Ragging: Entertainment for the intellectually-challenged

Prof. Sasanka Perera

I thought of writing these few lines after seeing that a poll had been instituted in the blog run by the Sociology Students’ Association of the University of Colombo trying to understand people’s position on ragging or what is sometimes known elsewhere as hazing in universities. Much of what I write today was published in my column ‘Alternate Space’ in The Island of 16th October 2002. At that time, I wrote with enormous satisfaction, enthusiasm and much institutional pride because the Faculty of Arts at Colombo University had managed to eradicate ragging in the Faculty with the commitment of a large number of students and teachers. The Department of Sociology also played a crucial role in this process. Until 2009, the Faculty was effectively a ragging free space. But this year, much to my dismay and extreme frustration, this inhumane practice has crept into the Faculty, apparently as a political tool used by a handful of intellectually challenged students but unfortunately tolerated by many. I say ‘tolerated’ because I do not see a widespread and concerted attempt to halt this truly backward practice at any level in the Faculty either among students or teachers. The handful of students who tried to intervene has been threatened by other students supporting this practice. In this context, I am happy that the Sociology Students’ Association opted to field a poll to see what people think of this practice. Perhaps this can lead to other things. After all, great things have often emanated from simple efforts.

Wherever this form of tolerated and ritualized torture is in place in places supposedly set aside for advanced learning, new students are forced to wear rubber slippers, carry cardboard files, and are not allowed to wear makeup or fancy clothes in the first few months.  The weak ideological argument formulated to justify this process of forced standardization is that new students needed to know the value of equality.  But in real terms this meant that their torturers could easily identify them. When ragging was eradicated in the Faculty of Arts in Colombo University in about 2000, it was seen as an aberration by some.  According to a number of Colombo Arts Faculty undergraduates I had talked to 2002, students from Kelaniya, Jayawardenapura, Sabaragamuwa and Peradeniya Universities looked down upon them when they met at sports, social and political events because there was no ragging in the faculty.  According to them, it was perceived to be a sign of weakness and elitism particularly in a faculty of arts.  Clearly, this indicated a mindless subversion of a manifestation of relative humanity in a society where such feelings have become increasingly rare.   For them, absence of orchestrated violence is abnormal, not the other way round. Perhaps, the people who thought in this manner have won the day. How else can we explain the reemergence of a clearly barbaric practice we ourselves had rooted out nine years ago? How else would we explain what amounts to collective tolerance of ritualized torture we singlehandedly eradicated when others said it could not be done?

Ragging, as we know is rampant in all local universities and other institutions of ‘higher’ learning and military and police training facilities.  As early as 2002, certain forms of raging had even spread to schools.  We also know quite well that a number of individuals have died as a direct result of ragging over the years and at least a few commission reports on some of these incidents exist.  On the other hand, despite the existence of newly enacted legal provisions to deal with processes such as ragging, most university authorities countrywide have not used the law to deal with the problem, most fearing student reprisals.  The net result of this is the existence of a system of learning maintained by public funds which have become veritable training grounds for ritualized and tolerated torture through which some of the most basic expectations of humanity are systematically dismantled.  How is this possible, particularly in seats of perceived higher learning? Is the tolerance of such practices reflective of what we call learning? Or is it because these places are no longer seats of learning in the real sense? It is necessary to open a public debate on ragging (particularly in universities) as well as related issues such as extensive violence in universities.

Carrie Supple in her book ‘From Prejudice to Genocide: Learning about the Holocaust’ (1993) re-produces the following section of a letter written by the head of an American high school to his colleagues which questions the problem of education without vision and a sense of humanity.  These words provide a good point of departure to ask a few questions about sanctioned torture in our own institutes of learning:

“Dear Teacher

I am a survivor of a concentration camp.

My eyes saw what no man should witness:

Gas chambers built by learned engineers.

Children poisoned by educated physicians.

Infants killed by trained nurses.

Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is help your students to become human.  Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmans.

Reading, writing, arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

By not addressing and consistently tolerating practices such as ragging in our institutes of learning, are we not creating a similar process as described above?  Like the universities and other institutes of learning, ragging is also a colonial importation and implant.  But while our systems of learning, particularly the universities, have deteriorated in the quality of education they offer, we can see a simultaneous and rapid expansion of ragging in both its brutality and variation of technique.  Unfortunately, it is in these kinds of psychopathic and sociopathic processes that we use our imagination and creativity.  It is in this kind of context, when our level of tolerance should be zero that we have become tolerant almost in a saintly fashion.

One major reason why ragging has prevailed and become much worse over the years is because of the manner in which it is tolerated and justified by some influential teachers and administrators in many of these institutions.  On television and in universities I have heard over the years some teachers claiming that a ‘little bit of ragging’ is ok as a means of institutional socialization.  But no one knows what ‘a little bit’ really means.  Perhaps the torturers who have killed undergraduates in Peradeniya University at different times thought they were only ragging their colleagues a ‘little bit.’ But unfortunately, when they died, they died for good, not a ‘little bit.’ Besides, this is a very irresponsible and intellectually regressive position in a situation where people have been killed and maimed as a result of ragging.  What is the position of the teachers and other individuals who justify these practices in such situations?  Do they accept partial responsibility for these deaths and psychological damage that they help cause students under their tutelage?  In any case, what the public should ask quite simply is this: should teachers, administrators and students who justify ragging and other forms of violence be allowed to remain in universities, technical collages, teacher training colleges or other institutes of learning?

On the other hand, while many individuals in these organizations may disapprove of the practice, they seldom intervene to address it as individuals or as a collective.  Again, if we look at the university system as a whole, it is interesting to note that very few students have been punished for ragging or other violent behavior despite the chaos and serious human rights violations they commit on a regular basis.  Similarly, in many of the instances culprits have been punished, the punishments have been suspended due to deals they manage to make with administrators, due to fear of student reprisals or quite simply due to political pressures exerted by regimes in power on behalf of culprits. What this means is that institutions of learning, including universities, have created a situation where unruly and psychopathic elements such as raggers know that under most circumstances, they are beyond reprimand.  In this context, engaging in such vulgar behavior as entertainment for the intellectually-challenged only makes sense.

Irrespective of the excuses that have been provided for the justification of ragging, it can only be defined as a practice of ‘intellectual cripples’  as once described by a Colombo University undergraduate opposed to ragging.  The dismantling of ragging as an institution in the Faculty of Arts at University of Colombo in 2000 offers a number of lessons that we might want to ponder over:  nearly a decade ago, a group of new students simply organized themselves and refused to submit themselves to ragging.  Their stand was given justification by a number of teachers as well.  These students held a couple of meetings in their second year opposing ragging with the participation of similarly minded teachers.  Over two years or so as a result of these activities ragging or not ragging became a political issue in student politics in the faculty.  So when one student group finally accepted that they would no longer support ragging, the other for their own political survival had to follow the same line.  But by 2009, nine years after that new tradition came into being, students in the faculty have opted to become regressive, backward in opting rekindle a negative tradition we thought we had dismantled nearly a decade ago. They have opted to take journey back into the dark ages while many of us have simply become onlookers. We should think, and think quite hard as to what went wrong.

But what does the public think about universities and other institutions of learning where ragging is rampant and tolerated?  Do they not have a voice? Do they feel comfortable in sending their children to dens of torture? Have we not tolerated and funded such institutions for over fifty years in the name of free education?  Do we go on creating monsters who will become influential citizens over time? Do we tolerate teachers who justify such forms of violence?  Do we tolerate regimes that interfere on behalf of culprits in repealing punishments?  This misplaced tolerance is typical of our collective backwardness.  We are comfortable in seeing our institutions of learning transforming themselves into centers unlearning our value for humanity and promoting and ritualizing violence against ourselves. As a collective of citizens and as academics, I wonder if we are any different from the proverbial ostriches. When we see something bad and dangerous, we tend to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that things are safe until our false assumptions would devour us. Then, it will be too late.

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