In a major victory for 4 lakh Dalits in the UK, a bill that will outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste in Britain has received the royal assent from the queen.
The enterprise and regulatory reform bill made history in the British Parliament this week when the House of Commons bowed to reassure from the House of Lords to include caste as an aspect of race as part of the Equality Act 2010.
"Very strong views have been expressed in the House of Lords on this matter and we have reconsidered our position and agreed to introduce caste-related legislation," equalities minister Jo Swinson said on Tuesday, marking a major government U-turn.
The bill has now cleared its final journey to become law with the queen's consent on Thursday. This makes the UK the first country outside South Asia to legislate against caste discrimination.
In a major parliamentary stand-off, the House of Lords voted twice for legal protection to be given to Dalits living in the UK. Commons MPs had overturned the first Lords vote, but after the peers again backed the proposals after a third reading, the government was forced to re-think.
"This is a major victory for us. The government has had to go with the voice of the victims of caste prejudice," said Caste Watch UK general-secretary Davinder Prasad.
The government had commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) to carry out research into the issue, resulting in a report in December 2010 entitled 'Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain'. It had pegged Britain's Dalit or lower caste community between 50,000 and 200,000 and found that caste awareness was largely focused among people with roots in the Indian sub-continent.
However, the Conservative-led coalition had rejected proposals to legislate on the matter and recently announced a new education programme titled Talk For A Change as a more "appropriate or effective way" to tackle this "complex and sensitive issue".
The issue also exposed a divide among Hindu groups based in the UK, with the Alliance of Hindu Organisations UK (AHO) calling for a boycott of any such bill, as it would "label the entire community as institutionally discriminatory". "We strongly believe that modern Hindus do not care about what caste someone came from. This legislation would take us back to the past where we do not want to go," said AHO spokesperson Arjan Vakaria.
However, under the latest compromise the government is required to include caste as an aspect of race under section 9(5) within two months of enactment of the bill. "This is an issue that is contained in the Hindu and Sikh communities. That's why we are working with those communities to address these problems," equalities minister Swinson had told MPs back then.
Of the many MPs who backed the proposal, Conservatives' Richard Fuller said, "This is a straightforward issue, caste discrimination in the workplace is wrong and the people who suffer from it deserve legal protection. That's it. Beginning and end."
The government has also asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to further examine the nature of caste prejudice and harassment in the UK, the findings of which are to be tabled later this year.