British MPs refuse to outlaw caste discrimination

Hundreds of people protested outside London’s Houses of Parliament on 14 April to demand that caste oppression in Britain be outlawed. A 2010 attempt to illegalise the discrimination suffered by many in the South Asian communities was rejected by all three parties. This time MPs again voted against adding caste discrimination to the Equality Act by 307 to 243.

In 2010 parliament accepted a compromise motion from Labour left John McDonnell to undertake research, which has now been published. Outrageously, during the recent parliamentary debate, ministers led by Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister, Jo Swinson, continued to claim there is insufficient evidence of the extent of caste discrimination.

Not only has ample evidence been uncovered by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR), hundreds of victims of this horrendous discrimination were standing right outside parliament at the time. Further devastating testimonials have been reported in the press.

The NIESR research showed caste-based discrimination in schools and workplaces in Britain. In one incident a student was refused entry to a school. There are many complaints of upper-caste carers refusing to provide care for oppressed-caste patients.

Recently the tribunal case of Vijay Begraj, a victim of caste discrimination at work, was thrown out as the judge was given information that she claimed could have impaired her ability to provide an ‘impartial’ judgement. During the case stones were thrown at the house of the director of Castewatch UK who gave evidence.

There have even been murders related to mixed caste marriages in the past and mixed couples who want to marry still receive death threats. But the government refuses to take action.

While caste oppression can be largely invisible to wider society, it causes enormous pain to those subjected to it. An estimated 400,000 ‘low-caste’ people live in Britain. Swinson and those who opposed the amendment argued for education rather than legislation – but both are necessary.

Caste is a remnant of feudalism, where society was divided into hierarchical groups. People are forced to assume their caste by birth. Marriage between different castes is forbidden. Hinduism acts as the backbone in preserving the caste system but it is also defended by those who enjoy the resulting privileges, such as those from the upper caste and those who use caste division to advance and defend their own interests. Although caste discrimination is illegal in India, hundreds of low- or oppressed-caste people suffer it every day.

The debate revealed that the government, in defence of the status quo, is working closely with the very organisations that fuel caste oppression – the Hindu Council UK, the Hindu Forum of Britain and other organisations that are led by high-caste Hindus.

The managing director of the Hindu Council UK, Anil Bhanot, claimed that the “caste phenomenon here has now evolved into more of a clan system” and “there is no discrimination in this”. He asks “how can such a clubbing together of people be other than a healthy and cohesive force in society?”. This indirect argument for segregation has also been used by successive governments in Britain.

Soon after New Labour came to power in 1997 it promoted academies and faith schools – in reality steps towards the privatisation of education. A report earlier this year from the Academies Commission warned that the Con-Dem government’s acceleration of this process risks segregation amongst students.

But the Hindu elite seized the opportunity. The Krishna Avanti Primary, the first Hindu school in Britain, claims to promote “responsible lifestyles through a vegetarian diet, a curriculum that integrates yoga and meditation, and a built environment that actively fosters environmental concern… by drawing on the teachings of Krishna Chaitanya” and it claims to achieve “spontaneous relationship with the divine (Krishna)”. But given many oppressed-caste people pray to a different Hindu deity, this makes the school exclusive to the higher castes.

While claiming they do not practice ‘untouchability’, the Hindu Council defends it. A Hindu Council statement attacks those who criticise untouchability in Britain while ignoring similar practices in their own countries. Incredibly they claim that: “There are now record levels of homeless people in the UK, who are analogous with the outcasts of Indian society. British menial workers seldom interact socially with those of the higher echelons”.

Conservative MP, Alok Sharma, who defends academisation, privatisation and privileged schooling, also defends the Hindu Council vehemently. He argues that “class discrimination exists, as do other forms of discrimination, but we follow other approaches for those, rather than legislation”.

The accusation that class discrimination is often confused with caste discrimination is used by the Hindu elite to gain support. In Britain they rely on the ruling class’s ignorance of South Indian society, portraying Hinduism as a monolithic religion and India as a country of Hindus.

Atrocities committed by British imperialism in South Asia have been used to argue that no one from Britain has a right to meddle in the affairs of Asian people in Britain. This is combined with the idea that ‘immigrant communities’ should have a certain level of autonomy. In reality this means that an often conservative and right-wing leadership of these communities is consciously promoted by the main parties, New Labour in particular. This has provided ‘stewards’ to shepherd what Labour sees as reliable block votes from them and to hold back resistance to the discrimination that working class and poor black and Asian people suffer in Britain.

However Dalits and other oppressed caste people in Britain have begun to raise their voices and to protest against the promotion of upper-caste Hindus by the government. The growing protest has pushed some Labour politicians to act, at least paying lip-service to their cause.

Neither the Equality Bill nor any anti-racist laws in Britain cover caste discrimination, leaving victims unable to challenge it legally. Outlawing caste discrimination would encourage victims to come forward as happened after the outlawing of race discrimination.

However, as in the case of legislation against racism, a law in itself will not change conditions and prevent discrimination. In fact there is no doubt that the ruling class will continue their collaboration with what is really a feudal elite in each ‘community’, promoting inequality for their own economic and electoral interests.

In relation to the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence 20 years ago, the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, and Vijay Begraj’s tribunal, the police and justice system have not delivered satisfactory outcomes. As the parliamentary debate showed, human rights will not generally take precedence over class interests for the defenders of capitalism. The Con-Dem government will vigorously defend their allies, the Hindu elite and their businesses, including the profit-making temples and faith schools.

Those who are fighting against caste domination must unite with their allies such as trade unionists, organised students and socialists. Tamil Solidarity supports the fightback of the Dalits and all other oppressed castes.  

TU Senan