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Why is the UK government wheeling back on legislation against caste discrimination?

Appeasing votebanks of the Hindu right, instead of legislation, a consultation has been launched which serves to obscure the ugly reality of caste-based discrimination which is alive and well in Britain.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is presented with a garland of blossoms in celebration of Hindu new year as he arrives at Heathrow Airport, London, for an official three day visit in 2015. Jonathan Brady/PA Images. All rights reserved.Back in the 70s, when Bhangra – the popular Punjabi dance music – first hit the scene at South Asian parties and social events, it was about South Asian unity and fighting racism. Now all too often its inherent machismo is directed at glorifying Jats, a powerful farming caste in India, and often insulting oppressed-caste men and women.

What has happened in Bhangra is only one aspect of the ugly caste prejudice and discrimination, which is now, more than ever, dividing South Asian communities – particularly Sikhs and Hindus (although caste prejudice exists among South Asian Muslims and Christians too). Since 2005, major campaigning by the UK's Dalit organisations has called for legislation outlawing caste discrimination. 

As a result, such a law has effectively been passed, with the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 imposing a 'duty' on the government to make caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act of 2010. 

However, ignoring all legal norms, the government has failed to comply with this duty. Instead it appears to be backtracking. Despite substantial evidence of the need for legislation it has launched a public consultation, which asks not whether the law is likely to be strong enough in its present form to be effective, but whether it might not “stereotype... certain ethnic groups” or “potentially have unintended consequences for members of those groups naturally associated with... caste”. 

The consultation also suggests that the law could be abandoned in favour of reliance on the development of case law, pointing to a case (Tirkey vs Chandok) where an adivasi (indigenous Indian) domestic worker, successfully brought a claim against her employer, for breaches of employment law and won damages under the Equality Act for discrimination on grounds of religion and race (Waughray, 2014). 

However, as UK's major Dalit organisations wrote in a recent joint letter to the Minister for Equalities, Justine Greening, the assumption that case law would lead to a change is baseless “it is unlikely that case law will be developed because of the major risk of cases being unsuccessful... no one [including Ms Tirkey] has succeeded in a claim for discrimination specifically on the grounds of caste under the Equality Act.” The letter has so far received no reply.

According to Satpal Muman of Castewatch UK, the largest Dalit organisation in Britain, the consultation, written as it is in impenetrable legalistic language, is a smokescreen by which to obscure the bitter everyday experiences of caste prejudice, 'untouchability', and other features of the ideology of the pre-modern caste system which is still alive and well in the South Asian diaspora in Britain. He directs me to his organisation's documentation of cases of elderly patients being refused care because 'upper-caste' medical professionals will not touch them, or workers being sidelined, or refused promotion, and school children being bullied for reasons of caste.

The consultation is a smokescreen by which to obscure the bitter everyday experiences of caste prejudice, 'untouchability', and other features of the ideology of the pre-modern caste system which is still alive and well in the South Asian diaspora in Britain.

Dalit women in West London told me of sexualised casteist slurs thrown at them in supermarkets, beauty parlours and other public spaces. A law against caste discrimination could clearly be used to combat some of these incidents. 

In the numerous cases that occur in the private arena, the law will not be directly applicable but may act as a deterrent. In relationships and marriages, for example, where transgressing caste boundaries lead to emotional and sometimes physical abuse. As Manju (not her real name), a Dalit married to a man of a 'higher caste', put it: “it does not matter how much money you have in the bank or how many degrees you have under your belt, they see your caste as defining you… I was not allowed to go into the kitchen or to touch food because I was considered impure…".

“In recent years, caste prejudice has, if anything, becoming more entrenched in this country,” says Meena Varma of the Dalit Solidarity Network. There appear to be two interlinked reasons for this. Firstly, in recent years and particularly since Modi came to power, there has been a horrific increase in violence against minorities (Muslims, Christians and Dalits) in India, with Hindu supremacist killer gangs and vigilante squads allied to the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) raping, killing and lynching with apparent impunity. 

Secondly, as I wrote back in 2006, Hindu supremacist organisations in the UK have built a solid base in Britain. Among these is the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), the overseas wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the ideological heart of the Hindu right. The RSS's second Sarsanghchalak – or supreme leader – Golwalkar, saw Hitler's treatment of Jews as a model of 'race pride', which India should emulate, and believed that Dalits should see their 'ascribed task' of cleaning toilets and sewers by hand as a 'selfless service' and a form of worship

The HSS was investigated for hate speech and, in a meaningless gesture, asked by the Charity Commissioner to keep away from the RSS, its parent body. At the same time, the RSS itself is considered so respectable in Britain that Treasury minister Priti Patel has openly expressed her admiration for it and MPs like Bob Blackman MP for Harrow East have been delighted to share platforms with RSS leaders at HSS events. 

Since Narendra Modi came to power in India, a plethora of right-wing Hindu organisations – the Hindu Forum of Britain, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the National Hindu students' Forum UK, among others – have dug their tentacles even deeper into Indian communities. These groups, together with MPs like Blackman and a very small number of academics like Prakash Shah, Reader in Law at QMUL, have come together to lobby against the law.

“I was not allowed to go into the kitchen or to touch food because I was considered impure…"

Blackman's views appear to rest on the fact that he depends on the bank of votes created by right-wing Hindu organisations in Harrow East. So powerful is this constituency that columnists in papers like the widely read Asian Voice can tell Labour MPs they will no longer be receiving votes, because Labour is a party whose “elected MPs attack the land of my forefathers, India'’. In other words, they will brook no criticism of Narendra Modi's government, not on human rights, nor anything else. This may be why Blackman claims, with a confident disregard for logic, that legislation outlawing caste is likely to cause segregation.

As for Prakash Shah, he is quite open about his political position. He recently invited Makarand Paranjape, an extreme-right Hindu ideologue and Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi to speak at QMUL, and listened approvingly while Paranjape heaped scorn on his Dalit students. In his book 'Against Caste in British Law', Shah describes the legislation as a 'threat to Indian businesses and to the well-being and existence of the Indian communities' which would cause distress and create “a climate of intimidation”. 

Shah's melodramatic language suggests that what is at stake here is not just the legislation outlawing caste discrimination, but a demonstration of the power of right-wing Hindu forces in Britain and their ability to get their own way. 

Post-Brexit, this is also a time when Theresa May is seeking trade deals with India, and wanting to keep on good terms with the Indian CEOs in possession of multinational empires whose names frequently appear on UK ‘rich lists’ – men like Swraj Paul, Anil Agarwal and Laxmi Mittal who are full of adulation for Narendra Modi.

Like them she is not interested in Modi's abysmal human rights record or his ominous silences in the face of atrocities like the burning alive of two young Dalit children in their homes by 'upper castes' on the outskirts of Delhi. May is unlikely to want to rock the Hindu right's boat by supporting legislation that outlaws caste. But the campaigners say due process is on their side. “It will be a struggle,” says Satpal Muman, “but we are ready for it. We won't give up”.

About the author

Amrit Wilson is an activist and writer on issues of gender and race. Her books on South Asian women in Britain include the ‘Finding a Voice – Asian women in Britain’ (Virago) and ‘Dreams Questions and Struggles –South Asian women in Britain’ (Pluto Press). She is a founder member of South Asia Solidarity Group, and board member of Imkaan, a Black, South Asian and minority ethnic women’s organisation dedicated to combating violence against women in Britain.           

 


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