The UK is home to over three million South Asians as per the 2011 Census and many believe that they carry with them the baggage of caste, which afflicts the sub-continent, when they move. There is now a growing call in the UK to implement the Equality Act 2010, which has been enacted by the British parliament but is yet to come into force.
Rights groups opposed to caste-based discrimination in the UK want caste to be equated with race, colour and gender when it comes to discrimination, and are opposing Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent decision to undertake a full public consultation on the law, which has already been passed by parliament. They are also insisting that the delay in implementation of the Act has been due to immense pressure mounted by the powerful Hindu lobby.
Santosh Dass, spokesperson of the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA), an umbrella body formed in 2008 of groups and organisation working to eliminate caste discrimination, told The Wire that the UK government’s announcement on September 2 to undertake a full public consultation on the Act has come in the wake of the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s (CERD) call to invoke without further delay Section 9(5)a of the Equality Act.
“Section 9(5)a required that the minister or the government may say at some point that caste be an offset for race within the equality legislation. What happened after that the government conducted a search and it was established that there was caste discrimination. It was published in December 2010 but then nothing happened. The UK government has given a number of excuses since 2010 for not implementing the law. First, they said ‘caste is complex and hard to define’, then they claimed ‘there is no consensus for the law’. All the parties agreed to implement that particular clause. Instead of saying that the government or minister ‘may’ implement the law. In April 2013 the parliament agreed that the government or minister ‘must’ implement it,” Dass said.
Now the battle is set to start again for Dass and her associates, who have been fighting to raise the issue of caste discrimination. “A key aim of the consultation will be to obtain the views of the public on whether additional measures are needed to ensure victims of caste discrimination have appropriate legal protection and effective remedies under the Equality Act”, she said, adding that before taking any decision, the government, as per its statement, “will carefully consider the responses to the consultation, which will run for 12 weeks from its commencement date”.
For the ACDA, the fight is about securing equality and ending discrimination. As Dass put it: “It has to do with caste discrimination. It deals with people of all castes, not just backward castes. We believe such discrimination is no different from race, colour or gender discrimination.”
Moreover, she said although the Hindu groups have been opposing the legislation, caste discrimination is also prevalent among Muslims and Christians. “Even in other countries there are issues of caste. Even among Muslims, or those who have converted, the discrimination due to biradari system continues. Even among Christianity, you can have a Christian who may have converted and would have been a Dalit earlier. When they are asked details about their past, that leads to discrimination later on.”
Dass said the experiences of caste discrimination of people in the UK have been similar to those in the sub-continent. “We surveyed 300 people in 2009 and about 10% of them said they were discriminated against at the work place. Some said they were called derogatory names, which in India would invite strict action under the SC/ST Act. So, we want a similar hard law here.”
Extrapolating the figures from the sub-continent to arrive at the scale of discrimination, ACDA said, “The 2011 Census reported that there are 3,078,374 British South Asians (total of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi census categories) living in the UK. If we use an indicative 20% to establish the potential numbers of Dalits living in the UK we estimate that there are at least about 615,000 Dalits living in the UK. If the British Sri Lankan and British Nepali population were to be factored into the equation, the numbers of Dalits would be higher. We estimate that if just 5% of the estimated 615,000 Dalits are discriminated against in the UK, we are looking at least 30, 750 potential victims.”
However, there is a distinct difference between how caste is being viewed in UK and in the sub-continent. The Alliance has made clear that just like the government it too does not want to institutionalise caste. “We have always made it clear that we do not want government to interfere with who people wish to be friends with, marry or socialise with in private, according to their culture or faith. Nor has ACDA called for affirmative measures in terms of employment on caste grounds or government returns. All we ask for is legal redress and access to justice should the remedy for the discrimination have to go that far. Like other equality and justice measures, the law will help bring about a change in behaviours in respect of caste discrimination in the UK,” it said.
The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had also demanded that caste-based discrimination be explicitly prohibited under law and victims be provided access to effective remedies in the UK.
The ACDA had even submitted a shadow report to CERD for its meeting in August 2016 on the need for swift implementation of the Section 9(5)a of the EA2010. “We also challenged the government’s excuses for the delay with the implementation of the law, and the report achieved the required UN recommendation,” said Dass.
The ACDA, whose objectives include monitoring and opposing caste discrimination practices or policies, which result in and perpetuate caste prejudice in the UK and abroad, has now also expressed deep concern at the UK government’s decision to consult on the need for the law already agreed by parliament in April 2013. “The government is blatantly ignoring the will of parliament and the CERD’s recommendation that the law be brought into force without further delay,” Dass said.
“Caste discrimination is no different to discrimination on grounds of disability, gender, colour, age or sexuality in the UK. Why is the government seeking the views of potential perpetrators in respect of Caste discrimination law in the UK? By announcing such a consultation, Prime Minister May has shown us that she and her government is swerved by factions that militate against caste discrimination law on religious or whatever grounds,” Dass charged, demanding that the UK government face up to the incontestable fact that “wherever populations and communities from the South Asian diasporas go, caste discrimination travels with them”.