U.K.’s Indian community joins consultation on anti-caste law

Among the believers:Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II greeted by worshippers at a temple in Archway, north London.File Photo  

Keval Bharadia, a London-based consultant, had little involvement in politics until recently, when he started campaigning around the British government’s ongoing consultation on caste legislation. “I have suffered caste discrimination here and it’s a major problem,” says Mr. Bharadia, whose most striking experience of it was in a personal relationship that was brought to an end as his partner’s family voiced strong objections because of their differing caste statuses.

While Britain’s caste legislation will not cover personal relationships, he is hopeful that introducing caste as an aspect of race will also have a wider societal impact, well beyond the place of study or work, in the same way that legislation against other forms of discrimination (such as race and sexuality) have impacted attitudes more widely.

The British government published details of its long-awaited public consultation on whether caste should be introduced as an aspect of race in anti-discrimination legislation in March. It’s an issue that has been a very emotive and divisive one for the nation’s large Indian community. Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010, amended by Parliament in 2013, required the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race, and caste discrimination a form of race discrimination, but allowed for consultations.

While many who have been campaigning for the legislation believe no further consultation or evidence gathering is necessary and is merely a means for the government to delay a decision, they’ve had little choice but to get involved in the campaign on the issue, to convince the government that change is necessary.

Strong response

Satpal Muman, chair of Caste Watch U.K., has been encouraged by the strong public response and says there are many people like Mr. Bharadia, whose personal experiences of discrimination have convinced them to contribute and in some cases get more involved in the campaign to raise awareness. His group and the others’ campaigning on the issue have come together to reach out to people across the country, whether through community organisations or religious institutions. “There are many people, members of organisations, temples that are very supportive, who’ve experienced discrimination themselves,” says Mr. Muman. When the consultation was first published, seven of the campaigning groups wrote to the government, expressing their concerns about the structure of the consultation — which they warned was “biased” against the introduction of legislation and opaque. “The consultation questionnaire is very flawed and technical... full of legalese that is difficult for the lay person to understand,” says Mr. Muman. Groups such as Caste Watch U.K. have been working hard to provide online “templates” to help those wanting to contribute navigate the consultation.

And it’s not just those campaigning for the legislation who are concerned about the consultation’ structure. Satish Sharma, general secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples, who is campaigning against the legislation, says: “The nature of the consultation is quite complicated, asking people to make a choice on very subtle legal distinctions.” His and other groups have also set up online templates to help those against the legislation to participate, as well as reaching out to community groups.

“In the end, its not about numbers but about what is just and fair and justice is something that should be for everyone. I believe the government will not ignore the victims,” says Mr. Muman. Others remain more cautious. Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, who has been a strong and influential advocate of the need for the legislation, says: “The attempts we’ve made to pull in people have been successful but I think the question must be the extent to which the government is ready to listen. If you look at the consultation it doesn’t fill you with confidence that they have any intention of listening.”