Caste Across the Kalapani


Caste across the kalapani

BY SINTHUJAN VARATHARAJAH | 24 MAY 2013

The long struggle to outlaw caste-based discrimination in the UK finally succeeds.


The recently activated Section 9(5)(a) of the Equality Act 2010 prohibits caste discrimination in the UK, where B R Ambedkar, an icon of the anti-caste struggle, spent formative years as a student at the London School of Economics between 1916 and 1923. Photo: flickr / liitsMeanwhile, the British Government investigated just how prevalent caste-based discrimination was in the UK. It commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) to study the issue, and promised to consider the evidence before taking any final decisions on the matter. The NIESR’s study  was published in December 2010, two months after the Equality Act 2010 came into force. Its findings largely agreed with those of a joint study by the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) and several UK universities, reaffirming that caste-based discrimination, harassment and bullying occur in employment, education and social services in the UK. However, despite the weight of these findings and pressure from human rights activists, the UK government delayed its final decision. Frustrated activist groups such as the ACDA then voiced their discontent internationally, submitting a report on caste discrimination in the UK to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which promptly urged the government to bring activate Section 9(5)(a) and “amend it to provide for caste to be an aspect of race”.

‘Back to the caste system’

Anti-caste activists’ efforts did not go unchallenged. Many ‘upper caste’ British Hindu groups, and also some British policymakers, argued that caste discrimination did not exist outside Southasia, that it was confined to private (but not public) relations, or that legal amendments would not solve the problem. Other objections that caste discrimination only affects a small segment of British society, and so does not require special legal or political protection dismissed the fact that if equality is to be meaningful, it needs to be institutionalised for all, regardless of their numbers. Some even claimed that the ban on discrimination on grounds of ‘race, religion and belief’ would suffice to protect Dalits and other ‘low castes’, insinuating that caste discrimination was an inter-ethnic or inter-faith phenomenon and not, as it really is, the oppression of a minority within communities of more or less uniform faith, ethnicity and ancestral belonging.

Although the anti-caste movement (and also the caste-apologist movement) in the UK is largely driven by members of the Indian diaspora, caste-based discrimination is neither exclusively nor inherently Indian. It also exists among other Southasian religious and cultural communities – Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist and even Christians, from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and elsewhere – many of whom, consciously or subconsciously, negotiate social relations along the lines of caste, although the specific terminologies and degrees of discrimination vary. There is little discussion and activism related to caste questions amongst other Southasian diasporic communities because they have yet to confront the issue, not because the Indian diaspora is the only one affected.

Whilst the government pondered the amendment, the first case of employment discrimination on the basis of caste, Begraj vs Heer Manak Solicitors, in which a Dalit husband and his ‘upper caste’ wife accused an upper-caste Southasian they had worked for of discrimination, humiliation and harassment, was brought before a British court in August 2011. The case was a litmus test for how caste discrimination could be addressed legally in the absence of the recognition of caste as an aspect of race. After two years of proceedings, however, the case collapsed when Heer Manak Solicitors’ laywers claimed that a private visit to the presiding judge by two police officers following an attack against an anti-caste activist could unfairly bias her judgement. The judge recused herself, leaving the Begrajs’ lawyer to lament the fact that the couple was left “without a fair conclusion to their serious complaints of caste-based discrimination, victimisation and harassment.” The case served to show that without specific legal recognition of caste-based discrimination, its victims were left with little recourse.

On 1 March 2013, a few days after the Begraj vs Heer Manak Solicitors trial collapsed, and more than three years after deferring a decision on Section 9(5)(a), the UK government finally released a ministerial statement on tackling caste discrimination. The Department for Culture, Media and Sports expressed the government’s preference for an educational campaign meant to discourage caste discrimination (named ‘Talk for A Change’) over legislative protection. This came as no surprise given the apparent view of the Conservative Party – which is currently part of the ruling coalition alongside the Liberal Democrats – that more anti-discrimination legislation means more red tape and higher legal costs that could discourage business. The government seemed to be ignoring the findings of the independent study it had itself commissioned, which provided legitimate grounds for supporting anti-caste discrimination legislation.

By ignoring calls for such legislation, the government served the interests of capital and of powerful factions within the British Asian community. Hindu groups such as the Hindu Forum of Britain, Hindu Council UK, and the National Hindu Students’ Forum, which claim to represent the country’s hundreds of thousands of Hindus, have persistently denied the existence, impact and relevance of caste-based discrimination in the UK. Unsurprisingly, most of the groups opposing Section 9(5)(a) – which have united under the banner of the Alliance for Hindu Organisations UK (AHO) – are strongholds of the ‘upper’ castes. The AHO’s power is understandable: Of the thousands of cultural and religious organisations represented by the AHO, most are led by British Indians, often identified as Britain’s ‘model minority’, with some of the highest education rates, lowest unemployment rates, and high average income and wealth. This ‘model minority’ status and socio-political power has made the demands of British Indians, a large segment of whom are ‘upper caste’, particularly dear to the country’s leaders.

Despite the efficiency and influence of ‘upper caste’ lobbying groups, Dalit and anti-caste groups such as the Dalit Solidarity Network, Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, CasteWatch UK and others continued their campaign. The legal manoeuvring was far from over. Merely three days after the ministerial statement, the issue of caste discrimination was debated in the House of Lords, Britain’s upper house. Hours later, the House voted in favour of amending the Equality Act 2010, with even 22 Liberal Democrat and nine Conservative peers supporting the amendment in a departure from their parties’ stance. Suddenly the campaign against caste discrimination, for many years the unwanted stepchild of equality politics in the UK, received new impetus. The House of Lords debate forced policymakers, academics and the media to rethink their view of caste as something limited to Southasia. The lack of engagement with Southasian diasporas on this issue had created an indifference that fostered both the perpetuation and invisibility of the caste system. And Southasian diasporas were complicit in this social silence.

Almost a month after being passed by the House of Lords – ironically itself a symbol of class segregation, elitism and inherited aristocratic privilege in the UK – Section 9(5)(a) was brought before the House of Commons, which had rejected the amendment in a prior vote and which again voted it down on 16 April by 307 votes to 243. The amendment seemed doomed to failure. Interestingly, addressing the House that same day, the UK’s Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Jo Swinson, stated that “there are a range of views within those [British Asian] communities that are very, very concerned about the possibility of actually increasing stigma through using legislation to try to deal with this particular issue.”

Swindon’s views, and presumably also those of the government, were precisely those voiced by the AHO, which had released a statement on their website on 12 April, four days before the vote in the House of Commons, entitled ‘Don’t take us back to the caste system’. The statement argued that talking about caste, whether from an anti-casteist or casteist point of view, would only reaffirm casteist ideology in today’s supposedly post-caste environment. Exchange the term ‘caste’ with ‘race’, and the analogy to discredited racial discourses was obvious.

Summed up, the AHO’s prime stated concern was that the British Hindu community would be labelled as ‘institutionally discriminatory’. Yet the real fear seemed to be that ‘revoking’ caste identities through legislative action would undo both caste privilege and caste subordination, which go hand in hand. Groups such as the AHO argued that caste-blindness can lead to post-castesist societies, but failed to understand that the inability to legally acknowledge and redress caste-based discrimination is partly responsible for Britain’s lack of effective tools to combat it. As many progressive scholars and activists have made clear, caste ideology does not simply wither away with the progress of time and migration to new locations, but loses its power only when it is recognised and socially criticised for what it is.

Colonial concerns

Britain’s historical relationship with caste is marked by Orientalist curiosity, exotification, abhorrence and exploitation. British colonialists in India saw the caste system as antithetical to modernity, an example of the supposed barbarism and backwardness of Southasian people. As such, it was frequently used to justify the racial, cultural, economic and political subjugation of Southasian Hindus, and to produce the racist images and notions of Southasian people, cultures and religions that still prevail today. Colonial ethnography aimed to locate, map and classify caste, while colonial policymakers attempted, through legal and political measures, to give it structure and form that could be exploited for purposes of power and control. By doing so, colonial rule substantially influenced the indigenous practice of caste, adding new meanings and rationale to existing conceptions. Britain’s encounter with the caste system was not passive: the policies of the Empire shaped caste while simultaneously being shaped by it, with both historic and contemporary consequences.

This is not to say that the caste system was any more humane prior to its reconfiguration under European colonialism. It was not. Nor were the British the only ones to exploit the system; the Mughals, among others, did the same well before them, and there certainly were and are many ‘native’ beneficiaries who cannot be absolved of culpability. However, we should remember the intimate relationship between caste and the Empire, and hence its descendant, the UK. That relationship, and subsequent questions of responsibility, has never been seriously considered in the UK. The campaign for legally recognising caste discrimination in the UK could help sensitise the British public to the history of the Empire. But it remains to be seen if Britain will ever admit and apologise for its role in managing the caste system. As it is, British policymakers did not seem aware of the historical significance of their deliberation on caste in the UK.

Other complex questions also remain. Most concerns of the ‘upper caste’ opponents of Section 9(5)(a) concerned their self-interested preservation of privileges. Some of their criticisms, however, demand further attention due to the specific nature of the power relationships they concern. The worry that certain notions of ‘backwardness’ projected onto non-European people and cultures for centuries will again be enshrined in law cannot be easily dismissed. There is a genuine fear in the UK, shared by many feminist and anti-racist activists in the Global South, that, in the words of Cambridge lecturer Priyamvada Gopal, “xenophobes, racists or even just ‘muscular’ liberals” could misappropriate anti-caste critique to advance racist agendas. To avoid the risk of being condescending, racist and paternalistic, all those involved in the UK’s caste debate must ask: How do we prevent the discussion from reinforcing racist and Orientalist assumptions of the cultural superiority of European ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment’ over non-European ‘backwardness’? How do we prevent genuine anti-oppression movements from being misused to serve neo-colonial agendas? How do we keep ‘non-British’ culture from being devalued and being framed as a problem? And, most importantly, how do we struggle against the notion that assimilation is the only solution to integration?

Britain and beyond

Less than a week after the House of Commons rejected Section 9(5)(a), it was again debated in the House of Lords. A tug of war emerged between the two Houses, with opposing opinions and interests. On 22 April, the House of Lords rejected the government’s stated position, reiterating its support for Section 9(5)(a), in a 181 to 168 vote. The next day, for the third time, the amendment was put to the vote in the House of Commons.

Anti-caste campaigners expected another disappointment, but were determined to defend their cause. After more than ten years of work, there was just too much to lose. On Tuesday, 23 April, buses full of activists from across the UK arrived at Parliament Square in London to join a protest involving the DNS, CasteWatch UK, Indian Christian Concern, Voices of Dalit International, the Federation of Ambedkarite Buddhist Organisations UK, and others.

That afternoon, at about 3 pm, the protestors received unexpected news from the House of Commons: the government had used its ministerial power to prepare Section 9(5)(a) for legal implementation, merely a week after it had been rejected to the outrage of protestors assembled in the same square. The protest turned into a street party.

The motives behind the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s unexpected U-turn are so far unknown, and might take years to uncover and understand. Meanwhile, the government’s delayed intervention means that almost nothing can now stop the process of enforcing legislation against caste-based discrimination. The British Secretary of State must now take steps to include caste as an aspect of race, and hence ban caste discrimination, within two months of the enactment of the Enterprise Regulatory and Reform Act 2013, which comes into force on 25 June 2013 and will include changes to competition policy and employment law.

Although outlawing caste-based discrimination will not eliminate the caste system per se, it will provide protection to its victims and help restore their dignity. Educational programmes like those previously proposed by the government and some Hindu organisations are commendable, but would not do enough to provide justice. They may bear fruit many years, if not decades, down the line, but the caste discrimination that continues to occur in the UK today demands, both as immediate redress and future deterrent, the enforcement of anti-caste law. The new law gives victims of caste discrimination a strong incentive to speak out, and could also challenge ‘upper caste’ groups’ claims to power and representation within the British Asian community.

Beyond the UK, the activation of Section 9(5)(1) is also a milestone in the global struggle for caste justice. It marks the first time that caste-based discrimination has been legally recognised and banned outside of Southasia. Equally significant is that for the first time ever, including in Southasia, caste has been recognised alongside colour, nationality, and ethnic or national origin as a component of race.  The new law abandons the concept of caste as being peculiar to Southasia in favour of a transnational, globalised view. Ideally, this will further internationalise the issue, and encourage calls for similar legislation in other states with significant Southasian communities. The attention generated by Section 9(5)(1) may even bring the UK and the world closer to acknowledging the former Empire’s responsibility in exploiting and shaping systems of caste and race oppression in its former colonies.

This revolutionary legislation has even alarmed the Indian government. Although India outlawed caste discrimination decades ago, its anti-caste laws have been not been applied pro-actively or effectively. The Indian government has strongly opposed any comparison between caste-based and race-based discrimination, which it considers to fall under two separate categories. This goes against the views of many activists, scholars and institutions, including the UN and several Western governments, who argue that caste is universally understood to be based upon birth, and believed to be biologically and physically manifest and measurable; hence casteism, like racism, is a form of discrimination based on descent. Casteism’s effects on its victims also closely mirror those of racist discrimination: residential segregation, social stigma, lack of access to education and social mobility, under-representation at all levels of power and trade, and similar forms of violence. There is no reason that a Dalit woman should have inferior legal protection from discrimination than, say, a black woman.

Yet the Government of India’s displeasure with the potential activation of Section 9(5)(a) was strong enough for it to directly communicate its objection to the British delegation at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2010, and to raise the issue again at the European Union-India Human Rights Dialogue in 2013. India had long championed outlawing all discrimination based on descent, including that based on caste, including under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which it signed in 1967. However, following apparent concerns over the Convention’s strict reporting obligations, which would have required much more serious action against caste violence and discrimination within its own borders, in the mid-1990s the Government of India changed its stance on recognising caste as an aspect of race. As India’s counterproductive involvement in the debate over Section 9(5)(a) illustrates, the struggle for global caste justice is far from over on either side of the kalapani.


Sinthujan Varatharajah is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a researcher on Islam and Muslim communities in France, Belgium and Switzerland for Euro-Islam. Follow him on twitter @varathas 

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