When I entered the Engineering Faculty of the University of Peradeniya (Ceylon) in June 1995, my initial feelings were of fear and anxiety. I had been warned about this thing called `ragging' or `hazing'. I knew of many mind-chilling stories such as the girl who jumped out of her window, on the third floor, to avoid being ragged and ended up paralysed. I was warned not to hang around in common rooms, corridors and lonely places because these are the favourite hunting grounds of the `rag teams'.
Ragging is a process of mental and physical abuse which second-year students inflict on freshmen. The idea is to instil respect for seniors, to get to know the freshmen better, and to inspire discipline to enable them to endure hard situations in life. Freshmen are verbally abused and the guys are later treated to a physical rag, which can get perverted and twisted. The rag season goes on for three months. I am ashamed to cite the death of a freshman in 1998 due to renal and heart failure. He was asked to perform 500 sit-ups non-stop, and collapsed in the process.
The history of ragging is interesting... In the early days (1950s and 60s) it was done with the sole intention of socialising, and it was all very innocent and taken in good fun. Both the seniors and freshmen had a laugh at the end of the day. Unfortunately as politics spread its cancerous cells through the university system of Sri Lanka, ragging became a tool of political manipulation; it was used to distance the students from the staff and inculcate a culture of hatred towards anything and anybody which threatened their freedom and rights. This included parents, staff and the government. The strategy is simple, yet effective: Give the guys a severe physical rag, then speak to them nicely, treat them well, and slowly feed them subversive ideas. Some break down mentally during the rag, lose self-confidence and give up hope. When the same person then talks to them nicely they feel good and look up to the raggers as mentors. These students are then selected and trained to carry on the tradition. Again, some break down and the mental torment continues throughout their lives. Others take it up but remain impartial, in that they neither resist nor approve it.
The anti-rag movement started in the early nineties, when some students were bold enough to stand up and say `NO'. Initially they were laughed at and the seniors gave strict orders that they were to be ignored and sidelined by the rest of the batch. With undeterred courage they braved their way through and others slowly realised that perhaps there was another way of living on campus--by standing up for what you believe in. The anti-rag students were looked after by the lecturers, who ensured that no physical harm was inflicted on them. Slowly but surely in each incoming batch of freshers there was a group of anti-rag students. They were secretly admired by the rest. Seniors kept away from them because the anti-rag movement was now a force to be dealt with. These little groups welcomed freshmen warmly and explained that living by moral standards is possible. They were encouraged to speak out and say `no' to ragging or anything else that was unacceptable to them morally or spiritually.
I joined the anti-rag movement; there were both seniors and fellow batchmates who hated me. I lived by my standards, and faced quite a lot of hostility at the beginning. In my first two years I didn't have many friends. I too had faults; I distanced myself from my batchmates, mistakenly assuming they didn't want to accept me. Also, I was arrogant because I had resisted and others hadn't. Life on campus was miserable. Then I looked into myself and realised my own faults. I attempted to correct them and immediately saw what I had failed to see before: smiling friendly faces. I made lots of friends. I helped them and they helped me immensely. These are lifelong pals.
The Sri Lankan government has made ragging a punishable offence. Things are slowly but steadily changing. Students no longer fear standing up for what is right. Nonetheless, over 70% still get ragged. There's work to be done.
My message is simple: Don't be afraid to live by your beliefs, for your own good and that of others, even it if means standing alone. However bad the situation, there's always something valuable to be learned from it.
Roshan Dodanwela, Sri Lanka