British-Indian human rights and Dalit groups in the U.K. are up in arms over what they see as an attempt by the government to delay the process to make caste-based discrimination illegal by bringing it within the ambit of the Equality Act, 2010. While the legislation to amend the Act was given the nod by Parliament this April, the government announced on July 29 that the consultative process leading up to this would take two years, i.e., by the summer of 2015 at the earliest. Dalit groups say that caste discrimination is rampant in workplaces, schools and service industries, and affects at least 400,000 people of so-called “lower-caste” descent.
“I am very, very disappointed. The two-year deadline is unprecedented. Consultation guidelines say that the process should not take more that two weeks,” Meena Varma, Director, Dalit Solidarity Network, told The Hindu. “We were delighted this April when the House of Lords voted to amend the Equality Act 2010 to recognise caste as discriminatory and illegal, but it looks like the government has bowed to the anti-legislation lobby, the Alliance of Hindu Organisations. Basically this means that thousands of Dalits, both current and potential victims of caste repression have been denied a recourse to justice.”
“Unprecedented, and an indication that they want to push the issue into the long grass,” Lord Avebury, Liberal Democratic peer in the House of Lords, who had campaigned for the legislation, told The Hindu. “The reason behind it is quite simply because they do not like the idea of bringing in caste into the Equality Bill. The consultations will take place till 2015, after the general elections. They will use negative expressions that arise during the consultations to scrap it.”
There are nine “protected characteristics” (like sex, age, race, gender re-assignment, sexual orientation, religion or belief etc.) in the Equality Act, and caste was to have been brought into the Act as “an aspect of race”, a definition that many groups disagreed with. “I am of the opinion that caste is no more complex than race for the purposes of the Act. We don’t need to know the complexities of caste discrimination. The Act only pertains to [discrimination] in employment, education and the provision of goods and services. Social discrimination, for example within marriage, is not dealt with by the Act,” Lord Avebury said.
A study commissioned by the U.K. government on caste discrimination in the U.K. and conducted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (“Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain”) published in 2010, established that caste in the U.K. was not religion-specific, and existed in the areas of work (bullying, recruitment, promotion and task allocation), in the provision of services , and in education.
“We urge the government to re-think the time-table,” said Ms. Varma. “They could at least advance it to next summer rather than 2015.”