This April, UK became the first country outside South Asia to legislate against caste discrimination, bringing a sense of triumph to many in British-Asian circles finds out Dhanya Nair
There is a sense of triumph in some British-Asian circles. This April, UK became the first country outside South Asia to legislate against caste discrimination. dalits (previously called Untouchables) in the United Kingdom have recorded a landmark victory after the British parliament finally agreed to outlaw caste discrimination.
In a major U-turn, the House of Commons, which had earlier trashed an amendment to include caste among other forms of discrimination, voted for legal protection for the four lakh dalits living here. Jo Swinson, the equalities minister, told the House of Commons that the government recognised that caste discrimination existed in the UK and it was “unacceptable”. “Very strong views have been expressed in the Lords on this matter and we have reconsidered our position and agreed to introduce caste-related legislation,” she stated.
When I heard the news, I was puzzled. Yes, I am only too aware of racism but caste discrimination in UK?
According to Davinder Prasad, General Secretary of Caste Watch, one of the pioneer charities in the UK, to fight against this discrimination, caste issues hit the UK shores with the migration wave of the fifties and the sixties. It was the time when many from India, Pakistan and other parts of the sub-continent arrived for the first time in UK. “We were in a new, alien land starved for friendship and familiarity. We stayed together forgetting the differences regardless of our country, caste, creed or community. As time went by people got better jobs, got up in the economic ladder and the status quo kicked in,” explains Prasad.
In India, caste discrimination was found mainly among the Hindu community but in UK it transcended religious lines. Groups like Caste Watch and Dalit Solidarity Network have lobbied regularly and effectively in Britain. “When you are born in low caste, you are treated as a sub-human. Historically, Hindus who faced discrimination changed their faith but slowly caste crept in other religions too. In UK too you will see caste discrimination is rife not only among Hindus but among Muslims and Sikhs too. History has showed that the best way to eliminate discrimination is stronger laws,” says Prasad.
In India, it is all too common to hear about dalits who are killed and raped even today when they try to assert their constitutionally granted human rights. But how does it pan out in Britain? Here discrimination takes the form of abuse, subtle taunts and caste based humiliation in schools and offices and the oldest form of discrimination in the book—not giving promotion/job opportunities to people owing to their caste.
Caste discrimination also intensified because as someone in a foreign land you felt alienated from your culture. “I’ve met many families who invariably practiced caste discrimination because they wanted to retain their culture and stick to their roots,” says 24-year-old, Saira Macleod, half Indian-half Scottish film-maker whose film Segregation and Survival documents the story of this historical discrimination within India and its journey to Britain.
For many of Britain’s dalits, migration was an act of secession from an unjust social order. But these families soon found that prejudice was also an ingenious migrant that quickly raised its ugly head in an unfamiliar world.
Britain’s dalits agree that casteism is a bigger culprit because it focuses on a set hierarchy and is not characterised by an emotion. It prevents people from getting out of their hierarchy, denying them opportunities to grow. As caste is determined by birth it cannot be changed. Several British-Indian groups have opposed listing caste as an aspect of race on the academic point that a caste-race amalgamation is false and that education along with legislation will change mindsets.
“At least, people have an opinion about racism that it is wrong. The problem with casteism is that not many outside the South-Asian community are aware of it; hence they can’t even form an opinion,” says Macleod. In the absence of strong laws, talking and forming an opinion only makes it all the more difficult.
Yet, both are complimentary systems of oppression that feed off each other. Caste and race might not the same; but the experience of being made inferior either by casteism or racism is equally appalling. “For victims both are equally disturbing. Many South Asians would even say it is like a double whammy because we have to face White racism and caste discrimination too,” says Prasad. “But what makes things particularly challenging is that it is very difficult to make a White person understand that caste discrimination is not a part of our culture because of lack of strong laws,” he concludes.
According to a recent study conducted by independent experts appointed by the UN more than 260 million people across the world are still victims of human rights abuses due to caste-based discrimination. In such a scenario, the British government’s decision to include caste discrimination in the Equality Act to protect the dalits is an affirmative and a brave step forward that promises that their adopted country cares for their freedom.