Opposing caste discrimination in Britain

By Savi Hensman
August 14, 2017

The British government is consulting on banning caste discrimination. This faces strong opposition from those who defend inequality. Yet if enough people speak up, those at risk of injustice can be protected.

Across South Asia and among those of South Asian descent, caste discrimination persists despite struggles against its divisive and sometimes degrading effects. Dalits in particular have been at the receiving end.

Some try to justify this by citing Hindu tradition. Yet many Hindus oppose caste inequality, while this does go on in supposedly egalitarian faith communities such as Christians, Muslims and Sikhs.

The rise of the far right in India in recent years, using a distorted version of Hinduism in its quest for power, has had an international impact. Sections of the UK government, and some opposition MPs, have close links with this movement or wish to appease it for electoral, commercial or foreign policy purposes.

This reluctance to speak out continues, despite brutal attacks in India on Muslims and Christians, Dalit and human rights campaigners and undermining of freedoms. Ongoing caste prejudice often goes together with negative attitudes to other minorities and women, as well as militaristic sentiments.

Pro-discrimination activists have claimed that caste discrimination is not a significant problem in the UK and that existing laws are adequate. Legislation against racial discrimination may cover caste, some case law indicates. Yet until this is made explicit, it will be hard to protect the most vulnerable. For instance low-paid workers or private tenants may not even realise they have a chance of protection.

In addition children will not grow up with the clear message that treating some people as superior, and others as mattering less, on caste or other grounds is wrong.

Scaremongering among South Asian communities has included claims that this might cause problems for businesses. However the usual measures to ensure equal opportunities will also protect against claims of caste discrimination.

Despite the weakness of arguments against including caste in equalities laws, such tactics have paid off so far. In 2008, the UK government backed away from legally prohibiting caste discrimination in Britain, claiming there was no strong evidence it was a problem.

However the House of Lords made sure that the Equality Act 2010 contained a power to add caste to the definition of race. The government commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research to conduct research on the issue. This found that adults and even children were indeed facing harassment and other forms of discrimination.

One respondent explained that caste-based bullying at work “nearly destroyed my life.” Another described that being treated as unequal “makes us feel like a piece of dirt.”

Nevertheless, ministers were reluctant to legislate. But in 2013 Parliament decided that the law would be changed to make it clear that caste discrimination was a form of race discrimination and thus unlawful.

Consultation is finally underway on the wording of the change. Because of the well-organised opposition to any real shift and the government’s fear of offending the Indian far right, there is a risk that proposals will be watered down, so that they are largely ineffective.

So those seeking an end to caste discrimination in Britain today are urging people of goodwill to send in their views. As with other forms of anti-discriminatory legislation, it can help to create a more just society and world, where people respect one another.

* Details of the consultation, including how to respond, can be found here

*The South Asia Solidarity Group offers a handy guide here, with suggestions that can be adapted. The closing date is 18 September 2017.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.