Caste out by the law

The British government's attempts to dilute legislation that recognises caste-based discrimination render it insensitive to the treatment of Dalits in the U.K.

August 01, 2013 01:57 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:39 pm IST

In a truly historic move, on June 25 the British parliament, the United Kingdom’s sovereign body, activated Clause 9(5)(a) of the Equality Act 2010 to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of caste. Yet the current British government ceased to resist the relevant measure only after the upper chamber, the House of Lords, had for a second time defeated the executive by insisting that another bill, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill, include caste discrimination as a form of racial discrimination under the Equality Act.

Furthermore, the government has even intensified its attempts to frustrate parliament’s clear will over this. On May 9, Helen Grant, a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice, wrote to the lobbying group the Alliance of Hindu Organisations (AHO) expressing “disappointment” that, rather than face the failure of the Enterprise bill in parliament, the government had had to “concede” the inclusion of caste within the Equality Act’s definition of race. In the same letter, Ms. Grant also contends that there is “insufficient evidence” of caste-based discrimination in the U.K., and that including caste in anti-discrimination law could signal that caste is becoming a “permanent feature” of British society. Secondly, the implementation timetable for the casterelated amendment has been published, but the public consultation process will not start until February 2014, and the consequent draft order is likely to be issued only in June 2015 – which is after the final date for the next general election; in any case a British parliament cannot bind its successors.

Quite apart from stalling to subvert the legislation, Ms. Grant has simply ignored much of the evidence. Caste has long been a feature of life among Britons of South Asian descent, and in its report No Escape: Caste Discrimination in the UK (2006), the Dalit Solidarity Network UK (DSN UK) identifies persistent caste divisions in Britain; these derive from the strong religious and family affiliations of the great majority of South Asian Britons; one resident of the London suburb of Southall even says locals give directions to others’ houses according to people’s caste and not their names. The report also provides several examples of systematic and long-term caste-based harassment, including case-studies from the National Health Service and private-sector employment respectively, and cites a former mayor of Coventry as saying temples are segregated along caste lines — something which also occurs in purportedly caste-free British faiths such as Sikhism.

Needless to say, caste is a particularly strong factor when families arrange marriages, and very ugly tensions can arise when young people form their own relationships across caste lines.

On the evidence, those of higher castes are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of discrimination or — among schoolchildren and university students — bullying. Almost inevitably too, Dalits, conservatively thought to number 400,000 among the U.K.’s South Asian population of about 3 million, form the majority of victims and suffer the worst discrimination. A 2010 report by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research provides detailed case-studies, some of which include refusals by public employees such as home carers and even a physiotherapist to touch people of lower castes whom they were supposed to bath, dress, or treat. Of course many organisations in the U.K., including temples and gurdwaras, and individuals explicitly reject caste distinctions, but the bitterness of victims is often intensified by official failures to understand the nature of the caste system or to act on complaints; some victims have cited caste prejudice even among those who are supposed to investigate complaints.

Ms. Grant, nevertheless, has written to the AHO, which claims to represent between 800,000 and 1 million British Hindus, confirming that the new law allows the caste-related provisions to be reviewed after five years – but the review applies only to caste and to no other form of discrimination. In addition, the AHO was formed to provide “one Hindu voice” in response to the House of Lords’ March 2013 vote to outlaw caste discrimination, and part of its website carries a possibly defamatory allegation of racism against unspecified members of the House of Lords for that vote. Furthermore, the Alliance contends that the new law amounts to racial discrimination against Hindus, but it provides no further argument for that assertion, and it seems not to have responded to a public request from the NGO CasteWatchUK to collaborate with other groups in ending caste discrimination.

The AHO may also be exploiting the Conservative Party’s long-standing hostility to anti-discrimination legislation. In general, the Tories’ junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, support anti-discrimination law, including the caste-related provision, and Lord Avebury says it is “entirely improper” that the sponsoring minister herself opposed that provision.

The Conservatives, however, strongly resisted several Labour governments’ measures against racial and gender discrimination respectively, and now the women’s rights group the Fawcett Society has severely criticised the government’s proposals to review the Public Sector Equality Duty. That duty was introduced under the Equality Act as recently as 2011 and requires that all government policies be assessed for their impact on women, minorities, and disadvantaged groups, but the government is reviewing the requirement under cover of a purported plan to reduce red tape. As for the law outlawing caste discrimination, Britons who happen to be of Dalit descent face a continuing struggle against their own government and against various groups of British Hindus. It is a struggle against being treated as Dalits first and British second.


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