 1975, the University of Peradeniya reported the first ragging-related death when a 22-year-old female student of the Faculty of Agriculture, Rupa Rathnaseeli became paralyzed as a result of jumping from the second floor of the Ramanathan Hall hostel to escape the physical ragging carried out by her seniors. It was reported that she was about to have a candle inserted in her vagina just before she had jumped out of the hostel building. She committed suicide in 2002.

• Prasanga Niroshana, a student from Hakmana, died as a result of ragging he underwent at the School of Agriculture, Angunakolapellessa.

• In 1997, 21-year-old S. Varapragash, an Engineering student of the University of Peradeniya, died from kidney failure following severe ragging by senior students.

• In 1997, Kelum Thushara Wijetunge, a first-year student at the Hardy Technical institute in Ampara, died from kidney failure after he was forced to do tough exercises and drink excessive quantities of liquor.

• In 2002, Samantha Vithanage, a third year Management student at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, who pioneered an anti-ragging campaign was killed at a meeting, while in a discussion on implementing anti-ragging.

• In 2006, Prof. Chandima Wijebandara, the Vice Chancellor of University of Sri Jayewardenepura resigned from his post as a result of students failing to comply with his orders to eliminate ragging from the university.

• In 2014, D. K. Nishantha’s body was found hanging from a tree within the premises of the University of Peradeniya. Nishantha had been a witness to the alleged sexual abuse of his friend by several other students inside the dorm.