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Indian community divided as UK caste row reaches boiling point

Caste-based discrimination is not prohibited under Britain’s equality legislation, but Section 9 of the Equality Act, 2010 requires the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race.

world Updated: Sep 17, 2017 23:36 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
The Conservative government is seen to be close to the Hindu-Sikh-Jain groups that oppose the law, while Labour and Liberal Democrats are on the pro-law side.
The Conservative government is seen to be close to the Hindu-Sikh-Jain groups that oppose the law, while Labour and Liberal Democrats are on the pro-law side.(Reuters File)

The Theresa May government is facing a delicate balancing act on the sensitive issue of outlawing caste-based discrimination when a public consultation ends on Monday, as rival lobbying from the 1.5 million-strong Indian community reaches a boil with high-profile interventions.

The issue has implications for New Delhi, which has opposed clubbing caste with race in international fora in the past. The May government is also loathe to rile the Narendra Modi government at a time when post-Brexit Britain is focussing on enhancing trade with India.

The Indian community is deeply divided on the issue, with influential Hindu, Sikh and Jain lobbies denying that caste-based discrimination exists in Britain, stating that enacting such a law would entrench ideas of caste where none exist. But some individuals, Dalit and other groups insist this discrimination exists, making the law a necessity.

Caste-based discrimination is not expressly prohibited under Britain’s equality legislation, but Section 9 of the Equality Act, 2010, as amended, requires the government to introduce secondary legislation to make caste an aspect of race, thereby making caste-based discrimination a form of race discrimination.

The latest high-profile intervention on the issue is from the celebrated Mumbai-born sculptor Anish Kapoor, who told The Sunday Times that the government must enact the law to prevent caste-based discrimination.

Kapoor, 63, called it an “interesting anomaly” and told the paper: “It is outlawed in India, so why not in Britain? It is discrimination at the most vile level. The government introduced laws against slavery, so why can they not act on this?

“My parents are cosmopolitan and modern and paid no heed to this. But the truth is that there are parts of India where a lower-caste person is not allowed to enter a street or is not allowed to go into a shop. If they go into a shop, things are put on the floor for them.

“We love to think of Britain as progressive. It would be disgraceful if the government bows to pressure and does not act on this key area of human rights,” he said.

The Conservative government is seen to be close to the Hindu-Sikh-Jain groups that oppose the law. Conservative MP from Harrow East, Bob Blackman — considered close to Hindu groups — calls the legislation “ill thought-out, divisive and unnecessary”.

Labour and Liberal Democrats are on the pro-law side.

Before the June 8 elections, May had told Hindustan Times: “I recognise the sensitivity on the caste issue; there is a consultation taking place. There was wording put into the relevant legislation in the House of Lords by Labour and Liberal Democrats working together on that, but I realise how sensitive this issue is.”

The public consultation that has attracted responses from various lobby groups and individuals seeks views on whether legal protection against caste-based discrimination is best ensured by developing case-law under the Equality Act or by making caste explicitly an aspect of race in the Act.

The delicate balancing act before the government is clear from its statement in the consultation paper: “The government is committed to deciding the better approach between case-law and legislation in a way that is proportionate, and which protects people from discrimination and avoids unhelpful and socially divisive consequences such as promoting, creating or entrenching ideas of caste or heightening caste consciousness where they do not previously exist.”