One of the top items in Prime Minister Theresa May’s in-tray is the outlawing of caste-based discrimination in British law, with rival groups intensifying lobbying on the issue that has passionately divided the Indian community in recent years.
Caste-based discrimination is not expressly prohibited under 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 discrimination a form of race discrimination.
According to the timetable announced by the coalition government, whose tenure was from 2010 to 2015, the key secondary legislation was to be introduced in the summer of 2015 but this did not happen. The ruling Conservative Party accepts the position of various Hindu, Sikh and other groups opposing such a law, while Labour and Liberal Democrats support it.
The May government’s position, as revealed in the House of Lords recently by minister of state for home Shirley Williams, is “that we all want the same thing, which is to ensure that there is an appropriate level of protection for everyone against the harm of caste discrimination”. She added, “I know the whole House supports this aim.”
At the end of a debate that included calls for speedy action to enact the secondary legislation, Williams said, “The real question is how best to achieve that for the benefit of everyone, which is exactly what this government are currently considering.”
Dalit communities in Britain are estimated to be 480,000 strong, and, according to two reports commissioned by the government, they face discrimination in education, employment and the provision of public goods and services. Several organisations have campaigned in support of a law banning caste-based discrimination.
Those opposed to the secondary legislation say there is a need for more consultations.
Jasdev Singh Rai of the British Sikh Consultative Forum told Hindustan Times: “We hope the new Prime Minister will initiate a proper consultation on the ill-informed caste legislation in UK. There are too many colonialist assumptions in the written material and speeches which led to the legislation in the first place.
“The research used shows poor scholarship and is not objective at all. There are also vested interests from some evangelic religions to promote caste identification and then blame Indian Dharmas for it.”
Satish Sharma, general secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples UK, said in an open letter on the eve of last elections: “The Conservative Party is the only party which has consistently listened to us and voted against this legislation and whose members are committed to repealing the caste amendment if re-elected.”
The Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance, comprising caste-based and other groups, said: “We have a new Prime Minister who says she is committed to fighting injustice in the UK and that she has a vision of a country that ‘works for everyone – not just the privileged few’.
“We hope this vision plays out in practice and we have written to the PM calling on her to outlaw caste discrimination without any further delay. We are also pursuing all other options to ensure that victims and future victims of caste-based discrimination in the UK (no matter what their caste) are legally protected.”
In a landmark judgement in September 2015, a woman from Jharkhand who faced many restrictions and difficult conditions while working for an Indian-origin couple in Britain was awarded £184,000 in a case that involved overtones of caste-based discrimination.
Supporters of the anti-caste discrimination law hailed the judgement, while critics welcomed the compensation but opposed its caste angle.