25 May, 2024


Caste Discrimination Amongst South Asians Requires Legal Recognition In The UK

By Sinthujan Varatharajah

Sinthujan Varatharajah

In a landmark vote on Monday, the House of Lords voted to outlaw caste-based discrimination amongst South Asian communities in the UK. The bill was fiercely backed by peers from all parties and passed with a majority vote of 225-153. Yesterday’s vote will bring the proposed bill to the House of Commons, where it needs to be voted upon by the end of March to be passed into law and become the first anti-caste legislative act outside of South Asia.

The bill in question, Clause 9(5)(a)of the 2010 Equality Act, has previously been enshrined in the anti-discrimination act but has not been activated yet. The current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government remains strongly opposed to the bill, having already announced its planned opposition in a forthcoming vote set to take place in the House of Commons. In the eyes of the government, anti-caste discrimination will do little to abolish caste-discrimination amongst British Asians. Instead, the government relies on widespread educative measures to eradicate caste-discrimination in the UK.  However, with twenty-two Liberal Democrat peers and nine Conservative peers voting against their own government’s stance, opposition to the bill remains fractured.

For British Dalit advocacy groups and anti-caste campaigners, such as Dalit Solidarity Network UK and Caste Watch UK, who have strongly advocated the inclusion and enactment of legal protection against caste-discrimination, Monday’s vote is a crucial victory in their struggle for the recognition of caste discrimination outside of South Asia. They argue that Dalits and other British Asians of so-called ‘low caste’ origin deserve similar legal protection as to victims of racial discrimination.

Whilst there are no definitive figures on the number of Dalits or other British Asians of ‘low caste’ origin in the UK, estimates vary with some activists citing around 50,000, and others, such as the Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries of Pentregarth, estimating the number of British Dalits to be at around 480,000. According to several participatory studies conducted by anti-caste activists and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, caste discrimination, harassment and bullying occurs in employment, education and social services in the UK. These reoccurring incidents demand for greater social and political recognition as well legal protection for its victims.

However, the findings are highly contested by British Hindu advocacy groups widely considered to be the stronghold of the so-called ‘upper caste’, who continue to lobby against the activation of the anti-caste discrimination bill, such as the Hindu Council UK and the Hindu Forum of Britain. Arguing that caste discrimination has little relevance to communities removed from South Asia, such groups thus claim that legal protection is seemingly unnecessary – and unwanted. Interestingly, this viewpoint has now been adopted by the conservative-liberal government, thereby fostering a culture of negation of Dalit and ‘low caste’ British Asian grievances.

Caste-discrimination affects British Asians of all origins, including British Tamils as shown in a research study I conducted last year amongst the Tamil diaspora globally. Contrary to popular belief, caste identites, caste based differentiation and caste discrimination continue to mark social spaces and relations even amongst diaspora Tamils. Despite these findings, or arguably because of them, it was also noted that caste remains a highly contentious topic amongst the highly upwards stratified British Tamil diaspora. A similar trend can be observed within most other British Asian communities. With a diktat of social silence imposed upon caste as a subject by largely ‘upper caste’ community members, caste-relations and caste discrimination as a parameter for social interactions continue to be difficult to be uncovered, problematised and tackled. Hence, for victims of caste discrimination, the lack of recognition from within the community as well as the host society and its institutions makes it deeply troubling, traumatizing and almost impossible to demand legal protection and justice for cases of discrimination and harassment. A survey published by the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance in 2010, which looked at British Asians in general, found similar views: 58 per cent of those questioned had suffered caste based discrimination and 79 per cent of those did not think the police would understand it if they reported a case of caste based discrimination as a hate crime.

The first case of employment discrimination on the basis of caste brought to a British court (Begraj v. Manak) serves as another example of how the lack of legal, political and social recognition for caste discrimination in the UK undermines the possibilities of achieving justice for victims. After two years, the case Begraj v. Manak, in which an Asian employer was sued by a former employee for charges of discrimination, humiliation, victimisation and harassment, collapsed after the presiding judge was accused of bias herself. As a result, justice was denied to the damaged party whose grievances remain uncompensated. If a tough legal framework for caste-based discrimination had existed, outcomes like that in the case of Begraj v. Manak may have been avoided.

The activation of Clause 9(5)(a) of the 2010 Equality Act in the UK would set a precedent  outside of South Asia to include caste to anti-discrimination laws. Caste discrimination would for the first time receive legal recognition as a migratory concept, one which travels with those who bear caste ideologies and markers. As such, the Hindu caste system would for the first time be legally recognized to exist out of the geographic context of South Asia. It would equally serve as a model example for other states with large South Asian communities, so that they too may adopt similar legal frameworks to ensure protection from possible discrimination. Victims of caste discrimination would furthermore be one step closer to achieving legal recognition and protection; and caste would be put on the map of forms of racism and xenophobia as demanded by the UNHRC.

*Sinthujan Varatharajah recently graduatated from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies. He is currently working as a research intern at the Institute of Race Relations in London as well as a researcher on Muslims in France and Belgium for Harvard University’s and CNRS France’s joint academic research network Euro-Islam.The article was first published in the Tamil Guardian. The author can be followed at twitter.com/varathas

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Bravo Lords! I will take a course in Sanskrit and apply for the East Ham temple priest job when it next becomes vacant. And Virakesari should be banned in the UK because of the contents of its marriage proposal pages.

  • 0

    Thanks Sinthujan for your timely and informative article.

    The question of political “liberation” that dominated Sri Lankan Tamils was a convenient pretext for the dominant castes and classes in Tamil society to preempt or at least postpone any struggle against internal injustices based on tradition and culture. The LTTE, initially dominated by the Karayaar caste was later embraced by the dominant Jaffna-centric Saiva Vella “Upper” class struggling to maintain its hegemony with the demise of their political organ, the TULF. The advent of the Tamil armed struggle led to the collapse of the traditional socio-political structures. In the ensuing power vacuum various youth militant groups emerged initially along caste lines. But soon the Jaffna conservative society hit back by providing legitimacy to LTTE’s claim to be the “sole representative of Tamils” in return for maintaining the status quo. For its part the LTTE, though it flirted with notions of “equality” and “socialism” initially, relished the acceptance by the “traditional authority” of the Jaffna elites and soon brought its latent fascism to the fore. Thereafter the LTTE paid only lip service to the abolition of caste and other social injustices such as patriarchy and discrimination based on religion, region and sexual orientation within Tamil society. In fact the LTTE ideologues said, “first the soil, then democracy.”

    Unfortunately the traditional oppressive hierarchy was transplanted in the diaspora too in the name of protecting and perpetuating the Tamil identity. In this process the misguided policy of multiculturalism in countries like Britain, Canada and Australia only helped the traditionally powerful groups to ghettoize their community and continue their domination with the help of the LTTE. The Tamil community was not encouraged to become interested and participate in the political processes in their host countries. Because this would have led to the emergence of a new political culture among Tamils based on equality, democracy and pluralism negating the very raison d’etre of the LTTE. Instead the LTTE leaders in these countries reintroduced the kind of patron-client relationship that existed in politics back home and acted as political brokers between the Tamil community and politicians. This way they could ensure the Tamils voted as a bloc as dictated by them. The politicians in their greed for ethnic votes turned a blind eye to the abuse of the political process and the cultivation of various forms of social injustice and fundamentalisms in their own backyard.

    I agree with you absolutely that “contrary to popular belief, caste identites, caste based differentiation and caste discrimination continue to mark social spaces and relations even amongst diaspora Tamils.”

    In this context the proposed bill to eradicate caste-based discrimination in Britain should be lauded by all who champion the liberation of Tamil people.

  • 0

    Caste issue is no different to racial discrimination in the UK. One can pass as many laws as possible, as they have done so regarding color and race. Yet racial iscrimination takes place everyday at work place, interviews, while waiting to be served in a shop or a restaurant, or when buying property; these are just some examples, and there are many more.

    Just because there are some colored people in the parliament or in some of the top jobs, it does not mean that racial discrimination has been eliminated in the UK by legislation. Discrimination goes on in many subtle ways, and the victims are not able, nor have the time and money to resort to the courts for redress. The legislation is just window dressing. It is the society that has to change, the law can only just provide a reason to change, but not the change itself.

    Caste is another similar thing. Why is not UK passing a law against aristocracy, peers, knights and earls and kings and queens. That is the British form of caste, which they continue to consolidate. Have you ever been in the presence of one of these high class people with their nose in the air. Or ever tried to join one of their clubs, then you would know what caste system exists in the UK.

    Messers Smiths, Goldsmiths, Carpenters, Silvers, Boatwrights, Woodmans, Cartwrights, Stables, Coppersmiths and Ironsides etc, they are all commoners now and can be even become bank managers or doctors as well as road sweepers. Thank God for that. But I will tell you, no law will change sikhs from intermarrying outside their caste; nor would a jew would accept someone outside their clan into their family. In fact one can only be a jew if born froma jewish mother; all others are imposters even though they can pray as a jew.

    When it comes to marriage Sri Lankan Sinhala and Tamil would not go by British Law, and I am sure the ethnic community news media would still carry adverts such as, GBS parents of a doctor son seeking a daughter for marrige, or vellala Tamil family looking for a son for their chartered accountant daughter.

    Attitudes and blood should change before most of the traditional families change their ways. Until then there would be lip service to the law. I would not go applauding this new law. It may be aimed at humiliating the Muslims in the UK, or non-western European foreigners in general, as there is a ground swell against them, judging by the sort of comments carried in Yahoo bloggs.

    So, I wait for the dismantling of the British aristocracy first before I applaud this new legislation that appears to me as another piece of British hypocrisy.

    • 0

      Good that you been able to be next to high class people in Briton. In India Dalit’s are still not able to go to the front door of some Brahman’s and other higher cast peoples home.Some Sinhalese still reefer to Tamils as toilet cleaners I suppose you will want British to change first. Regarding people shout out hypocrite are the worst at it.

  • 0

    Similar article was voted down in UN by India, I wonder why Indians like to keep caste based system.

  • 0

    Caste, like honour-killing, was brought by emigrants into Britain.
    In societies that relocated virtually by the village – notably in Canada and Britain among the Lankan community – they brought this
    excess baggage along – and it continues to prevail. The only difference is when marriages are contracted outside the Lankan Tamil box. Marriages within the Lankan community outside the caste structure takes place in the diaspora in far larger numbers than back home – often where class replaces caste. Even in India, Brahmin youth marrying into non-Brahmin and vice versa is now more than previously seen – with both parental sides consenting.


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