Caste or Class Struggles: Sri Lanka’s Persistent Barrier to Progress

Despite a global shift towards class dynamics, caste-based principles remain dominant in Sri Lankan society

A recent paper published by the Asian Human Rights Commission sheds light on the deep-rooted caste-based culture in Sri Lanka. Despite arguments from some scholars indicating the decline of caste as a significant influencer and the rise of class considerations, caste or class remain deeply entrenched in Sri Lanka’s socio-cultural fabric.

Historically, the caste system classified people based on occupations. Even though the class system seemed to be taking precedence, especially post-colonialism, the research underscores that the caste system still profoundly influences aspects of Sri Lankan life.

Two Main Caste System Principles

The caste system is grounded on two main principles: the prohibition against social mobility and disproportionate and unequal punishments.

These universal caste principles are embedded in the minds and behaviors of Sri Lankans, cultivating attitudes that govern not only their external behaviors but also their intrinsic beliefs. The research suggests these deep-seated attitudes stem from centuries of repetitious behaviors, that solidify these principles, thereby shaping the very psyche of the Sri Lankan population.

caste or class data ahrc - newsblaze image
Caste or class data ahrc – NewsBlaze image

Caste or Class

One of the most lasting impacts of the caste system is the psychological and social habits it has engendered. These habits include aversions to social mobility and education, with resistance met by harsh punishment. Moreover, this has given rise to an ingrained fear of opposing the caste system, making the populace more susceptible to submission.

“The second most important universal principle on which the caste system and the social organisation based on caste is founded is the uneven and disproportionate use of punishment.”

The article by Basil Fernando announcing the paper emphasizes that the caste system’s values have seeped into modern-day justice and policing systems in Sri Lanka. The age-old principle of disproportionate punishment remains evident today. Minor transgressions by those from “inferior” castes are met with harsh consequences, while more grave offenses by “superior” castes often go unpunished.

Furthermore, the research points to the suppression of freedom of speech. Historically, lower castes were not allowed to voice opposition to the higher castes, a practice which seems to continue today with the state and large families suppressing free speech.


Corruption, too, finds its roots in the caste system. The research posits that the deep-rooted tolerance for corruption in the Sri Lankan psyche can be traced back to the caste system, where “superiors” took whatever they wanted without facing consequences.

While the global community has acknowledged and condemned certain practices in Sri Lanka, such as enforced disappearances and the use of torture, little has changed on the ground. The research attributes this to the lasting influence of caste principles on the nation.

UN Human Rights Council 2013

In 2013, this NewsBlaze story reported the UN Human Rights Council passed a US-backed resolution addressing human rights violations by Sri Lanka during its war against the LTTE rebels.

The resolution garnered support from 25 of 46 member countries, and urged the Sri Lankan government to initiate an independent investigation into the alleged crimes against the Tamil minority. The US, among others, believed Sri Lanka’s internal investigations into these matters were insufficient.

UN documents indicated that 40,000 individuals, predominantly Tamil civilians, perished in the war’s final stages. US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of Sri Lanka taking concrete steps toward reconciliation and highlighted the US’s readiness to assist.

LTTE women's wing marching in a parade. Image by marietta amarcord from italy via wikimedia commons.
LTTE women’s wing marching in a parade. marietta amarcord from italy, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This 2013 resolution followed a similar one in 2012, underscoring the international community’s sustained attention to human rights issues in Sri Lanka after decades of civil unrest.

NewsBlaze previously covered suppression of speech and media in Sri Lanka in this story from 2009.

Also this story about Tamil refugee women thanks to Papri Sri Raman writing for NewsBlaze from the Womens Feature Service. “The Tamil refugee camps are a fountainhead of stories of single mothers, women-headed families, women growing old with hopes of returning home, of brave young women who have refused to succumb to their dire circumstances,” said Ashok Gladston Xavier of the Department of Social Work at Loyola College, Chennai. In 2009, Xavier had been assisting Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka for the last 20 years. “Anyone else in their place would have long ago given up.”

Alan Gray

Alan Gray is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of NewsBlaze Daily News and other online newspapers. He prefers to edit, rather than write, but sometimes an issue rears it’s head and makes him start hammering away on the keyboard.

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