In Mohinder Midha’s victory, a watershed moment for the UK
This Punjab-born well-educated woman shattered the glass ceiling after years of serving Southall’s multicultural community.
This May, Labour Party councillor Mohinder Kaur Midha was elected mayor for the West London borough of Ealing, becoming the first woman of Dalit descent to be elected mayor anywhere in Britain. This Punjab-born well-educated woman shattered the glass ceiling after years of serving Southall’s multicultural community. Her elevation marked an important moment in a country where sections of the South Asian diaspora strongly identify with their castes. Campaigners have long raised awareness about the perpetuation of caste and caste-based discrimination here. Around the time Midha arrived in England, in 1976, followers of Dr BR Ambedkar took to the streets outraged by an article in the Bedfordshire Times that called “untouchables” “a subhuman class” -- as if untouchability hadn’t been abolished by the Indian Constitution. The register of charities for England and Wales are replete with charitable registrations that have Brahmin, Jat, Valmik, Ravidassia, and Ramgarhia in their descriptions. Likewise, for mandirs and gurdwaras. The Sikh Report 2018 (a study of the country’s Sikhs, tabled in Parliament every year) found nearly 50% of British Sikh respondents believed in the caste system and 13% considered it very important.
Over the last 20 years, non-government organisations such as the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance and government-commissioned research have established definitive evidence of caste and caste-based discrimination in Britain. We have equality laws providing protection against, for example, race, disability and gender discrimination. Caste-based discrimination is no different, but legal protections on this subject have always been polarising.
After listening to victims, the Labour Party government made provisions in the Equality Act 2010 to add caste discrimination to the law. But the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition that succeeded them dragged their heels until April 2013, when the British parliament made it a duty on the government to implement the law.
In 2018, the government announced, following feedback based on what equality campaigners have argued was a flawed public consultation, that it will repeal that part of the legislation. They argue caste is covered under race in the equality legislation and that legal cases can be taken forward under the principles of the Tirkey v Chandhok Employment Tribunal. This employment case saw Permila Tirkey, recruited as a servant from Bihar in India, win what is referred to as the first caste discrimination case in Britain in 2015. The law is supported by the UK’s independent regulator, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which champions equality in Britain. Since Tirkey, there have been further legal cases which the ACDA has supported. Almost all victims have settled out of court, and therefore, their victories can never become case law. Clarity in the law is the remedy to bring about change in casteist behaviour, not prohibitively expensive court cases and the chimera of case law.
In a global world, can you expect a person travelling from India to leave their caste and descent behind when they board a plane to Manchester or Memphis? As Britain moves towards getting a new prime minister, the perniciousness of caste discrimination and exploitation has yet to be annihilated.
Santosh Dass, MBE, is chair of the ACDA and president of the Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations. Hurst Publishers is publishing her co-edited volume, Ambedkar in London, in October 2022. One of the chapters documents the campaign to outlaw caste discrimination in Britain
The views expressed are personal