Opinion » Op-Ed
Published: September 4, 2010 00:48 IST | Updated: September 4, 2010
00:48 IST September 4, 2010

Caste discrimination — U.K. Dalits win the argument, nearly

Hasan Suroor

There's a palpable mood of optimism among Britain's 2,00,000-strong
Dalit community as it waits for the Government to take a decision on
its long-standing campaign for caste discrimination to be recognised
as racism. The buzz is that, barring a last-minute hiccup, Britain
could soon become the first European, indeed Western, country to
declare caste prejudice unlawful under its race laws — a move which
will not please New Delhi which has consistently opposed caste being
clubbed with race.

Britain's new Equality Act already empowers the Government to declare
“caste to be an aspect of race” without seeking fresh parliamentary

Clause 9 of the Act says: “The fact that a racial group comprises two
or more distinct racial groups does not prevent it from constituting a
particular racial group. A Minister of the Crown may by order — (a)
amend this section so as to provide for caste to be an aspect of race

Much will depend on the findings of a study it has commissioned to
determine the extent of caste discrimination. The report of the
National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a leading
independent research body which is conducting the research, is
expected in the autumn and campaigners are confident that it will back
their own claims about how “widespread” caste prejudice in Britain,
really, is.

CasteWatchUK, Britain's oldest Dalit campaign group, says it is no
longer a question of “if” but “when” an official announcement is made.

“We have provided enough evidence to researchers and have no doubt in
our minds that their report will be positive. Besides, we have full
faith in the fairness of the British state. The fact that they have
included it in the equality act is half the battle won. It is not a
question of ‘if' but ‘when' it happens,” claims its general secretary
Davinder Prasad.

There has been widespread cross-party support for the campaign, the
“only reluctant voices being those of Asian MPs,” according to Lekh
Pall, general secretary of the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance
(ACDA), an umbrella group.

Leads to division
The issue has divided Britain's Indian diaspora and right-wing groups
such as the Hindu Forum of Britain have launched a counter-campaign
arguing that the Government has no right to intervene in what they
claim is the community's internal affair.

Ramesh Kallidai, secretary-general of the Forum, says it is “not right
for the U.K. Government to take a position on the rites, beliefs or
practices of a particular religion”.

“Social interactions and personal choices are an expression of
people's freedom, and any barriers should be removed through education
and awareness, not through legislation,” he argues.

In a report, “Caste in the U.K.”, the Forum denied claims of caste
discrimination saying its own research had found that it was “not
endemic in British society”.

However, a study — “Hidden Apartheid, Voice of the Community, Caste
and Caste Discrimination in the U.K.” — by ACDA in collaboration with
academics from the universities of Hertfordshire and Manchester and
the Manchester Metropolitan University, concluded that there was
“clear evidence” of widespread caste-based discrimination.

“There is clear evidence from the survey and the focus groups that the
caste system has been imported into the U.K. with the Asian diaspora
and that the associated caste discrimination affects citizens in ways
beyond personal choices and social interaction. There is a danger that
if the U.K. government does not effectively accept and deal with the
issue of caste discrimination the problem will grow unchecked,” it

The report claimed that “tens of thousands of people in the workplace,
the classroom and even the doctor's surgery” suffered discrimination
because of their caste. Forty-five per cent of the respondents alleged
they had either been treated negatively by co-workers or had comments
made about their caste. Nine per cent felt they were been denied
promotion, and 10 per cent that they were paid less because of their
caste. Some also claimed that they faced “threats”.

One woman, who worked for an Indian-run radio station, complained that
she was demoted after her manager discovered her caste background,
while an elderly woman alleged that her care worker discriminated
against her on caste grounds. One transport company reorganised its
duty roster so that a “higher caste” inspector would not have to work
with a “lower caste” bus driver. Caste-related name-calling was one of
the most commonly-reported complaints.

More often than not, incidents of discrimination go unreported as
people are reluctant to talk about them, activists claim with one
activist saying that “there is a silent majority out there that we
never hear about”.

According to Dr. Gurnam Singh of the department of social and
community studies at Coventry University, caste discrimination is a
“daily reality” for many. Yet there has been no “systematic” research
about the level of caste prejudice in Britain. Anecdotal evidence,
however, suggests that it is on the rise, he says.

Meanwhile, even as Dalits are preparing to celebrate what they hope
would be a successful outcome of their long struggle there are also
fears that the Government could develop “cold feet under pressure from
New Delhi”, in the words of an ACDA official. And, if that happens
they may take the issue to the European Court of Human Rights.


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