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Britain backs off anti-caste discrimination legislation

Vidya Ram London | Updated on July 23, 2018 Published on July 23, 2018

The British government won’t recognise caste as an aspect of race in anti-discrimination legislation, following a consultation, and despite a legislative amendment that required the government to introduce legal protections, in a move that was condemned by Dalit organisations, opposition parties and other campaign groups.

Following a consultation last year, the government on Monday pointed to “the extremely low number” of cases involved and the “clearly controversial nature” of introducing caste, insisting that reliance on case-law and the ability for people to bring claims of caste discrimination under “ethnic origins” was the solution that would promote “community cohesion” and be “likely to create less friction.”

“The government has sent a depressing message to the Dalit community that their cause is not important and they will continue to face discrimination with impunity,” said Sat Pal Muman, Chair of CasteWatchUK, who accused the government of caving in to the demands of the anti-law lobby “for political reasons with an eye on votes… This clearly means the victims will not have any legal protection and have to go through expensive log drawn legal battle to get justice.”

The Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance said it was “outraged” by the decision to repeal a law that had been agreed by Parliament and endorsed by the UN, and supported by the government’s own Equalities and Human Rights Commission. “This decision goes in favour of those who continue to practice caste prejudice in the UK.”

“It is very disappointing that the Government has performed a U-turn on the decision to bring caste discrimination under equality law,” said Dawn Butler, the Labour Party’s spokesperson on equality issues. “Caste-based prejudice and discrimination is a gross violation of human rights and must not be tolerated.” In 2010, when the House of Lords voted to outlaw caste discrimination through the Equality Act by calling it an aspect of “race”, just like colour, nationality, and ethnic origin, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, then a backbencher, had led a parliamentary ‘early day motion’ to push for the House of Commons to implement the legislation.

The issue of incorporating caste discrimination into British legislation has been a matter of public debate for a number of years now. Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010, amended by Parliament in 2013, required the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race, and caste discrimination a form of race discrimination, but allowed for further consultations.

A 2014 tribunal case was seized on by those opposing the legislation, arguing that equality legislation relating to ethnic origins would be equally capable of dealing with caste discrimination. The subsequent government consultation last year triggered huge interest within Britain’s South Asian diaspora. Over 16,000 responses were given to the 13-question consultation, while roundtable meetings were held with groups opposing and supporting the legislation.

“The Government clearly feels under pressure not to upset high caste Hindus, both in the UK and India,” said Keith Porteous Wood, President of the National Secular Society, who raised the possibility of a legal challenge to the decision. “Legislation outlawing caste discrimination is the only way to provide legal protection at a reasonable cost. Case law remedies are uncertain and ruinously expensive as has already been demonstrated in the courts, where no one has yet succeeded in making a case.”

However, the decision was welcomed by other groups who had campaigned strongly on the issue. “What we’ve been saying has been validated,” said Trupti Patel, President of the Hindu Forum of Britain, which campaigned heavily on the issue alongside the National Council of Hindu Temples (UK), arguing that the legislation would be unnecessary and discriminatory “to us and our future generations.” “We dealt with the issue extremely professionally, consulting our community…we are extremely pleased that our hard work has shown results.”

The government insisted that the consultation was a “qualitative” rather than a “quantitative one” that would look for “persuasive arguments” for the options, in particular the choice between relying on case law and making caste an aspect of race. In total, 8,513 responses pressed for a reliance on “case law” and 2,885 made the case for legislation.

However, when the consultation was first launched, campaigners supportive of the legislation argued that there were “serious shortfalls” in the structure of the consultation and that it was “biased against bringing in legislation.”

“In my thirty years in Parliament I cannot recall one that is so misleading and biased,” wrote Graham Allen, a former Labour MP in an open letter last year, following the launch of the consultation. “The clear intention is to delay – probably for ever – legislative protection against caste discrimination, the sort of disadvantage that the PM spoke about rooting out when she was appointed”.

The issue has divided the British South Asian diaspora, with heated public debates taking place ahead of the consultation launch. It became a political issue at the last general election in June 2017 as the Liberal Democrats committed to outlawing caste discrimination in their manifesto.

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Published on July 23, 2018
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