Sri Lanka Peradeniya University student suicide puts spotlight back on ragging

ECONOMYNEXT – The apparent suicide of an undergraduate student in Sri Lanka’s Peradeniya University has once again resulted in heated debate about ragging at the island nation’s state-run institutes of higher education.

The body of the 24-year-old psychology undergraduate was discovered in the Mahaweli river Wednesday September 21 evening, police said, in the central district of Kandy, five days after he was reported missing.

A postmortem has yet to be performed, but sources at the campus told EconomyNext that they suspect the student was driven to suicide after he was subject to ragging by fellow students.

Hours before the body was discovered, Peradeniya police had arrested three students in connection with an assault that occurred at a university canteen the previous week.

An alumni association of the university’s Department of Law said on Friday September 16, the day the student went missing, said 12 law students were assaulted by a “violent mob” from the Faculty of Arts.

“The alumni strongly believe [the attack] was a targeted and premeditated attack committed by…undergraduates of the Faculty of Arts who support and perpetuate ragging,” their statement said.

The Department of Law had an “unwavering no-ragging policy,” they said.

The assault was allegedly a result of anti-ragging students eating in an area they had been banned from.

The Law Students’ Union of Sri Lanka and the Independant Law Student Movement also released a joint statement condemning the assault.

Ragging is prohibited in Sri Lanka by the Educational Institutes Act.

Though some faculties and universities have successfully weeded out ragging culture, sources said that the seniors in some faculties of the Peradeniya University perpetuate an insidious method of keeping the cycle going.

“Someone came up with the idea of passing down the campus cards,” one source said.

“If you get the card of a senior who is considered a big shot, then you automatically get respect. But the juniors don’t just get the cards. To pass down a card, the seniors first rag the entire batch to find out who is worthy. So the juniors also want to get ragged, because of the perks of having a good card.”

Several sources confirmed that juniors were barred from accessing certain areas and clubs without the card, or permission from seniors.

Pro-ragging students are of the opinion that ragging is a part of “campus culture” and fosters a camaraderie colloquially referred to as the “batch fit.”

Some of the more severe cases of ragging have involved rape and sexual exploitation.

According to the University Grants Commission (UGC), only around 22 per cent of the students who sat for the 2020 Advanced Level Examinations were selected for university.

Students undergo an immense amount of pressure to sit for the notoriously difficult examination and enter university.

Sources from the university said that the relentless pressure from seniors and peers made their lives “hell,” even though they had worked hard to secure their place in the institute and were looking forward to university life.

Ragging season in state campuses encourages alumni to go on power trips, couching humiliating requests and subversive, arbitrary rules in terms of “batch fit”-building as a method of getting students closer together, several students said.

Even in universities with no ragging, small actions, such as student enforced dress code and language policies are used to keep the junior students on their toes.

“It’s very subtle, with seniors enforcing a hierarchy by taking an overt interest in fresher activities,” one student told EconomyNext.

“Some kids were forced to perform in tournaments despite being injured, and these kinds of things are made into issues of ‘respect’ toward the seniors, or to the university.”

The student said that such subtle actions were regarded as “not so serious rags and should be tolerated.”

“The hostels have a dress code for the girls. They have to wear a yellow ribbon or scrunchie to identify themselves,” the student said.

“Ironically, these things take away your right to visual expression in a place that is supposed to be for universal education and diversity.”

A source from the Peradeniya University said, “Everyone thought COVID would end ragging, but it didn’t. Everything just got worse.”

“We can’t speak up even if we want to, because we don’t want to get ragged,” they said.

Anti-ragging activists say that the ragging culture transforms the country’s universities, which are supposed to foster educated, well rounded individuals, into breeding grounds for discrimination and corruption.

In its letter, the Alumni of the Peradeniya Law Faculty said “During a crucial era where [students] rally together to be forerunners in effectuating systemic change in the socio-political trajectory of the country, it is deeply disappointing to see some undergraduates resorting to brutality and violence, charaded in the name of ‘equality,’ and violate the very law of the country that they accuse politicians of violating.” (Colombo/Sep21/2022)

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