5th March 2000
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'It's getting to know you, not ragging anymore!'

By Passanna Gunasekera
A group of seniors hurl abuse, their closed fists placed under the chin in an intimidating manner. She is made to crawl on gravel paths until beads of perspiration and drops of blood trickle down her limbs. She awakens, quite troubled.

It had been a nightmare; however tomorrow, back at the university, a quite possible reality. Like many things borrowed from the West, ragging undergoes a complete metamorphosis from the Oxford and Cambridge abbreviated form of RAG Royal Admission Games. 

The light-hearted tradition of having fun in the good old days saw a transformation into sadism and torture that reached criminal heights. On the first day, freshers are overjoyed to walk the paths decorated to welcome them. They appreciate the entertainment and refreshments organized by the seniors.

In no way are they prepared for the humiliation on the second day. This 'customary' breaking of the ice in the universities, has cost a few lives, caused permanent disability to some and mental pain to the rest. In 1998 the law prohibiting ragging came into force.

That was two years ago. What now? The scene seemed familiar at the University of Kelaniya one month ago. Idle seniors were yelling, "Gama koheda?" (Where do you come from?), "Nama mokakda?" (What is your name?) at some first-year girls, who were either toying with the corners of their files or biting the edges of their pens.

But on closer scrutiny these freshers wore broad smiles and seemed to enjoy the banter.

The secret came out later. No more is ragging a mental agony but quite an enjoyable experience, because it is "mild". It paves the path for them to mingle with the seniors and get to know the ropes of university life, one said.

That has come about as the universities have curbed ragging. Though some students claimed that ragging existed in some universities, they conceded "it was mild".

Why is there a need for ragging? I queried. Some undergraduates spoke about keeping traditions, while others said this was an ideal opportunity to find future partners. A few revelled in watching girls blush or cry and the rest obviously suffered from an inferiority complex over the feeling that only a fraction of graduates did well professionally and financially.

Contrary to what may be expected, those who conformed to the "university" dress code got ragged. The code frocks in chintz, 'tailored' trousers and shirts and rubber slippers then stands for identification purposes. The theory among students is that if you do not stop when ordered to, you do not get ragged. Within the university premises nobody can lay a finger on you, a rule many freshers are unaware of.

How about the common belief that if you do not get ragged you are unpopular or will be deprived of taking part in university activities? "We never got ragged but we participate and even represent the university in all the extra curricular activities," says Shevanthi (name changed). "As for the people who rag, we have a close relationship with them in that, we even help them when required. All this I should stress is mainly because ragging is no longer a grave problem. It is no longer a problem." 

What has brought this dramatic change in thinking about ragging? Have the students stood up to the raggers or have the university authorities intervened? 

Student movements against ragging are becoming stronger and the students themselves have realized that the closure of universities affects nobody else but them. "The fact that a majority of the students are doing part-time jobs or are employed permanently contributes," said a final-year student.

Another deterrent is the heavy workload, which leaves them with little leisure time. "We have exams and assignments throughout the year. Therefore, we simply have no time to get involved in trivial things such as ragging and politics," a student said. 

According to a Kelaniya University official, "It depends on the way you define the rag. There were no complaints in this regard. All I can say is that there is no ragging." 

"Even at the Eastern University - where there were a few incidents in the past couple of years where the culprits went unpunished the seniors have been cooperative in combating the menace this year. 

"The student counsellor has advised them and most of the students are aware of the probition of ragging and other forms of violence in educational institutes (Act No. 20 passed in 1998). Anyhow, the senior students are busy organizing the social, a formal welcome for the new batch." the spokesman concurs.

At the University of Sabaragamuwa too the seniors have organized a festival to receive the new batches. The authorities feel that everything is under control this year. 

The University of Moratuwa is rightly proud of its record of having no problems with regard to ragging.

As I left the University of Kelaniya, two first-year students were beaming, for they had been treated to goodies at a welcome ceremony in the English and Linguistics Departments. 

When the seniors witness this sort of thing that is done by the lecturers they are compelled to follow suit, one said. 

And the undergraduates chatted freely in the corridors, munched tidbits seated on grassy fields or just relaxed with a book under shady trees, without the spectre of ragging.

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