Impact of caste in contemporary Sri Lanka

By Basil Fernando

It is a basic tenet of social sciences that a person’s environment has a profound impact on every aspect of their social behaviour, as well as the overall social psyche. When discussing the maladies that affect Sri Lanka, the main topic is usually the failure of politicians and other responsible parties to competently run a functioning system under the legislative, executive and judicial branches. There is no doubt that there have been catastrophic failures in all these aspects. However, these alone do not explain the people’s continuous inability to oppose what is wrong in the institutional setup and to make their influence felt in changing the situation.

To understand why, it is necessary to go into the environment within which democratic institutions were introduced to Sri Lanka and the impact of that environment on those newly introduced institutions. This should be a significant part of the reflections on Sri Lanka’s independence, which had its 69th anniversary recently. There was an uncontended agreement that what was being celebrated was a failed ‘independence’. However, there has been hardly any discussion beyond blaming politicians for this outcome.

The inability of the people to influence the political environment in their country needs far deeper probing. Have these people ever played a significant role in developing their own social, cultural and political environment? The answer to that question takes us far back into history, to see what kind of role was allowed to people living in pre-colonial Sri Lanka.

It is an uncontroversial fact that the social organization in pre-colonial Sri Lanka was based on the caste system. There are a variety of views on exactly when the caste system was introduced to Sri Lanka, but it is beyond controversy that society was already organized on the basis of caste during the Polonnaruwa period. However, almost everyone is reluctant or shy about discussing the impact of a society being organisied on the basis of a grading of its people into two categories: kuliina (upper caste) and kulahiina (all people falling outside the upper caste).  Similar system of grading people exists among the Tamils.

The grading of people

Scholars have found that the caste system is grounded on two major principles: the complete denial of social mobility, and the use of disproportionate punishment. Every person was made to stay within their prescribed status, on the threat of severe punishments being imposed on that person, his family and his clan for any transgression of caste boundaries. The result is a completely stagnant society where the initiatives of individuals to improve themselves are treated as punishable offences.

At the time, it was not an obligation of the Sri Lanka state to create opportunities for people to improve their prospects. When we look at states where the government has accepted the obligation to create equal opportunities, we see societies that have progressed and become prosperous and dynamic.

Educational opportunities only become meaningful when people have the right to choose what they want to achieve in their life. When the caste system prevailed in Sri Lanka, there were neither opportunities for education nor opportunities for people to better their conditions. Instead, it was even subversive for a person to even aspire to improve their lives.

When such rules are strictly enforced in a society for over a thousand years, it is not difficult to see that the social habits and the very psyche of the people living under those circumstances would be moulded accordingly. When the vast majority of people have to live in a state of complete docility, and accept their condition with complete submissiveness over so many centuries, the ultimate result is the inevitable reshaping of the nature of people in that society.

Democratic freedoms, how ever partial, were offered to Sri Lankans as a result of foreign intervention, which slowly introduced the idea of social mobility and equality of opportunity. How could people who are so conditioned to be servile and live in fear suddenly become capable of exercising such democratic freedoms? Over a thousand years of paralysis were written into their social behaviour and their psyche. They have proved incapable of grasping those new opportunities to take their destiny into their own hands. Indeed, this situation is not surprising at all: the impact of a social environment that has lasted over a thousand years will not go away easily.

The manner in which the caste-based master-servant relationship paralyses individuals and makes people in that society, even many centuries later, remain servile and incapable of asserting their will has been captured well by Indian authors. One such example is the Booker Prize winning novel by Aravind Adikar, “The White Tiger”. Written in the form of letters to the Chinese Premier, the protagonist unravels the system that controls the life of people in India.  The following quote from the novel explains the grip under which Indian masses are held docile:

“The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop.

Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench — the stench of terrified, feathered flesh. On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.

The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.

Watch the roads in the evenings in Delhi; sooner or later you will see a man on a cycle-rickshaw, pedalling down the road, with a giant bed, or a table, tied to the cart that is attached to his cycle. Every day furniture is delivered to people’s homes by this man — the delivery- man. A bed costs five thousand rupees, maybe six thousand. Add the chairs, and a coffee table, and it’s ten or fifteen thousand. A man comes on a cycle-cart, bringing you this bed, table, and chairs, a poor man who may make five hundred rupees a month. He unloads all this furniture for you, and you give him the money in cash — a fat wad of cash the size of a brick. He puts it into his pocket, or into his shirt, or into his underwear, and cycles back to his boss and hands it over without touching a single rupee of it! A year’s salary, two years’ salary, in his hands, and he never takes a rupee of it.

Every day, on the roads of Delhi, some chauffeur is driving an empty car with a black suitcase sitting on the backseat. Inside that suitcase is a million, two million rupees; more money than that chauffeur will see in his lifetime. If he took the money he could go to America, Australia, anywhere, and start a new life. He could go inside the five-star hotels he has dreamed about all his life and only seen from the outside. He could take his family to Goa, to England. Yet he takes that black suitcase where his master wants. He puts it down where he is meant to, and never touches a rupee. Why?

Because Indians are the world’s most honest people, like the prime minister’s booklet will inform you?

No. It’s because 99.9 per cent of us are-caught in the Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market.

The Rooster Coop doesn’t always work with minuscule sums of money. Don’t test your chauffeur with a rupee coin or two he may well steal that much. But leave a million dollars in front of a servant and he won’t touch a penny. Try it: leave a black bag with a million dollars in a Mumbai taxi. The taxi driver will call the police and return the money by the day’s end. I guarantee it. (Whether the police will give it to you or not is another story, sir!) Masters trust their servants with diamonds in this country! It’s true. Every evening on the train out of Surat, where they run the world’s biggest diamond-cutting and polishing business, the servants of diamond merchants are carrying suitcases full of cut diamonds that they have to give to someone in Mumbai. Why doesn’t that servant take the suitcase full of diamonds? He’s no Gandhi, he’s human, he’s you and me. But he’s in the Rooster Coop. The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.

The Great Indian Rooster Coop. Do you have something like it in China too? I doubt it, Mr Jiabao. Or you wouldn’t need the Communist Party to shoot people and a secret police to raid their houses at night and put them in jail like I’ve heard you have over there. Here in India we have no dictatorship. No secret police.

That’s because we have the coop.

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 per cent, as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way, to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

You’ll have to come here and see it for yourself to believe it. Every day millions wake up at dawn, stand in dirty, crowded buses, get off at their masters’ posh houses and then clean the floors, wash the dishes, weed the garden, feed their children, press their feet all for a pittance. I will never envy the rich of America or England, Mr Jiabao: they have no servants there. They cannot even begin to understand what a good life is.

Now, a thinking man like you, Mr Premier, must ask two questions.

Why does the Rooster Coop work? How does it trap so many millions of men and women so effectively?

Secondly, can a man break out of the coop? What if one day, for instance, a driver took his employer’s money and ran? What would his life be like?

I will answer both for you, sir.
The answer to the first question is that the pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice, the subject of no doubt considerable space in the pamphlet that the prime minister will hand over to you, the Indian family, is the reason we are trapped and fled to the coop.

The answer to the second question is that only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.

Punishment within the caste context has two components. Firstly, the punishment meted out to people from lower castes is disproportionate to the extreme. As it is taught through the Hindu myths, for example, an untouchable who is not supposed to learn meditation and the practices of yogis may be punished with death for doing so, as demonstrated in the story of Sambuka, or an untouchable boy who is not supposed to learn archery may have his thumb cut off for it. Coming down even to the modern day, there are examples of children being blinded for looking at a TV screen at a shop belonging to an upper caste person, burned alive over a minor dispute, or punished for drinking water in a glass instead of using the utensils that are allowed for the lower castes. The concept of punishing the poor in the severest possible way has also become inbuilt into the criminal justice systems of the countries in the region. Even today, prisons are full of the poor who belong to the so-called lower castes. Torture meted out at police stations and prisons is also directed towards this same class of persons.

The second aspect of punishment within the caste system is that it is collective. As Aravind Adiga has graphically explained, an entire family could be massacred for the transgressions of any single person. This message is written deep in the psyche of all persons and acts as a motivating factor on matters regarding safety in the deepest levels of their minds.

Another talented India thinker, Dr. D.R. Nagaraj, in his famous study called The Flaming Feet: The Dalit Movement in India, wrote:

“The important thing here is that the entire community of Dalits is punished for the offence committed by a single individual. That traditional society in India has never accepted the concept of [the] individual should not make us blind towards the working of the caste ethos here. When similar offences are committed by an individual of [an] upper caste he is always treated as an individual, and his act is not linked to his community. In other words, the notion of the individual is preserved in the context of deviant behaviour [among] the upper castes. We are yet to hear the news of a village boycotting an upper caste for a crime, that too a petty one, committed by one of its members. In Indian literature there are enough descriptions of the unpardonable violation of ethical codes of society, but only the individual concerned is held responsible. To put it differently, one of the chief characteristics of the caste system is to attribute certain inerasable traits to each caste, and they are even judged in moral terms: the superiority of the caste is indeed decided by its rank and station in the hierarchy. A careful analysis of proverbs and popular sayings of Indian languages will reveal the hidden and not so hidden biases and prejudices of the caste system. When it comes to understanding the nature of virtues and vices of a social stratification, the caste system accepts the collective category as the criterion. While confronting deviant behaviour of upper castes the individual is used to explain away the aberration, but in the context of lower castes the category of the individual is never accepted as legitimate. Such at least is the value system that informs the eruption of violence against the untouchables. To give a charitable reading of this phenomenon one could say that the changes in the historical situation have intensified the hypocritical behaviour of the caste society which was under check in the pre-conflict situation.”


  1. This Pedige Basil F’do is suffering from caste inferiority complex.
    No medicine for his thinking.
    Will have to refer him to Dr. Ruwan.M.Jayatunga.


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