Indian Diaspora Divided Over Caste Ban Legislation in UK

The legislation seeks to ban discrimination based on caste, making it an aspect of race.


The Theresa May government’s public consultations to deal with caste discrimination in the United Kingdom will on end on Sept. 18. Caste-based discrimination is not banned as per United Kingdom’s constitution, but, Section 9 of the Equality Act, 2010, as amended demands an introduction of secondary legislation by the government, which makes caste an aspect of race. This amendment will make caste-based discrimination a form of racial discrimination, punishable as per UK law.

Dilemma Among Indian Communities

Indian community in the United Kingdom is deeply divided over the issue. The most influential among Indians — the Hindu, Sikh and Jain lobbies — are denying the prevalence of caste discrimination in the country. They believe that implementing such a law will entrench ideas of caste in the minds of people where none exist.

The move to ban caste discrimination in form of a legislation has come under fire from several Hindu organizations, which claim that this legislation is a hate crime against Hindus. Satish Sharma, chair of National Council of Hindu Temples (NHCT), believes that caste system has more to do with the British colonial rule than to the ancient religion. While any case of caste discrimination must be looked into and not be condoned, the need for legislation on this, he said during the launch of NCHT’s Caste Legislation Report earlier this year, rests on dubious evidence.

On the other hand, groups that represent the victims of caste discrimination, such as Castewatch UK and Dalit Solidarity Network, feel that caste system prevails in the United Kingdom, and building a law is necessary to stop discrimination based on caste.

In 2006, the Dalit Solidarity Network UK came out with a report, No Escape: Caste Discrimination in UK that puts caste as a norm among Britons of South Asian descent. Another report commissioned by the British government in 2010 shows how well entrenched the caste system is among the Indian diaspora in the country. The report highlights many instances in the education sector and workplace — sectors where cases of caste discrimination were seen in large numbers.

A common finding of the reports compiled by organizations that represent victims is the lack of understanding by officials on the nature of caste, and then, their failure to address the problem.

“Caste operates like a hidden apartheid in the UK,” Meena Varma, the director of the Dalit Solidarity Network UK, was quoted as saying on the Firstpost website. “We are only campaigning for equality in public, not for restrictions on social forms of prejudice, like profiles on specifically asking for brides or grooms from a certain caste group.”

“It is outlawed in India, so why not in Britain? It is discrimination at the most vile level. The government introduced laws against slavery, so why can they not act on this?,” India-born, London-based celebrated sculptor Anish Kapoor said, Sunday Times reported.

“My parents are cosmopolitan and modern and paid no heed to this. But the truth is that there are parts of India where a lower-caste person is not allowed to enter a street or is not allowed to go into a shop. If they go into a shop, things are put on the floor for them. We love to think of Britain as progressive. It would be disgraceful if the government bows to pressure and does not act on this key area of human rights,” Kapoor added.

How Did the Amendment Get Introduced?

On June 25, 2013, the British parliament activated Clause 9(5) (a) of the Equality Act 2010 to outlaw discrimination based on caste. Section 9 of the 2010 Equality Act stated that a Minister of the Crown may “amend this section so as to provide for caste to be an aspect of race…”
The decision to have a legislation around caste discrimination came close on heels of the 2012 Tirkey vs Chandhok case. In a first of its kind case in the United Kingdom, Tirkey, an Adivasi worker sued her employer, Chandhok, on grounds of caste discrimination. Tirkey received £184,000 worth of compensation for being subjected to 18-hour work days, being forced to sleep on a foam mattress in a small room and asked to cut off contact with her family back in Bihar. Her passport was confiscated as well.

The Current Scenario

That was in 2013. Now, a post-Brexit Theresa May government seems a little shaky on carrying this legislation forward.

“I recognise the sensitivity on the caste issue; there is a consultation taking place. There was wording put into the relevant legislation in the House of Lords by Labour and Liberal Democrats working together on that, but I realise how sensitive this issue is,” May said in June.
The statement in the consultation paper indicates the balancing act of the government.

“The government is committed to deciding the better approach between case-law and legislation in a way that is proportionate, and which protects people from discrimination and avoids unhelpful and socially divisive consequences such as promoting, creating or entrenching ideas of caste or heightening caste consciousness where they do not previously exist,” read the statement.

The current government, according to a rights campaigner, entertains the rise of the Hindu right because of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. It is imperative for the UK government to keep the community, which has substantial clout with the ruling party in India and has large businesses, happy.

In fact, as a sign of proximity to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the National Council of Hindu Temples, UK, got senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy to release a report on why they oppose the caste-based legislation.

Government Intention to Delay

The dithering approach of the UK government has come under flak from various quarters, including British politicians. Former MP Graham Allen wrote an open letter to Justine Greening, the Minister for Equalities, saying that the government’s intention with the public consultation is “to delay – probably forever – legislative protection against caste discrimination.”

He called for the consultation to be withdrawn, and if it is not withdrawn, for a guarantee that the consultation would not be used as a justification for not legislating.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which supports the legislation, was not consulted before the public consultations were launched. According to Keith Porteous Wood, the executive director of National Secular Society, “The government is more intent on listening to and giving weight to those opposed to the legislation, which in some cases could be perilously similar to giving weight to the views of misogynists opposing sex equality discrimination.”

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