Caste as a colonial creation

The discussion around UK legislation on caste discrimination is too quick to forget how much it was Britain which invented the system in the first place.

Akbar Dosanj
7 January 2014

In December I wrote an article discussing the way in which members of the House of Lords produce legislation and come to their decisions. In writing this article I referenced the recent proposed caste amendment to the Equality Bill. The article only touched the surface of the debates surrounding caste, which is a very complex topic, but it did prompt responses in the comments that echoed the moralistic sentiment of the Lords, deriding caste as 'abhorrent' and something that had to be legislated on.

Pro Dalit campaigners have been pushing for legislation on caste for some time and caste as an issue has been something that has split opinion amongst British Indian in recent months. The debates espoused by all parties, including the government and the Lords are often shrouded in myth and half-truths, with little coherent debate that truly gets to the surface of the issue or presents viable solutions that can please all parties.

This is something noted by the Right Honourable Valerie Vaz MP, who when I asked her how she'd vote on the issue in the House of Commons remarked ''I abstained because I did not want to vote for legislation that appears to be dividing the Asian community and evidence may not be complete to make a decision.'' The latter point, on a lack of accurate evidence is a crucial point, especially within the context of the at times inaccurate evidence presented in the House of Lords.

Contextualizing Caste

With regard to viable evidence it is first essential to contextualize caste and understand what it is we mean when we use caste, which in many respects is an incredibly loaded word with mixed meanings. 'Caste' actually has no literal translation in any Indian language and it's worth noting that prior to colonialism a very fluid system was in place, rather than the rigid and 'abhorrent' system we see presented in debates today.

None of the Lords mentioned the context of caste and how it was hardened, even created during the colonial period. Colonial anthropologists looked to pigeon hole Indians into strict sub groups, failing to understand the complexities and fluidity of the loose clan based system that was in place. As a result of a colonial fascination to understand South Asians Caste first appeared in India officially with it being entered into the 1871 census, as a way to categorize people. This made people’s castes official, caste was henceforth being interpreted in a much more rigid way than was previously the case.

The words of The British Superintendent of the 1921 census are still poignant today: ' We pigeon holed everyone by caste and if we could not find a true caste for them, labelled them with the name of hereditary occupation. We deplore the caste system and its effect on social and economic problems, but we are largely responsible for the system we deplore."

The road to legislation

Much of the push for legislation has come from the Dalit Freedom Network, who have lobbied the government both at home and also on an international scale to end discrimination aimed at Dalits. In the UK this culminated in the NIESR report, looking into and documenting incidents of caste discrimination. The discrimination noted, which are essentially isolated cases, have caused some controversy and there have been calls from Sikh and Hindu groups to have the report removed, or at least to have a counter report produced.

The report lists discrimination that took place in Singh Sabha Gudwara in Southall for example, but does not provide enough context to the allegations and the publishers of the report did not themselves visit the Gudwara, despite being invited to do so. With such huge objections to the claims made in the report, it appears odd that it was used by the Lords as the be all and end all in the debates. When I raised this point to Lord Avebury he simply said it doesn’t matter anymore and that legislation needed to be brought in regardless.

The rhetoric bounded about by the Lords was based around the idea that nobody should be discriminated on the basis of things they cannot help, when little mention was made to the fact that people are discriminated on along class lines in the UK without much fuss from policy makers. This is a point raised in the Lords debate by Baroness Stowell of Beeston who remarked '''People suffer prejudice in this country because of their class and we have no legislation on that.'' One major concern that anti-caste legislation campaigners have is that a movement to enshrine caste into law will only harden people’s caste identities, by officially creating divisions between British Indians and thus institutionalize any discrimination

Does discrimination happen?

Lord Avebury kindly pointed out to me that Guru Nanak declared: "In his mother's womb no man knows his caste". The fact that there is no caste or division between people is a central tenant of Sikhism and so to suggest that caste based discrimination is occurring in Gudwara's is arguably offensive to many British Sikhs.

Of course it is possible (and even likely) that some discrimination has taken place in isolated incidents, but, any legislation should be as a last resort, after all consultative measures have been exhausted. The limited discrimination that does take place should and could be dealt with by increased dialogue between communities, rather than knee-jerk, divisive (as Valerie Vaz MP noted) legislation. It might also be a good start to produce a new report, with extensive research done into alleged discrimination and with attempts made to consult as many groups as possible in the process.

Any debates surrounding caste must consider the fact that it certainly is to a large degree a colonial creation and failure to acknowledge that will lead to a failure to truly understand the issue. Imposing legislation, based on incorrect and at times orientalist statements in the House of Lords is certainly not the answer to any given discrimination. It is also perhaps worth pondering whether it is time to legislate on class based discrimination, if in fact the Lords are committed to ending all forms of discrimination.


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