No escape

July 6, 2006 — Review

Written by Jenny Bourne

According to a recent report, discrimination on the basis of caste is one of the most insidious and unacknowledged forms of discrimination in the UK today.

It may well come as a shock to those who associate racism in Britain with White views of racial or ethnic superiority that an older form of discrimination within the Indian community has been imported from the sub-continent and thrives in cities from Birmingham and Bedford to Walsall and Wolverhampton. And anti-caste discrimination is not explicitly outlawed in Britain – it is not covered by race relations legislation.

Dalits (once known as India’s lower-caste ‘untouchables’) who number over 50,000 in the UK, are recognisable to other Asians through their names or the places from which they migrated. The recent report, No escape: caste discrimination in the UK produced by the Dailt Solidarity Network, based on questionnaires and in-depth interviews with 130 Dalit individuals and organisations carried out between September 2005 and January 2006, states that though caste remains invisible in much of British society, it ‘steps from the shadows every time a marriage is arranged, a child is born or a new professional or business opportunity emerges’. In fact eighty-five per cent of respondents felt that Indians actively practise and participate in the caste system. Jeremy Corbyn, MP, in his foreword to the report describes his horror at realising that ‘the same attitudes of superiority, pollution and separateness’ associated with the Indian caste system had been imported into the UK.

Most Indian organisations in the UK are, according to the report, either caste- or religion-based. One in every two Dalits identified themselves by caste – ‘within the Indian community, caste is their identity’. It is an identity of which even those born and brought up here are keenly aware. Cases of anti-caste behaviour included abuse of young children by their peers. Discrimination was documented in employment, politics, healthcare and education.

Examples include Ram Lakha, former mayor of Coventry, who faced such discrimination from upper castes when he stood for election in a largely Indian ward that he stood instead in a non-Asian constituency and was able to win. Indrajit, born and brought up in Kenya, only became aware of his caste when he moved to the UK. Asian staff, realising he was Dalit, disciplined him for inefficiency and he ultimately lost his job. Another Dalit man endured workplace opposition from colleagues when he became a supervisor. Such discrimination at work continues, according to respondents, because many of the companies which employ Dalits are small and the person who handles complaints will inevitably be from a higher caste and therefore takes no action.

Clearly Hindu temples in the UK are organised on caste lines. But within Sikhism, too, individuals are having to hide their identities as ‘chamars’. Eighty per cent of those interviewed said that people in the UK did not marry outside caste and that rare inter-caste marriages were generally not accepted and couples could face ‘violence, intimidation and exclusion’.

The report clearly illustrates that caste-based discrimination exists in the UK and its authors make a very strong case for such discrimination to be incorporated in the equality legislation due to come before parliament in 2006 or 2007. In addition, the report contains a number of important recommendations: that children be taught the impact of caste as part of the National Curriculum; that parents be encouraged to educate their children about the caste system and discrimination; that places of worship should cater for all who are of the faith; that caste be more publicly discussed in the media; that religious and government organisations be held to account for caste discrimination.

Related links

Download a copy of No escape: caste discrimination in the UK (word file, 482kb)

Dalit Solidarity Network UK

International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN)

CasteWatchUK

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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