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Sri Lanka’s university students are hardly out of the headlines. These days, they have been in the forefront of the so-called  ‘struggle’ against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). Although medical students have been in the frontline, their colleagues following other courses of study have joined in their thousands in the street protests and other agitational campaigns.

That is, of course, their right and no one grudges them that, even if it is an open secret that most of the protests involving university students have political undertones.

It is common knowledge that the major university union involved in these protests , the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF), popularly known as the ‘antharey’ in campus circles, takes its orders from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Several IUSF leaders have gone on to become JVP stalwarts, perhaps the most notable among them being parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti.

The IUSF and the JVP have taken the moral high ground against SAITM, citing various alleged irregularities in the setting up and administration of that institution. There is nothing wrong with that either. It is entitled to demand transparency in a matter as vital as the future of medical education in the country.

However, both the IUSF and the JVP are very reluctant to turn the searchlight inward with regard to another issue that blights our undergraduates with arguably even more serious consequences: ragging. We need to ask, why, especially in view of recent events at the Peradeniya University.

It was revealed that fifteen second-year students attached to the Agriculture Faculty of the university were allegedly ragging their junior colleagues. Eight students were hospitalised as a result. The ragging was apparently carried out at a house in the village of Megodakalugamuwa. It allegedly involved physical and sexual abuse. The fifteen accused have now been detained.

The ‘rationale’ for ragging – if it could be called that – is that it is a social equaliser and ensures that no one is ‘special’ and that everyone is treated equally within the students group. However, there can be absolutely no justification when ragging leads to emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Those indulging in it should be dealt with by the criminal justice system, no less.

It is not that this country has not seen enough victims of sadistic ragging. In 1975, Rupa Ratnaseeli, a then 22-year-old female student of the Faculty of Agriculture at Peradeniya University, was paralysed as a result of jumping from the second floor of Ramanathan Hall hostel to escape the physical and sexual abuse carried out by her seniors. After suffering for years, Ratnaseeli committed suicide decades later.

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

What the recent allegations about ragging tell us is that this menace has not stopped, it is well and truly thriving in Sri Lanka’s halls of higher learning- despite many attempts by authorities to put a stop to it.

As far back as in the early ‘70s, then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike appointed a commission to inquire into ragging in universities. In the early ‘90s, Minister Ranjan Wijeratne used the strategy of infiltrating universities with security personnel to identify perpetrators.

After a series of ragging-related incidents in 1997 including the murder of Varapragash, the Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act, No. 20 of 1998 was passed in Parliament. More recently, former Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake assertively expelled those found guilty of ragging. Obviously though, as the events in Megodakalugamuwa suggest, ragging still exists.

Now, ask any undergraduate and they will tell you that most student activities in campuses are dictated by the IUSF. As such, ragging would not persist and be perpetuated if the IUSF- and by extension, the JVP- vehemently opposed it.

Instead, the opposite is true: the widely held perception is that the JVP and the IUSF use ragging as a tool to maintain a stranglehold on its control over the student population. The vast majority of undergraduates suffer in silence for fear of reprisals, if they antagonise the IUSF.

The JVP or the IUSF may well argue that it has not been directly implicated in any incident of ragging. While that may be so, it is also true that the JVP or the IUSF has never spoken out in any way against this dastardly ‘ritual’.

Isn’t that markedly different to its stance on SAITM? With regard to SAITM, the JVP and IUSF are both up in arms worrying about the future of free education as well as the lives of ‘innocent patients’ who they claim will fall prey to SAITM doctors, if the latter are allowed to graduate.

Why doesn’t it adopt that same holier than thou attitude towards its own kind, their fellow brethren in the universities? Aren’t the lives of undergraduates at risk because of the vicious ragging that is being indulged in?

If so, shouldn’t the JVP and IUSF be protesting with the same vehemence and organising protest marches every day against those who engage in ragging? But, no, they maintain a stoic silence on the issue, a silence that is deafening.

After all, the SAITM dispute is a complex matter involving many medical, legal and socio-political issues where decisions are not very clear cut and involve many ‘grey’ areas. In contrast, ragging is an offence by law. So, the JVP and the IUSF should have no qualms about condemning it – but they do not do so. Surely, these are double standards in anybody’s book!

Given the latest incidents of ragging at the Peradeniya University, it is not merely enough to detain the suspects and deal with them legally. While that process is now underway, the government should initiate measures to eliminate ragging from our universities.
That might be an ambitious objective to aspire to, but a start must be made. If not, it will only be a matter of time before more incidents such as the one uncovered in Megodakalugamuwa are repeated, ruining the future of more undergraduates and possibly even placing their lives in jeopardy.

That will also call the JVP’s and IUSF’s bluff. They will have to respond to the government’s initiative either condoning it or condemning it -and that will reveal their true colours and tell the nation whether they are the true guardians of our country that they proclaim themselves to be.

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