‘Caste’ it away, or weave into law?

UK’s Indian groups debate possible incorporation of anti-caste measures into legislation

London, November 24



The British government is yet to announce the details of its planned consultation on incorporating protection against caste discrimination into an equality law, but within the Indian community, the debate is already on in full swing.

On Wednesday evening, the Indian Forum on British Media held a public debate in a House of Commons committee room, aimed at providing a “balanced picture” of the issues at hand. The packed meeting was testament to the strong feelings the legislation has garnered.

“The issue of legislation on caste has generated more interest and more involvement [from the UK Indian community] than any other issue I have ever encountered,” Bob Blackman, the Conservative MP for Harrow East, and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for British Hindus, told the gathering. Blackman, who argued against the need for legislation, warned that it would lead to “completely unnecessary interference” and a “bureaucratic nightmare of proportions the Hindu community would not want to be seen”.

Others who supported his view included Trupti Patel, President of the Hindu Forum of Britain, who said surveys held by her organisation had found scant evidence of discrimination, and that the legislation would — by making the young aware of their caste for the first time — create segregation, and even encourage people to make unfounded complaints against their employers. Her thoughts were echoed by Satish Sharma, General Secretary of the Council of Hindu Temples, who argued that the legislation would be a “recipe for disaster”, creating friction within the Indian community.

Speaking in support of the legislation was Satpal Muman, Chair of Caste Watch UK, who criticised “the lies” that were being told about the implications of the legislation. “This is not about invading the religious and cultural space. It is purely targeted at discrimination in the public sphere.” “[Protection against] caste discrimination is a human right,” he added, stressing that even if a small section of people believed in the caste system it had an impact on the lives of people.

Saundevan Aparanti, a London-based actor and activist challenged the argument that discrimination wasn’t taking place in the UK, pointing to instances such as wedding venues refusing to host receptions or healthcare workers refusing to care for an elderly woman because of caste. “Britain will send a strong signal to the world that it does not tolerate discrimination.” George Kunnath, a lecturer in Modern Indian Studies at Oxford, pointed to the entrenched nature of the caste system and its ability to travel across both religious and geographic boundaries to profoundly impact communities worldwide. “It might express itself in different ways but caste discrimination is there,” he said. The campaign was not an “anti-religion stance” but about the “Dalit struggle for freedom and dignity”.

The British government announced the consultation at the start of September — a move treated with scepticism by supporters of the legislation, given that Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010, which was amended by Parliament in 2013, already required the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race, and caste discrimination a form of race discrimination.

Published on November 24, 2016

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