Samantha’s verdict a watershed moment

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Even if one placed all the worldly treasures in my hands, it will not fill the void in my life, laments 75-year-old Wimala Perera, a retired teacher.

Her eyes were welling with tears and her voice faded as she tried to swallow her sorrow, as she recalled how she relived the brutal death of her younger son, with visuals of his bloodied face flashing before her, every month for the last twenty years, as she walked in and out of the Court room.

“As the judgement was being served, I kept staring blankly at those in the dock who were being convicted. They stood there as the most calm, innocent souls in the world, while all I could see was the images of my innocent child being brutally murdered twenty years ago, with 76 injuries, his skull fractured into tiny pieces, and all limbs broken,” she said, a month after the Colombo High Court concluded hearings of the murder and Judge Manjula Thilakaratne sentenced the accused involved in the killing of Ovitigala Vithanage Samantha, a third-year management student of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ). 

Two-decade trauma

The judgement of the case was served on 5 May 2022, almost two decades after the tragic incident that sent shockwaves through society at the time and also gave a boost to the campaign against inhumane ragging in both state and private universities of the country.

However, the judgement did not come into the limelight and was not picked up by the Media, as much as when it took place on 7 November 2002.

This was a time when USJ was synonymous with unacceptable, grave, inhumane ragging with its general student union affiliated to the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), which was in the clutches of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), spearheading the practice. IUSF is now under JVP-breakaway faction, the Frontline Socialist Party.

Samantha Vithanage was under the scrutiny of the pro-JVP student union, as he vehemently opposed ragging. In 2002, Samantha pioneered an anti-ragging campaign in the University in an attempt to stop the practice.

On 7 November 2002, a group of university lecturers summoned anti-ragging campaigners to an office in the Marketing Department to sit down for a discussion with the JVP-controlled student union that defended ragging, in a bid to end frequently occurring disputes.

Midway through the discussion, a mob of around 200 JVP supporters armed with clubs and stones stormed into the room and viciously attacked Vithanage and others in the anti-ragging camp.

The attackers stabbed their victims with shards of glass and Vithanage, who was struck, fell to the floor and had a computer monitor (massive at that time), dropped on his head. Pro-ragging students also blocked the vehicle carrying the injured to the hospital, which resulted in delayed medical treatment. Two days later, Samantha died.

The aftermath was not favourable to university students, as Samantha was from the area and the residents turned violent in protest of his brutal murder. They refused to provide shelter for university students and hundreds of university students who were boarded in neighbouring houses had to leave, irrespective of their affiliations.

“I often ended up thinking if he was a bodhisattva. He would spend hours trying to rescue fireflies that get entangled in a spider web. Neighbours loved him. He’s the favourite aiya of the children in the area. Never came across an incident where he had hurt anyone even verbally. During his final rites, I touched his feet and bade him farewell, as I believe he was too good to be an ordinary human being,” Samantha’s mother said.

She recalled how she later learnt that Samantha, who stood in the doorway to the meeting room, kept screaming “Anik ayata gahanna epa, mata gahapalla (attack me and leave others)” to the violent mob, in a desperate attempt to save others.

“They not only mercilessly attacked those who were against ragging. Their behaviour cannot be even compared to beasts, as they had blocked the gates, pulled out those who were being rushed to hospital from the vehicle, and hit them again. Even though I believe in Karma as a practising Buddhist and do not wish ill on anyone or curse anyone, how could I, as a mother be satisfied with the punishment given by the law. There were at least five who got suspended sentences and went home. There were those who were released from the case due to lack of evidence over the past twenty years. My heart doesn’t allow me to believe they are completely innocent in this case. When they went home from the Court, I ended up thinking my son would never come home like that,” Samantha’s mother lamented.

“Every time I return from Courts, I suffer from a severe headache, and after the judgement my health condition declines drastically, as I have developed high blood pressure,” Wimala said.

“These twenty years was not a smooth ride. We were subjected to various injustices. First they went around the country collecting money in my name and I got to know it only after one of my friends brought a leaflet to me. A group who identified as the Arts Faculty Students’ Union of USJ has printed a leaflet stating that I, Samantha’s mother, had suffered a heart attack and had to undergo a bypass surgery. People who were sympathising with the family had contributed  generously, as they went around the country saying the family had only received Rs 300,000 from the President’s Fund and the remaining Rs 200,000 should be collected immediately. I have no idea who pocketed that money and finally I lodged a Police complaint. Police wanted me to provide more evidence, which I was not in a position to do. Therefore, I went to Lake House and got newspapers to publish that I was not undergoing such a surgery and not to fall prey to those who come asking for money in my name or the family,” she added.

She also said there were many obstacles in the journey to seek justice for Samantha.

“The file of identification parade was sent to the High Court from the Magistrate’s Court. Suddenly, the case book went missing. Luckily, my elder son had certified copies of that with him. We later provided those to the Court and the High Court Judge said the Court can proceed based on those true copies. Then, they came to me offering Rs 7.5 million to seek my assistance to get a suspended sentence served, which I refused,” Wimala recalled.

Lest we forget

Samantha’s death was a watershed moment in the anti-ragging movement of Sri Lankan universities and higher education institutions, which led many students and academic staff of universities to campaign against ragging.

However, like in many other issues, the rage and the enthusiasm to find solutions to social issues keeps fading away until the next incident occurs.

The first such attempt to address ragging issues came during the time of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The then government appointed the V.W. Kularatne Commission to probe the ragging incident of a trainee mathematics teacher at the then Vidyalankara University (now University of Kelaniya) in 1974. As a result, 12 undergraduates were expelled and four officials were penalised for their failure to take appropriate action. This was the first major step taken against university ragging by a Sri Lankan government.

However, a year later in 1975, the University of Peradeniya reported the first grave ragging incident, when 22-year-old Rupa Rathnaseeli, a student of the Faculty of Agriculture, became paralysed as a result of jumping from the second floor of the Ramanathan Hall to escape the physical ragging carried out by her seniors. As per reports, she was about to be sexually penetrated by a foreign object as part of the ragging initiation, when she jumped out of the hostel building to escape the abuse. Ironically, she committed suicide in 2002, the same year Samantha was killed.

In 1997, 21-year-old S. Varapragash, an engineering student of University of Peradeniya, died from kidney failure, following severe ragging by senior students.

In 1997, Kelum Thushara Wijetunge, a first-year student at the Hardy Technical Institute in Ampara, died from kidney failure, after he was forced to do vigorous exercises and drink to excess.

In 2006, Prof. Chandima Wijebandara, the Vice-Chancellor of University of Sri Jayewardenepura, resigned from his post as a result of students failing to comply with his orders to eliminate ragging from the university.

In 2014, the body of a student, D.K. Nishantha, who was a witness to a sexual assault perpetrated by several other students residing in the dorm, was found hanging from a tree within the premises of the University of Peradeniya, in a shrubbery area located not far from the Marcus Fernando Boys’ Hostel. Police said Nishantha had not attended the university since the time of the alleged sex abuse case and the death was later deemed a suicide.

In 2015, a 23-year-old student of the Sabaragamuwa University, Amali Chathurika committed suicide after being ragged.

In 2019, Dilhan Wijesinghe, a 23-year-old student of the University of Moratuwa committed suicide due to ragging. He was previously studying in the University of Jaffna, where he was subjected to physical ragging and then received a transfer to the University of Moratuwa. Unfortunately, the ragging at the University of Moratuwa was more severe and he could no longer bear the ragging and committed suicide.

“We lost our brother and lived through the trauma for twenty years due to the ‘crazy’ system Sri Lanka has. We did not want to take revenge from anyone involved. But, we wanted to see an end to these inhumane ragging practices carried out by the Anthare (IUSF). Perpetrators are punished in individual cases, but their system continues. Now, the main suspect who got an eight-year prison term after twenty years is already married and a father of two kids. Almost all are married and some of their spouses didn’t even know they are the accused in a murder case. Like our family, they as family members had to come to Courts, pay for lawyers, and now those involved are going through penalties and punishments all alone. Students must understand it is they who have to bear consequences alone and the leaders of IUSF or student unions will not be there for them,” Dayantha Vithanage, elder brother of Samantha opined.

Samantha’s father could not witness the end of the case, as he breathed his last in 2016.

Any act which causes or is likely to cause physical or psychological injury, fear or mental pain in an undergraduate or a member of staff is called ragging.

The Law protects students in higher education institutions and universities from ragging and violence, with Parliament ratifying the Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act No. 20 of 1998. This Act aims to totally eliminate ragging and other forms of violence such as insults and cruel acts and makes ragging a distinct and punishable offence.

Punishments in this act include:

After the individual is found guilty, the punishment for ragging within or outside of the university premises is two years rigorous imprisonment.

In addition, the Court can award compensation to the victim.

Where ragging leads to sexual harassment or grievous hurt, the punishment is increased to ten years imprisonment and an award of compensation. The latter offence is generally non-bailable.

The punishment for anyone who acts with the intention, threatens to cause injury to the person, reputation or property of any student or threatens to cause injury to a person known to the student is rigorous imprisonment for no more than five years.

Acts of criminal intimidation, wrongful restraint and unlawful confinement committed by any person against any student carry a maximum imprisonment period of seven years.

Anyone forcefully confining an individual would face the same punishment.

If any person forcibly occupies any premises of an educational institution, that person is guilty of an offence. Such person could be imprisoned for no less than ten years and no more than twenty years of imprisonment. In accordance with the Act, a fine can also be imposed.

In addition, the Court can, depending on the gravity of the offence, order the expulsion of a student from an educational institution if that person is found guilty of any of the offences contained in the Act.

By Gagani Weerakoon