|Stacked in a box: A caste exhibit at Horniman Museum, South London|
In November 2009, a report on caste in the United Kingdom was issued by a Derby-based group called the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA). It showed that caste discrimination, far from having been eliminated through migration and resettlement, was alive and thriving in the large Southasian communities of the UK. Of course, despite their disturbing nature, the revelations are not surprising: immigrant communities often carry with them the most vicious dispositions and hierarchies of the societies they travel away from geographically. Indeed, such communities often entrench such biases further as they settle into other (at times hostile) cultures, and as they carve out new political niches for themselves.
Often seen within a liberal multicultural and human-rights framework as homogeneously victimised by racism and anti-immigrant sentiments, Southasian communities in Britain often escape nuanced critical scrutiny (the unbalanced denunciations by anti-immigration campaigners and racists being a separate matter). In the current climate of a national preoccupation with Islam in the context of the US-led ‘war on terror’, British Hindu and Sikh communities have become even less accountable for some of the more unsavoury features of their collective existence. This has been particularly so as some of their high-profile spokespeople have made concerted attempts to distance both communities from Muslims, arguing that they are better assimilated and make a more positive contribution to the ‘host’ community.
Gender-related crimes in minority communities in Britain have received a degree of attention through the invariably sensationalised nature of such phenomena as the so-called ‘honour killings’ and forced marriages, and have registered on the political radar through the activism of groups such as the Southall Black Sisters. Yet the more insidious and invisible nature of caste hostility and discrimination has meant that it has been a struggle to get the issue recognised as one that adversely affects tens of thousands of Southasian Britons. Over the last several years, however, organisations such as the ACDA, as well as CasteWatchUK and the Dalit Solidarity Network, have been working to bring attention to the issue of caste discrimination. CasteWatch’s work had already drawn attention to some of the concerns reported in ADCA’s 2009 report. Slowly but surely, the issue is beginning to push at the edges of the larger debate about the nature and diversity of discrimination and hate crimes.
It should be noted that the horrific anti-Dalit violence and atrocities of the sort that routinely erupt in India and elsewhere are not duplicated in Britain. At the same time, what the ACDA report makes clear is that within British Southasian communities, already fragmented into religious groupings, caste still determines patterns of social interaction. It is also clear that those perceived to be from ‘lower’ castes, particularly Dalits, are routinely subjected to hostile behaviour ranging from intrusive and unwelcome questioning about caste status, unspoken disapproval and verbal insults (including deploying chamar and chuhra as pejoratives), to forms of social exclusion and outright discrimination in schools, workplaces, places of worship and within the eldercare and hospital systems. A pub in Bedford, in the east of England, is apparently known as the ‘Chamar Pub’ due to perceptions about its clientele. The former mayor of Coventry, a person of Dalit origin, felt it necessary to shift his campaign from a mostly Indian ward to a non-Southasian constituency in order to get elected to that post. There are accounts of workers being demoted at work once his or her caste is ‘found out’. Others are not allowed to work shifts with high-caste colleagues; nurses have refused to bathe low-caste patients; and children report being teased at school for being Chamar.
Meanwhile, complaints to non-Southasian supervisors about name-calling are often met with incomprehension. If there was any doubt about the existence of the phenomenon, an angry hate mail sent to CasteWatch UK for its involvement in equality campaigning speaks volumes: “Chhoti jaat chhoti hi rahegi. Kauve ko tilak lane se vo hans nahin banta…kutte the, kutte ho, kutte hi rahoge” (Low castes will remain low. Putting a tilak on a crow does not turn him into a swan … You were dogs, you are dogs, you will remain dogs).
If they dealt with other forms of identity – gender, race, sexuality or religion – such behaviour would generally be enough to be taken seriously, possibly even inviting legal action. Many such incidents are, after all, clear violations of British ‘Dignity at Work’ and anti-bullying policies. But there is concern among British Dalits that were they to report a hate crime as motivated by caste hostility, they would not be understood by the police. Caste as a concept and category is poorly understood in England, and there has been a real and not entirely accidental reluctance to acknowledge its persistence and pernicious actuality on the part of officials.
Two important factors have contributed to this willed looking-away on the part of the British government. The first is the vehement lobbying by groups such as the Hindu Council UK and the Hindu Forum of Britain – both of which share historical links to chauvinist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the memberships of which are heavily dominated by upper-caste Hindus. The second is the insistence of the Indian government in high-profile forums such as the UN Racism Conference, where activists have tried to raise the issue, that caste discrimination cannot be equated with racial discrimination. Therefore, despite the claims by some, it is not clear that caste discrimination in Britain will be redressed without challenge under existing race-discrimination legislation.
The result of this political avoidance is that no quantifiable research has been carried out on the question of caste discrimination. In turn, this lack of ‘hard’ data enables claims that there is no ‘strong evidence’ of it. Until now, such discrimination has therefore not been explicitly prohibited by UK law; and despite the sustained work of a handful of parliamentarians (such as Jeremy Corbyn, Anthony Lester and Rob Marris), until very recently it had appeared that caste would not be covered by the Equality Bill currently going through Parliament, which would bring disability, sex, race and other grounds of discrimination under one piece of legislation.
The demand made by activists was fairly simple and, on the face of it, unexceptionable: that ‘caste’ be added to a list that already includes ethnicity and race as categories protected from discrimination. It is hard to see why this would be a problem, however minor the presence of this form of discrimination is perceived to be. At worst, there would be no need to invoke the new legislation; at best, it would afford protection to those at the receiving end of caste discrimination. There has now been something of a victory for campaigners: while ‘caste’ will not be included directly in the language of the new Equality Bill as a separate category, provision has been made for ministers to amend Clause 9 (on Race) “so as to provide for caste to be an aspect of race”.
While dismissing the issue of caste discrimination as non-existent, groups such as the Hindu Forum and Hindu Council, which have perfected the art of putting themselves forward as representative of the entire British Indian community, have protested loudly at caste being included in any anti-discrimination legislation. The same liberal multiculturalism that has allowed for stratification within communities to be overlooked also facilitates the undue prominence of their self-interested view – as articulated by the minister for communities and local government, Dorothea Glenys Thornton, “legislation is the wrong option to cure what they primarily see as a cultural matter.” While such so-called community organisations are happy to benefit from diversity and multicultural policies when it suits them – their own misdemeanours often sheltered under legislation that protects minorities and their religious beliefs – they seem unwilling to have those protections extended to minorities among them.
If caste is, indeed, not an issue for Southasian Britons and British Hindus in particular, then it is remarkable that the Hindu Council UK (HCUK) thought it necessary to issue a 30-page report underlining how unimportant and irrelevant it is. In a 2008 document, the Hindu Council utilised a great deal of ink to show precisely how ‘irrelevant’ caste is. In the style of magisterial ignorance long cultivated by the HCUK general-secretary, Anil Bhanot, the foreword stated, “the caste-system in the last millennia did develop an over-protectionist streak, mostly due to the oppressions of foreign rule” but that “the caste phenomenon [in the UK] has evolved into more of a ‘clan’ system, where people draw support from each other as if in a club.” Moreover, there is evidently a risk of “an unwelcome interference by the host community” and a danger that Hindu society would lose “its respect for the Hindu priest … as people develop misguided contempt for the Brahmin and attempt to do away with the core and beautiful values under which Adi-Manu, the first man to civilise the world, created the original caste system.” Thus, in the HCUK’s incoherent view, the caste system no longer exists except as a club activity, its core “beautiful” values must nevertheless be shored up. Such are the organisations that the British government thinks it must consult before deciding whether to include caste as a category for protection from discrimination.
Another specious argument that has reared its head is the idea that caste is somehow more fluid than other protected categories. British politicians have argued against attempts to define caste in terms of “hereditary, ascribed and permanent … social stratification” (as noted by in the British Parliament on 11 January), by suggesting that the fact that a woman might change her caste upon marriage shows that “caste is not always permanent.” However, race is not a biologically fixed category either, but likewise a historically constructed and shaped construct, even if characteristics such as skin colour and hair texture figure in its definition. At the same time, it is rightly seen as a category to be protected from discrimination. To argue that because a woman’s caste can change upon marriage renders the category somehow less recognisable than others is to suggest that people do not, for instance, change their sexual preferences and behaviour. Second, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which the UK is a party, does now include discrimination based on ‘descent’, which as an inherited social status must surely apply to caste. At the same time, though, insisting that it is a domestic concern, the Indian government has repeatedly refused to allow the issue of caste to be considered within an international legal framework – domestic legislation and its own constitutional obligations notwithstanding.
The decision to allow the Equality Bill’s clause on race to be amended to allow for a Minister of the Crown to “provide for caste to be an aspect of race” is a significant step forward. At the same time, it is one that will only be meaningful only if there is wider acknowledgement and awareness of the problem. It is time to salute the sustained lobbying of campaigners and sympathetic parliamentarians, while at the same time needing to further investigate the issue and remain vigilant. In this matter, as in others, it is essential that organisations such as the Hindu Council and Hindu Forum are shown to be operating with self-interested agendas and skewed perspectives, which deny the persistence of historical wrongs and structural social inequalities. To this end, all progressive Southasians and Britons alike must throw their weight behind legislation that will unambiguously outlaw caste discrimination, along with all other forms of hatred.
~ Priyamvada Gopal is an academic and writer based in Cambridge, UK.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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