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Menace of university violence

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By Dr Anula Wijesundere 

Consultant Physician

I wish to draw your attention to a subject that is very close to my heart and a subject that causes much concern to most civic minded people. This problem has also caused untold misery to all families affected . The title of my presentation today is “Violence in the universities of Sri Lanka”.

I will begin with the saga of Pasindu, an undergraduate of the Faculty of Management of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. The young boy, at the threshold of a bright future, was wilfully hit by a massive tractor tyre which was rolled down the staircase when he was climbing down, as part of the sadistic joy of ragging associated violence. We are all aware of the terrible consequences.

Pasindu lay unconscious in the Intensive Care unit of the National Hospital of Sri Lanka for many months, during which time he had several brain surgeries to correct the massive brain damage he sustained following intense brain haemorrhage. He survived largely due to the competence of the neuro surgeons and the excellent nursing care he received. However, he was left with residual weakness of limbs and an unsteady gait. We all fervently hope that Pasindu will be able to complete his education and will improve further from the residual neurological deficits he has at present.

Pasindu was certainly not the first and obviously will not be the last to be subjected to ragging as long as this culture of violence is allowed in our universities. The drastic consequences that this terrible malady has had on the university system must be emphasised to realise the stark consequences.

Pasindu was indeed unlucky to be ragged in such a ghastly manner by his immediate seniors. Possibly they were envious of Pasindu as he came from an upper middleclass family, had good knowledge of English and I T and was an excellent sportsman from St Peter’s College and a popular all-rounder. In fact, Pasindu was brimming with all the features that most ragging seniors detest in freshers.

Consequences of ragging in universities –

1. Over 2000 students selected for universities have abandoned their careers

2. At least 18 students have committed suicide.

3. Many students have become partly or totally paralysed, attempting to escape from aggressors.

4. Hundreds suffer from depression, anxiety and stress syndromes.

5. Current victims of violence invariably become the aggressors the following year.

The following list indicates the names of the unfortunate students who committed suicide as a consequence of ragging. This is the available list. The actual list may be much longer.

1. 1974 – Torture of mathematics teacher at Vidyalankara University.

2. 1975 – Rupa Ratnaseeli. She jumped from the top floor of a building in the University of Peradeniya to escape the raggers. She was permanently disabled, suffered for 27 years and finally committed suicide in 2002.

3. 1993 – Chaminda Punchihewa.

4. 1993 – Prasanna Niroshan

5. 1997. – Kelum Thushara

6. 1997. – Selvarajah Varapragash was a student of the University of Peradeniya. He was subjected to strenuous exercise and died of acute kidney failure.

7. 2002 – Samantha Vithanage of the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. He led a group of students against ragging and was killed by a pro-ragging mob.

8. 2010 – Shanthamali Dilhara Wijesinghe

9. 2014 -D. K Nishantha. He was sexually abused by senior undergraduates. The perpetrators had the audacity to collect Mahapola and other allowances from junior students to pay their legal fees.

10. 2015 – Amali Chathurika, an applied science student of the University of Sabaragamuwa

What is ragging?

Ragging is a criminal act, according to the law. Ragging is a deliberate act which causes physical, psychological or sexual stress or trauma. This invariably leads to humiliation, harassment and intimidation. Ragging also leads to psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety and stress situations,

From – Prohibition of Ragging and other forms of violence in Educational Institutes Act No 20 of 1998.

As ragging in universities continued unabated, Prof Mohan de Silva, during his tenure as Chairman, University Grants Commission, appointed Prof Uma Coomaraswamy as the Chairperson of the Centre for Gender Equity/Equality for Prevention of Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Ragging, of the University Grants Commission.

The findings of the committee are indicated below:

1. Sex and gender-based violence is mainly perpetrated against female students, especially against under privileged students from remote areas.

2. Includes physical, sexual, verbal and psychological harassment.

3. Results – physical violence 12 %, verbal violence 13% and sexual violence 13%.

 As a result of the establishment of this centre, the following help lines have been provided to students (who have been ragged or wish to prevent ragging,) to lodge complaints:

1. Director of UGC Centre for Gender Equality/Equity: on + 94 11 305 6885./

2 . Vice Chancellor/Registrar of University, in writing or in person.

3. UGC Call Centre on. +94 11 212 3700

4. UGC Ragging Complaints portal on www.ugc.ac.lk/rag

5. Use of “Emergency Safety app”, to make immediate call for help.

6. The Police

Consequences of ragging

It is well known that ragging causes hatred, crushes self-esteem, instigates negative attitude and leads to mental and physical trauma. Unfortunately, the victims of ragging, during the current year often become the aggressors the next year. Thus, ragging or violence in Sri Lankan universities is a vicious cycle, which needs to be stopped as early as possible. to promote healthy learning and prevent the drastic consequences.

In this context, one can wonder why ragging has not yet been eliminated from the Sri Lankan university system. This unfortunate state has happened due to the following reasons:

1. Lack of concern, or awareness, among the public

2. Apathy among the professionals, even university lecturers

3. Inactivity by Vice Chancellors, especially politically-appointed VCs, fearing strikes and closure of universities

4. Deans, lecturers and administrators of universities

– neglect or ignore ragging despite knowledge

– accept ragging as a normal occurrence

So far, the only silver lining, in the tragedy of ragging has been the action taken by the Vice Chancellor of the Ruhuna University, Professor Sujeewa Amarasena. Seventeen students, who engaged in ragging, were charged, remanded and subsequently expelled from the university. It was subsequently found that the Peratugami organisation, a breakaway extreme leftwing group of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, were mainly responsible for the strikes in the universities. However, it is gratifying to note that, despite the stern action taken against the aggressors, the University of Ruhuna functioned normally. This debunks the myth that action against raggers would lead to strikes by university students.

The Peratugami Organisation

This is a highly organised breakaway group of the Janatha Vimukthi Party, that controls students, often holding them to ransom. They select mostly students from financially deprived families, in remote areas. In certain instances, ragging starts even before the university academic year begins. The freshers are programmed to obey orders of seniors and prevented from attending classes in English and IT. This will certainly deprive them of good employment opportunities in later life.

Role of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) in prevention of ragging in universities –

 An expert committee, on prevention of ragging, in universities, was formed in 2019, with Dr Tara de Mel, former Secretary of Education as the Chairperson and 10 highly motivated members. The terms of reference for this committee were formulated by Dr. Tara De Mel.

1. Identify accurately the nature of violence in the universities.

2. Assess accurately the toll it has taken on the entire higher education system.

3. Identify the measures that the authorities have taken to stem the tide.

4. Identify the reasons why the universities have failed to eradicate this problem.

5. Identify impediments to implementing action against the perpetrators.

6. Identify measures to be taken to prevent violence the following year.

7. Need to delegate responsibility of eliminating violence to all university academics.

In the run up to the Presidential elections of 2019, the SLMA wrote to the three main presidential candidates to voice publicly their opposition to ragging and condemn all forms of violence in the universities. We released the letters to the press on the 22nd of October, 2019, hoping the candidates would express their opposition to ragging vociferously at the political rallies

This letter hit the headlines in the very next edition of The Sunday Island on the 27 October in very bold print. The entire editorial of the very next edition of The Sunday Island of 03 November 2019 was devoted to ragging, under the topic ‘Ending university ragging’. A senior academic of the university responded to these articles with a full-page reply, titled “Ragging in universities: An urgent National question”. This was published in The Island newspaper on the 04 November 2019.

Thereafter, a follow up letter was also sent to the presidential aspirants indicating the modus operandi of ending violence in universities. This letter, too, was released to the press. The contents of the second letter are given below:

1. Publicly condemn all forms of ragging and violence in universities.

2. Genuinely pledge to eliminate violence in universities.

3. Invite all Vice Chancellors and Deans to discuss atrocities in universities.

4. Develop a scheme of rewards for academics who actively denounce violence.

5. Ensure educational authorities are fully empowered to inquire, take action, and work with Police without interference.

6. Enable the development of a robust victim protection system and witness protection system.

This letter appeared in The Island of 17 November 2019 under the title…

“SLMA Expert Committee submits recommendations to end ragging”

 Unfortunately, none of these letters received any response. Subsequently, the letter of congratulations to President Rajapaksa on his appointment as the President and several requests to meet him to discuss controlling ragging, road deaths and drug dependence were of no avail. Subsequently, with the emergence of Covid-19, the country-wide lockdown, in March 2020, and the continued closure of universities, the momentum decreased and the activities of the expert committee ceased.

Recently, a new organisation, “Coalition against ragging”, was founded by Dr. Tara de Mel and Prof Harendra de Silva. Recently, we met the former Minister of Education, Prof G. L. Peiris, who had openly voiced his opposition to ragging. He agreed to our proposals, but the never-ending burden of Covid-19 has hampered all discussions with the relevant authorities to control ragging.

In conclusion, our contention is that all universities should be centers of learning, creativity, innovation and dissemination of knowledge. These hallowed institutions should certainly be free of violence, intimidation and harassment.

 However, being realistic, in the present context, unless the university authorities take the bull by the horns, it may take a generation or two to bridge the gap between the well-off and not so well-off, competency/incompetency in English, and the disparity between the urban and rural students.

 My parting words for the students are…

 1. Give a “Firm NO” to ragging.

 2. Agree that ragging should be eliminated completely.

 3. Do not be a silent victim of ragging.

4. Do not be a silent witness to ragging of others.

Remember that each one of us has the responsibility to ensure that universities are safe and comfortable for all those who work and study in them.

When I was invited to deliver the commencement lecture to the new medical entrants in the 150th year of the Colombo Medical School, and at the foundation sessions of the Sri Lanka Medical Association in 2020, I based my talk at both events on “Ending violence in Sri Lankan universities”.



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Opinion

Repression not a sustainable option

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President addressing UNGA

by Jehan Perera

The country to which President Ranil Wickremesinghe returned after his international successes in the Americas remains in dire straits.  In both Cuba and New York, the president made his mark at the podium holding his own with giants on the world stage.  Addressing heads of state at the G77 Summit in Cuba, the president spoke of the significance of science, technology and innovation in shaping the future of developing nations.  He referred to the new technological divide emerging in the 21st century, necessitating the adoption of digitalisation and new technologies, such as Big Data, IoT, AI, Blockchain, Biotechnology and Genome Sequencing, to bridge the gap.  He also reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s commitment to supporting the new Havana Declaration and called for the collective voice of G77 and China to be heard in international fora.

Addressing heads of state at the UN General Assembly, the President drew upon his experience in peacebuilding when he called for the expansion of the UN Security Council’s composition as essential for world peace. He also highlighted the reforms he initiated in the economic, financial, institutional and reconciliation fronts as being directed towards rebuilding trust and confidence between the people and the government and as laying the foundation for economic stabilization and recovery. However, the president faces formidable challenges in this regard.  The country’s economy, which shrank by over 7 percent last year and by 11 percent in the first quarter of this year, continued its downward plunge with a further shrinkage by 3 percent in the second quarter. The much touted absence of shortages and queues is not due to the economic performance picking up but because people have less money to spend.

 With inflation in the past year having halved the real income of people, and high taxation of those in the tax net further impoverishing those in the middle income and professional categories, they are leaving the country in droves leaving behind gaping holes in various sectors of crucial importance to the economy.   But the tax reforms that have impacted on the middle and professional classes directly and the increased sales taxes that have impacted on the poor are still not covering the gaping hole in the country’s finances that need to be filled for IMF support to be forthcoming.  Government revenue has seen a shortfall of Rs. 100 billion as compared to the revenue target agreed with the IMF.  There is a clear need to utilize tax money in a more streamlined way without it being misallocated or pilfered on a large scale which is widely believed to be a continuing practice in the country.

 INEQUITABLE BURDENS

 The indications are that further economic hardships will need to be placed upon the people.  The problem is that the government is placing the burden disproportionately on the poor and not on the rich.   Dr Nishan de Mel who heads the Verite Research think tank that has been doing in-depth analyses of Sri Lanka’s encounter with the IMF disagrees with the government’s position that banks would collapse if the banking system had to bear some burden of domestic debt restructuring. He points out that this conclusion had been reached without any analysis. “All the other countries that restructured debt shifted part of burden debt restructuring on to the banking sector. There are ways of protecting banks during debt restructuring. The government has placed all the burden on the pension funds and says that the impact on these funds are limited. It also claims that banks will collapse if they are affected by domestic debt restructuring. So, which claim is true? Why can’t the banks share part of the burden?”

 There is a general consensus that the burden of economic restructuring is falling disproportionately upon the poorer sections of society.  Dr de Mel has also pointed out that the government has been privatising profits while socialising losses because of the lack of accountability. “When those in power work for the benefit of themselves and their friends, they ensure that a small group of people enjoy the benefits of growth or implement policies that benefit targeted groups. However, when things go wrong, for example, when we have to restructure domestic debt, those in power make sure that the people in general bear the losses. This is what we have seen in Sri Lanka.”  This view is also to be seen in a Civil Society Governance Diagnostic Report produced by a collective of civil society organisations and authored by Prof Arjuna Parakrama which states that “The current growing sense of economic injustice has been exacerbated by the fact that the architects of the economic crisis do not bear any part of the burden of its proposed reform, which has been, again, firmly thrust, without any public dialogue, on the victims of this very crisis.”

 Making the situation more prone to instability is the fact that this inequitable burden sharing is being done by a government that has little political legitimacy.  Barely a year and a half ago, those who are currently ministers in the government were on the run, hiding from the wrath of vast multitudes of people who were demanding that they be held to account for having bankrupted the country through their corrupt and venal deeds, whether real or imagined.  All of those who are now ministers (with the exception of a handful who have crossed over from the Opposition) were compelled to resign from their ministerial positions.  They were legally reappointed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe after he was legally elected president by the votes of 134 parliamentarians.  But a legitimacy deficit continues to haunt the government and makes it an insecure one though presently firmly ensconced in power.  The way to gain legitimacy to bridge the trust deficit is to be fair and just in making decisions that impact upon all the people.

 UNDEMOCRATIC LAWS

 Unless remedial steps are taken the government’s current engagement with the IMF may be difficult to sustain.  This is not only because the government is failing to meet the targets set by the IMF.  There is also a lack of confidence about the IMF programme among the general population.  A public opinion survey conducted by Verite Research has shown that about 45 percent of Sri Lankans believe the IMF will make things worse for the economy in the future.  Only 28 percent of the population believes Sri Lanka’s ongoing programme with the IMF will make things better for Sri Lanka’s economy in the future. The mounting difficulties faced by people in coping with their economic circumstances can lead to protests and agitation campaigns.  The logic of competitive electoral politics can also come into play with different political parties making their own promises to alleviate the economic hardships on the people even at the cost of the economic reform programme agreed with the IMF.

 There appear to be trial balloons put out by government members that safeguarding the IMF programme may require a moratorium on elections.  The government has shown itself willing to take this route ostensibly for the sake of the economy.  Even before the agreement with the IMF, the government postponed local government elections that had been set for March of this year citing the need to focus on economic recovery rather than hold elections.  Recently, MP Vajira Abeywardena, chairman of the UNP of which the president is the leader, has stated that the government would not be able to meet the economic needs of the people if funds were allocated through the 2024 Budget for the presidential election which is due in a year.  The emergence of two controversial laws that can restrict freedom of expression and the ability to engage in public protest may need to be seen in this context.

 The draft Anti-Terrorist Act which seeks to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is wider in scope and gives the government the power to arrest persons who are engaging in public protest or trade union action.  Those who are charged as “intimidating the public or a section of the public” can be arrested under this law.  The Online Safety bill has the potential to curtail the use of the internet for political communication purposes.  It will establish a five-member commission, all of whom will be appointed by the president, and they will be tasked with determining the veracity of online content.  The commission appointed by the President will be able to proscribe or suspend any social media account or online publication, and also recommend jail time for said offenses.  The Bar Association has said that both these draft laws seriously impinge on the liberty and freedom of the people, will have a serious impact on democracy and the rule of law in the country and called for their withdrawal.  If these two laws are passed by parliament, they will make it more difficult to challenge the government even when it is going on a wrong path.  But with the economic situation continuing to get worse, and the suffering of vast masses of people increasing, repression through the use of law and the security forces will not be a sustainable option.

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Opinion

Lawyers Collective condemns Anti-Terrorism and Online Safety Bills

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The Lawyers’ Collective condemns the latest version of the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the Online Safety Bill gazetted in September 2023. The Government of Sri Lanka has failed to respond to the serious and fundamental concerns raised about the Anti-Terrorism Bill gazetted in March this year. The government also failed to adopt any transparent and accountable process through which the Bills were explained, justified and robust public consultation facilitated before they were gazetted. The definitions adopted for ‘terrorism’ and ‘false statement’, and related offences created under the two Bills are excessively broad and vague, and thus do not represent a measured and proportionate means of serving specific and necessary law and order objectives.

Indeed, the Anti-Terrorism and Online Safety Bills represent an attempt to institutionalise excessive executive discretionary power over a broad range of ordinary activities of the citizens of Sri Lanka. At a time when the country’s democracy quotient is at a historical low, attempts to rush into enactment dangerous laws that have a high potential to crush dissent and curb civil liberties causes much alarm. Citizens of this country are currently making a wide range of demands on their elected representatives and government officials in the context of the deep economic crisis and the bearing it has on their lives.

Democracy demands that the widest possible space be created at this time to hear citizens’ grievances and to engage citizens and citizen groups, especially vulnerable communities. The intolerance represented by the two proposed laws towards legitimate dissent, critique, opposition and organising around different ideas and solutions for governance in Sri Lanka is a direct threat to democracy, civil liberties and the role of the judiciary in protecting citizens’ sovereignty against executive capture.

Sri Lankan recent history is marked by terrible violence and social and economic devastation caused by repressive approaches to unrest and inequality in our society and polity. Having emerged from decades of war and violent insurrection, the government and opposition parties would be mindful of the responsibility that they bear towards the current and future citizens of this country. In this moment, the legal profession has a role and responsibility to act to safeguard people’s treasured freedoms.

The Lawyers’ Collective calls for the immediate withdrawal of the two Bills. The Collective also calls for the adoption of a transparent process of consultative law making and the proposal of executive and legal measures that are proportionate and responsive to the needs of the people. The Collective demands that the government desist from enacting laws that will harm the very foundations of democracy in Sri Lanka. Such laws that grant the executive excessive powers to curtail citizen’s fundamental rights to freedom of expression and thought, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and liberty erode the sovereignty of the people that is the very basis of Sri Lanka’s constitution.

On behalf of the Lawyers’ Collective

Rienzie Arsecularatne, President’s Counsel.

Upul Jayasuriya, President’s Counsel

Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

Geoffrey Alagaratnam, President’s Counsel

Dinal Phillips, President’s Counsel

Saliya Pieris, President’s Counsel

Lal Wijenayake, Attorney-at-Law

Upul Kumarapperuma, Attorney-at-Law

K.W. Janaranjana, Attorney-at-Law

Nuwan Bopege, Attorney-at-Law

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Opinion

Meat eating

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Recently, I have made it a point to listen carefully to dhamma discourses by erudite Bhikkus , very specially on the consumption of meat by Buddhists and the Vinaya rules laid down by the Buddha on this subject.

To begin with it was one of the conditions which Devadatta insisted on as mandatory, which the Buddha in his profound infinite knowledge declined as impractical. He even cited instances where previous Buddhas declined such requests. What the Buddha said was that killing was not at all permissible, but the consumption of meat was left to the discretion of the persons concerned whether it be the lay persons or bhikkus.

Some may dislike meat out of sheer sansaric habit while others may relish it, but the Budhdha laid down certain important pre-conditions on the consumption of meat. He prohibited eating the flesh of 10 animal species like the lion, elephant, tiger, leopard, bear, horse, dog, cat, snake and human flesh.

On the other hand he prescribed an important Vinaya rule known as the ‘thri kotika paarishudda‘ which literally means that whoever gives it as an offering or consuming it must make sure that the meat comes from an animal which was not specifically slaughtered for the purpose. Meat bought at a market is without doubt such a meat and may be offered to and received by a Bhikku..

A previous Buddha has even assisted a bhikku through his infinite knowledge by suggesting that he should go begging for alms on a particular street where a lay dayaka was preparing a meal of rice with crab curry. The bhikku concerned was extremely pious but could not attain arahat status as he had an excruciating earache. No sooner he ate the crab meal his acute pain ceased and he concentrated his mind on the dhamma and attained Arahathood then and there. The layman who offered the crab meal noticed the difference in the Bhikku and was thrilled to know that he had given alms to an Arahat.. This hppy thought came back to him at the time of his death, whicn occurred very much later.

His Chuthi chiththa was so powerful that he was born in a splendid divine abode with a huge mansion which had the insignia of a large golden crab at its entrance to remind him and all of the crab meal which was offered to an Arahat.

A lay person once asked the Buddha whether it was correct to recommend the eating of foul smelling flesh like fish for instance and the Buddha has replied that tanha irrsiya krodha maanna dhitti are more foul smelling and should be eschewed completely if you wish to attain the bliss of Nibbana. Looking down on people who consume meat is also a sinful thought which should be avoided , as it does not benefit anyone.

Dear friends, I have tried to tell the English speaking folk who do not have the opportunity to listen to our Sinhala sermons some profound truths. They even do not know that there have been more than 500,000 Buddhas in the past aeons of time and a Mahaa Kalpa is an enomous space in time which only a Budhha can comprehend. The knowledge of a Sammaa Sambuddha is infinite.

Lastly a word of caution to those who obstruct the doing of good deeds. They cannot even receive the Anumodnaa Kusalaya by a mere wish of happiness at a good deed, [sadhu] but will certainly reap the evil rewards of obstructing good deeds, May you all be well and happy.

Cecil de Mel,
Moratuwa.
Tel. 011 2648565

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