When I first heard about caste based discrimination faced by people in Britain, I was appalled; I thought it would be one of those things people would prefer not to carry with them. Caste is an oppressive system of social stratification based upon occupation and the basis of one’s birth. In South Asia, the traditional caste system rooted in the Hindu religion begins with Brahmins (priests, academics) at the top, and continues downwards to Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (business community, minor officials) and then Sudras (unskilled workers). Beneath this hierarchy are those considered untouchables or Dalits who perform menial services. Caste systems are also found in Africa, other parts of Asia and the Middle East.
So how prevalent is caste discrimination in 21st century Britain? A study by the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) in 2009 showed that 58% of survey responses confirmed they had been discriminated against because of their caste. There have been cases of name calling ‘chamar’ or ‘churra’, names as derogatory as calling a black person a ‘n*****’, or calling people from Indo-Pakistan a ‘Paki’. There have been cases in Britain such as those of a carer refusing to bathe an ailing patient because the patient was from a lower caste and a case of a couple who were dismissed from work on the grounds that they were married but were not of the same caste.
Caste based prejudice seems to be ever present in work, education, provision of goods and services and pupil on pupil bullying. Forty five percent of people who responded to the survey stated that they had been treated unfairly by their co-workers, 42% were victimised by fellow pupils at school and 25% stated their family doctor had asked them directly or indirectly about their caste.
There is a strong need for legislation against caste based discrimination in the UK. I am pleased that the UK Government has finally recognised this, and Section 9 (5) a of the Equality Act 2010 can now be activated and will offer protection for people faced with discrimination based on caste.
Until today, the Government had argued that an education programme alone would (probably) do the job of wiping away caste based oppression present in our society. But last week the Lords voted for specific legislation; the Commons overturned this back to the original Government position, but yesterday, the Lords voted once again to retain their original amendment.
Today (23 April 2013), the Government conceded on the principle and has now tabled an amendment which requires the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations to include Caste as a protected characteristic, (an aspect of Race) within two months of enactment of the Enterprise Bill.
There are estimated to be around 400,000 ‘low caste’ people in Britain. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) in its report in 2011 advocated that legislation would send the right message across communities and would reduce the extent of caste based victimisation and harassment. If legislation was in place, it would be easier for courts to decipher discrimination based on caste, religion and belief as currently it’s a grey area. And most importantly, it would urge people to report cases of caste discrimination; the lack of confidence in doing this is illustrated by the fact that the ACDA survey found that 79% of respondents believed that the UK police would not understand it if cases were reported.
Although caste and race cannot be equated, like race, caste involves inequality and prejudice based on birth and descent, it makes a person feel sub-human.
Legislation is one step forward to putting an end to caste based discrimination in the UK and realizing the basic right for every human being to be free and equal in dignity and rights.