The British government is yet to announce details of its planned consultation on incorporating protection against caste discrimination into the U.K. equality law, but within the Indian community the debate is already in full swing.
On Wednesday evening, the Indian Forum on British Media held a public debate in a House of Commons committee room with the aim of providing a “balanced picture” of the issues at hand. The packed meeting was a testament to the strong feelings the planned legislation has garnered.
“The issue of legislation on caste has generated more interest and more involvement [from the U.K. Indian community] than any other issue I have ever encountered,” Bob Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East, and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for British Hindus, told the gathering. Mr. Blackman, who argued against the need for legislation, warned that it would lead to a “completely unnecessary interference” and a “bureaucratic nightmare of proportions the Hindu community would not want to see.”
Others who supported his view included Trupti Patel, President of the Hindu Forum of Britain, who told the group that surveys conducted by her organisation had found scant evidence of discrimination and that the legislation would — by making young people in particular aware of their caste for the first time — create segregation, as well as encourage people to make unfounded complaints against their employers.
Her thoughts were echoed by Satish Sharma, general secretary of the Council of Hindu Temples, who argued that the legislation would be a “recipe for disaster”, creating friction within the Indian community.
Speaking in support of the legislation was Satpal Muman, chair of Caste Watch U.K., who criticised “the lies” that were being told about the implications of the legislation, and pointed to efforts by a Hindu group dissuading the diaspora from voting for the Labour Party in the general election last year.
“No piece of equality legislation has been the subject of a frenzied attack like this. This is not about invading the religious and cultural space. It is purely targeted at discrimination in the public sphere.”
“Caste discrimination is a human right s violation,” he added, stressing that even if a small section of people believed in the caste system it had an impact on the lives of people. “Victims of caste-based discrimination deserve legal clarity.”
Saundevan Aparanti, a London-based actor and activist, challenged the argument that discrimination wasn’t taking place in the U.K. — pointing to instances such as a wedding venue refusing to host a reception because of the caste of the participants, or healthcare workers refusing to care for an elderly woman because of her caste. “Britain will send a strong signal to the world that it does not tolerate discrimination.”
Struggle for dignity
George Kunnath, a lecturer in Modern Indian studies at the University of Oxford, pointed to the entrenched nature of the caste system and its ability to travel across both religious and geographic boundaries to profoundly impact communities across the world. “It might express itself in different ways but caste discrimination is there,” he said. The campaign for the legislation was not an “anti-religion stance” but about the “Dalit struggle for freedom and dignity”.
The British government announced the consultation at the start of September — a move treated with scepticism by supporters of the legislation, given that Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010, amended by Parliament in 2013, already required the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race, and caste discrimination a form of race discrimination. The consultation is expected to begin before the year-end and run for 12 weeks.
“The government may be hoping the consultation will allow them to point to popular opinion to justify them refusing to introduce legislation required of them by Parliament and the UN,” says Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society.
“The longer the Government procrastinates, the greater the risk it will be humiliatingly required to do so by the U.K. courts.”