When student rites of passage get abusive

How Sanjayan is making a stand against ragging in Sri Lanka

I don’t remember a lot of those first six months of university. I try not to. It’s too painful.

But some of it I can’t forget. I remember starting to panic as the senior students made their way down the row towards me, demanding that each of us sing or dance in front of the class. I remember the humiliating onslaught of verbal abuse after I neglected to salute them on one occasion. I remember the painful sting of injustice I felt when we were forced to clean their toilets and wash their clothes night after night. I remember the feeling of dread that they’d do to me what I’d heard they’d done to others.

Those were bitter months indeed. I often considered dropping out. Even when I slept my tormentors would visit me in my dreams.

And yet my biggest regret is not the abuse I experienced as a freshman. It’s the abuse I carried out on the new freshmen the following year.

It never occurred to me to do otherwise. That was just the way it was. How else would we gain the respect we deserve? As seniors, it was our right and responsibility to keep them in their place. And how else would they build friendships with each other? Their shared suffering would make for stronger solidarity. It was for their own good. (Or so I told myself at the time.)


This kind of experience is not a one-off. In many South Asian universities, these initiation activities imposed on freshmen are known as ‘ragging’. Mild ragging might include being told to conform to a set dress code or allow senior students to go before you in the queue. In more extreme cases of ragging, students might be forced to do chores or embarrassing performances; some experience verbal, physical and even sexual abuse by seniors. It can last a few months or even up to two years. But the scars last much longer.

Seniors maintain that ragging builds unity among the freshers, and friendships with seniors. It’s also seen as a way to ‘equalise’ newcomers — those from different financial and ethnic backgrounds are treated alike. For a few, it’s a light-hearted rite of passage into university life. For many, it’s a degrading and damaging ordeal.

Yet the phenomenon is not easy to stop. Ragging has been an engrained part of university life for decades. And the behaviour is symptomatic of much deeper issues intrinsic to the worldview of the society. Addressing both the behaviour (often covert) and the underlying issues will not be an easy battle.

But that didn’t stop one Christian law graduate from trying.

A man with a vision

Sanjayan is young. He’s been teaching at a university for only a year. But he has a vision to see ragging in Sri Lanka become history.

A year ago, he embarked on a mission to bring ragging to an end in the law department of his university. He knew that merely punishing the behaviour of the perpetrators would only cause it to go more underground, and possibly worsen. The underlying attitudes and the unmet needs fuelling it would need to be addressed first.

To undermine ragging at its foundations, Sanjayan promoted three key ideas among his colleagues and in his interactions with students: that force is not necessary to build unity, respect and friendship; that an alternative program must not be forced; and that the relationship between seniors and juniors should be based on mutual respect, rather than dominance and control.

He emphasised that staff must be willing to question themselves as well. Were they modelling a right use of their own authority? In a society where the forceful pursuit of dominance is widespread and expected, could the students see a distinctive attitude in their lecturers? Were they showing a genuine concern for student welfare, beyond simply the phenomenon of ragging?

A better way

Sanjayan knew it would take time. Probably years.

He started by encouraging students to consider there could be an alternative way to build unity, respect and solidarity. Those were good goals to have, but could be achieved by caring for the freshmen, rather than terrorising them. Treating them well would win their respect and gratitude in a better way. These seniors could leave a legacy as the cohort that brought lasting change to the university.

And Sanjayan prayed. Some days he would ask God for an opportunity to speak to the students of influence in the class — and then opportunities would indeed arise! And at critical stages of the six-month period or before crucial meetings he would ask a group of prayer supporters to pray with him. They knew that God alone could do the work of transforming students’ hearts.

They weren’t all easily convinced, but after an extensive time of consulting with student leaders, listening to them and casting his vision for a better alternative, the students decided to make some changes as the new freshmen arrived at the start of 2018.

The second years planned an alternative orientation program, that aimed to build unity and friendship through fun activities and games like a sack race and egg catching, without the humiliation or abuse of typical ragging. The welcome party (after which point ragging is meant to stop) was brought forward to the fourth week of term. There was an inter-year debate put on, as well as seminars to help students settle in and present tips on learning English.

These initiatives were largely successful and helped seniors to see that force was not the only way to build community and earn respect.

Incremental steps

But it didn’t all go well.

Despite the efforts of staff to monitor university spaces during the first few weeks, some ragging did still happen — particularly off-campus, and among certain ethnic groups.

And there were some battles Sanjayan and the department decided not to fight this year. The enforced dress code was one of them (seniors told fresher boys not to wear trainers or jeans, and to be cleanly shaven until the welcome party; girls were told to wear skirts and tie their hair in plaits). Phone ragging was another battle left unfought (where seniors contact prospective entrants and force them to ring them and carry out various tasks before they enter university).

There was certainly progress, but not as much as they’d hoped for.

Why is it so hard to see change? Sanjayan reflected:

“It’s like they feel that it is a threat to their identity as seniors if juniors don’t listen to them. To achieve long-term change, we need to help seniors come to a place where they are secure enough in themselves to accept this kind of behaviour and not get worked up by it. I don’t think we can assume that they are mature enough to do this on their own — perhaps they should be, but everything in our culture militates against it. There are many reasons — it is a loss of face for seniors; it is a threat to their power and control; it is contrary to everything they know.”

Prophets of a future not our own

2018 did see considerable progress within this one department, in this one university, but there is still a long way to go.

Sanjayan expects that if a concerted effort is maintained they will, in perhaps five years’ time, bring the activities to an end.

Sanjayan is praying that God will raise up a batch of students who have the courage and imagination to refuse to pass on the harm to which they were subjected.

In moments of discouragement this year, the words from Ken Untener’s poem spurred him on:

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step

Along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to

Enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the

Difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders;

Ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

From Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

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