By Shraddha Kakade
Earlier this month on 4th of March 2013, Dalit groups in Britain and their supporters were rejoicing their victory. The House of Lords had voted in favor for including the concept of caste as an aspect of race in the Equality Act 2010. Further, if the bill gets approval of the House of Commons, it will soon become unlawful in Britain to discriminate on the basis of caste in areas of employment, education and the provision of services.
As I read the developments on this issue in UK, what surprised me most was that some section of Indian diaspora had unfortunately maintained their caste-based identity and more regrettably continued discrimination and harassment of lower caste on the basis of the same. Before we get to the broader debate on this issue let us understand some concepts:
• What is caste?
In Dr Ambedkar’s formulation, “Caste is a system of graded inequality in which castes are arranged according to an ascending order of reverence and a descending scale of contempt”. That is, as you go up the caste system the power and status of the caste group increases; as you go down the scale the of contempt for the caste increases as these caste have no power, are of low status and are regarded as dirty and polluting.
The complex caste system is rooted in traditional Hindu system, it is an identity ascribed since birth, pre-ordained much like other identities of race or gender in which individual has no control in determining which caste H/She will be born into.
• Caste in UK
The first case of alleged caste-discrimination was reported in Britain in 2010. Vijay Begraj and his wife Amardeep are contesting this case from the Birmingham Employment Tribunal since Britain has no legal framework on caste based discrimination.
Vijay Begraj had worked his way up as a business and financial manager in a law firm, where Amardeep (now his wife) worked as solicitor. Over a period of time both decided to get married and as Vijay recalls their parents had no problem with their alliance. The trouble began when Vijay’s bosses in the law firm learnt that Vijay was a Hindu Dalit (Lower caste) and his wife a Sikh Jat (Upper caste).
Vijay recalls, “My three bosses found out that a girl from their community was planning to marry someone from a ‘lower’ caste.” He says that from warning her that “these people are different creatures” to sending him emails with excerpts from the scriptures reminding him of his ascribed subordinate status, his superiors at work did everything to dissuade them from marrying. Their detailed account— harassment, snide remarks, denial of pay hike and promotion, culminating in his dismissal after seven years in service and her resignation— has been placed before the tribunal.” (The Indian Express)
In UK, caste or caste-based discrimination is a foreign concept, the Government’s reluctance on caste legislation, as pointed by a news report was also due in part because of uncertainty over its prevalence in UK. In order to ascertain whether there is caste based discrimination and harassment in Britain in the areas covered by discrimination legislature, i.e. Education, Provision of goods and services and work, the Government Equalities Office commissioned a report, the findings of the report suggested that such discrimination was found in Britain.
KEY FINDINGS OF THE REPORT:
*The term ‘caste’ is used to identify a number of different concepts, notably, varna (a Hindu religious caste system), jati (an occupational caste system) and biraderi (often referred to as a clan system). The examples of caste discrimination identified related to jati.
• Caste awareness in Britain is concentrated amongst people with roots in the Indian subcontinent (who comprise
five per cent of the population). It is not religion specific and is subscribed to by (and affects) members
of any or no religion.
• The study identified evidence suggesting caste discrimination and harassment of the type covered by the
Equality Act 2010 in relation to:
-Work (bullying, recruitment, promotion, task allocation;
– Provision of services; and
– Education (pupil on pupil bullying).
• The study also identified evidence suggesting caste discrimination and harassment which may fall outside the
Equality Act 2010 in relation to voluntary work, harassment, demeaning behavior and violence.
• The caste discrimination and harassment identified in this study was by higher castes against the lowest
• There is no clear evidence on whether the extent of caste discrimination and harassment is changing. There
are both positive and negative influences at work.
• To reduce caste discrimination and harassment the Government might take educative or legislative approaches.
Either would be useful in the public sector. However, non-legislative approaches are less likely to be
effective in the private sector and do not assist those where the authorities themselves are discriminating.
Relying on the Indian community to take action to reduce caste discrimination and harassment is problematic.
• Equality Act 2010 provisions on religious discrimination cannot cover caste discrimination and harassment as
effectively as caste-specific provisions would.
Moreover other reports publishe before this Government Study, like the Dalit Solidarity Network UK report in 2006, the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance in 2009 have too, well documented the existence of caste-based discrimination and harassment prevalent in UK.
Hence, a number of Dalit rights activist and Anti caste discrimination alliances, groups have been long demanding for the UK Government to outlaw caste-discrimination and make necessary legislation to this effect.
One can say 4th of March 2013, was a decisive victory for these groups as The House of Lords voted in favor of including caste in the Equality Act 2010, but the battle is just half won, as The House of Commons is yet to vote on the Amendment.
Let us now, look at some of the Arguments and counter-Arguments that took place in the UK Parliament over the amendment.
• Debates over this Amendment
The UK Government two main arguments against the amendment were:
a. There is not enough evidence to suggest that there is caste-based discrimination in UK
b. It will not enforce legislative measures but recourse to educational Programme to end discrimination
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits, along with other members counter-argued…
The Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth — who introduced the amendment — said the British Dalit community had reached 4,80,000 and evidence showed they suffered discrimination in education, employment and the provision of public goods and service.
“Nothing could be more significant and effective in reducing discrimination on the grounds of caste than to have a clear-cut law that discrimination in the public law would not be tolerated,” he said during the debate in Parliament.
Further other member argued, “We are still wondering how much more evidence there needs to be. Plenty has now been amassed over the past 10 years and documented from the Dalit Solidarity Network UK report in 2006, to Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance in 2009 and the National Institute’s ‘robust’ report in 2010.”
Lord Avebury asked ‘why should caste be treated differently…to any other protected characteristic’? (i.e.: Equality legislation includes characteristics of race, religion, sex). He added that the government’s inadequate proposals so far, only advocate education as a means of eradicating caste, without providing for legal safeguards.”
• My opinion over the issue
I agree with the decision of The House of Lords to include the term Caste in the Equality Act, it is true that the bill is yet to be passed in The House of Commons. I am of the opinion both education and Legislation is required to fight this social menace.
I disagree with the UK Government stand that caste-discrimination and prejudice can be dealt effectively with education Programme alone. Education can definitely help sensitize public, create awareness among the police and other public officials about the connotation of the term but without any legal framework, people who have faced or potentially are at risk to face discrimination shall not have legal recourse to address caste-based discrimination.
As far as the argument of the whether caste based discrimination exists in UK goes…
Several reports both by the Government of UK and other private Groups( which have been mentioned above) have suggested that caste-based discrimination does exists, waiting to amass more evidence, would mean only delaying the Legislation of outlawing caste.
One can also argue that despite India having Abolished Untouchability (Art 17, Indian Constitution) and discrimination based on caste through several other legislations and constitutional safeguards caste-based harassment, discrimination has not been completely eradicated from our society though there has been evident progress.
I locate this problem in attitude of people. If you recall the first case of caste discrimination reported from UK mentioned about, Vijay Begraj, born in Britain believed that it was his only identity but his bosses through their discriminatory treatment to him redefined his identity, reminded him that he is ‘Hindu-Dalit.’ Thus through this instance it is clear that identity is not just how individuals define themselves but also the way it is defined by others.
Hence, if we are as a society to eradicate caste based discrimination having constitutional and institutional framework, educational programmes is necessary but until and unless there is change in the attitude of the both the oppressor and oppressed we will not be able to cast out caste.
1. (n.d.). Retrieved from • http://kractivist.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/no-escape-from-caste-prejudice-even-in-uk-discrimination-humanrights/
2.(n.d.). Retrieved from http://m.indianexpress.com/news/house-of-lords-votes-to-outlaw-caste-discrimination-in-uk/1083499
3 .(Dalit Solidarity Network U.K. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://dsnuk.org/2013/03/05/dalit-groups-win-the-day-4th-march-2013/
4 .Governmnet Equalities Office . (2010). Caste discrimination and Harrasment in Great Britain.
5 .Nair, S. (2013, March 26). Retrieved from – http://www.indianexpress.com/news/uk-wakes-up-to-caste-bias/1093262/
6. Rath, Kayte; BBC News Political reporter. (2013, March 5th). Retrieved March 2013, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-21659744
7. The Economist, Erasmus- Blogs on Religion and Public Policy. (2013, March 7th). Retrieved from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/blogs/erasmus/2013/03/stamping-out-caste-system-0#comments