Anti-Caste Legislation in UK and Dalits - the Way Forward

 

Year 2013 was the year when Dalit hopes in the United Kingdom were running at all times high. The feeling was that it was only a matter of time before caste discrimination would be treated on par with racial discrimination and all that was required was a legal test case. It was also felt that UK Dalits would have an effective weapon in their arsenal to fight caste discrimination. After all, it was clear to all but the most die-hard casteist Hindus that caste discrimination was against everything that a civilised society stood for. Had not the Indian state outlawed untouchability? Was Britain not the mother of all parliaments which would not stand for such a blatant discriminatory system? Even the House of Lords appeared to sympathise with Dalits.


 

Caste discrimination in UK denied - legislation ‘counterproductive’

Such optimistic wishful thinking was for a rude shock when the British MPs did not vote for anti-caste legislation on the grounds that it would be a hugely backward step for the British Hindus!

Urging the MPs not to vote for the motion, AHO (Alliance of Hindu Organisations UK) said: “This would be a hugely backwards step for the Hindu community, who believe that they have now very largely moved beyond the caste system in this country and who are themselves totally committed to eliminating discrimination based on caste or any other characteristic. Such legislation would be more likely to have the effect of setting back the cause of equality and of introducing new divisions in society between castes and also between Hindus and Christians who are supporting this move.”

Business Minister Jo Swinson told the House that there were deep concerns in the Hindu community about the implications of such legislation.

“There is a range of views within those communities that are very, very concerned about the possibility of actually increasing stigma through using legislation to try to deal with this particular issue,” said Ms. Swinson.”

This in essence was an old racist argument of denial and perpetuator pretending to be a friend of the victim recycled in 2013. But the British Members of Parliament accepted this. Recently in an interfaith programme on television, a well-meaning Jewish young man was persuaded that Nazi and Hindu swastika were two different things and that caste Hindus and the Nazis had nothing whatsoever in common. Of course there was no mention in the above programme of the caste system, the philosophy of the Superman, the admiration of the Nazis for the Hindu scriptures (see Hitler, Buddha, Krishna book), Bhagvatgita or Ramayana, atrocities on Dalits in India, etc. etc.

Denial is the best option for the holocaust deniers and of the caste Hindus in the UK.

Was there any evidence that the Indian caste system and caste discrimination had more or less disappeared in UK or that the upper caste Hindus were engaged in eliminating caste based discrimination? If you wish to know, if there is any discrimination anywhere, you do not ask the perpetuator, you ask the victim. When the Hindu organisations claim that they wish to eliminate caste they mean the differences between the upper castes who are of the same class. They do not have Dalits or caste discrimination in mind. Dalits are others who can be ‘legally’ equal in theory but their societal development in reality must be separate in their separate community centres doubling up as places of worship. After all, they argue, caste is a social issue only. That is until you yourself are subject to caste discrimination. One could argue that race is just only a question of colour and it is totally unrelated to historical slavery or subjugation; unless that is, you are a victim of race discrimination, in which case it is very real. Racism was and is very real to UK Hindus; caste and caste discrimination apparently are not. There are also other unanswered questions.

Did anti-racist legislation stigmatise the entire black/Asians or even white people? Did it set the blacks and Asians against the white people? Was there any evidence that anti-racist legislation actually encouraged racism and introduced new divisions in the society? Or was it that anti-racist trends actually made all forms of overt racism hugely unpopular in the UK? Ask an older black person or an Asian whether they prefer the nineteen sixties seventies etc. or the 21st century. During the anti-racist struggle, there was significant number of white people who stood up against racism and against apartheid in South Africa. With very few exceptions, is this the case for caste Hindus and the Jat Sikhs in relation to caste discrimination. Could it be that the majority of the so-called high castes are either in denial or are very busy being apologists of the caste system?

Has discrimination against the Roma (or Gypsy) people disappeared in the UK and the West some 1500 years after this oppressed groups of untouchable/backward castes left NW India? What is the chance that caste discrimination will disappear in UK whilst it still has a stranglehold on all aspects of life in India and it has been a feature of the Indian Diaspora everywhere? Or do, as it has been said by Davendra Parsad of Caste Watch UK; in the age of globalised extended families and arranged marriage between extended families; the Asians leave their caste, which is their best asset, behind at the immigration control desk at a UK airport?

Why are the high caste Hindus concerned about the further stigmatisation of Dalits when UK history itself suggests the opposite? Are they also suggesting that Christians and indeed Dalits should stay quiet when their kith and kin are murdered in India, with houses burnt and the women raped? Should not upper caste Hindus feel stigmatised because of this? Do the concern of Dalits not matter and only the concern of caste Hindus in UK matter?

High caste Hindus are truly having their cake and eating it too. They are denying the same protection for Dalits which they themselves wish to protect themselves on the grounds that it will create divisions when in fact deep divisions were already there; the divisions which of course denied by the caste Hindus.To paraphrase Mandy Rice Davies ‘they would say that would not they?’

According to Dalit Solidarity Network UK Press Release 29 July 2013

The UK Government has just published their long anticipated timetable for its consultation and implementation of caste discrimination legislation under Clause 9(5)(a) of the Equality Act

It is disappointing, but sadly not a surprise to note that the proposed timetable will run through to the Summer of 2015 –and probably after the next general election. This unprecedented prolonged consultation means that the Government can repeal the legislation before it is implemented. At this rate the sunset clause –or review of the legislation as agreed for 5 years hence will take place before the legislation is even implemented. As clearly stated in The Independent article of July 12: Tory Minister accused of reneging on pledge to end caste discrimination, it certainly appears that the Government’s intention is to kick this very important piece of legislation in to the long grass.

If the future government could claim, as the caste Hindus are claiming that there is no significant caste discrimination in the UK, then where do Dalits go from there? Even if anti-caste legislation becomes a reality in the near future, how in the era of recession and cutbacks, is one of the most marginalised and poor section of the UK society, going to get justice in practice?

Dalit leadership were caught by surprise about the amount of opposition lobbying by the caste Hindus. They should not have, as this very website had warned them about nearly a decade of preparation that the high caste Hindus had put in their lobbying effort not just in the parliament but in schools, inter-faith organisations and other community groups. They had learnt their lesson well from the fiasco in the USA and applied these lessons in the UK with brilliant success.

Caste system under the British Colonial Rule

Only an apologist of colonialism would argue that the west colonised non-western countries so that they could spread the parliamentary system to these countries. The British colonists, tracing their roots to the Greeks and Romans (themselves imperialists par excellence) stuck to their ideas about divide and rule (caste was very good for the British) by conveniently adding a thin veneer of ‘not interfering with the native custom’. The same hypocrisy seems to be at work in 21st century Britain.

To keep a large country such as India under control, people had to be kept divided, caste system had to be protected and strengthened. Hence the British administrators pushed for the study of traditional Indian legal scriptures. Sociology and anthropology in India were borne under these conditions and that is the reason for the ‘non-interference’ into the ‘native’ culture although, in order to justify their own rule, it did not stop the British attacking suttee, child marriage and other evils (but not untouchability and caste) that were prevailing in India at the time. But you do not find the current British Government condemning untouchability, bonded labour (an euphemism for caste slavery), child labour, human trafficking and Devadasi temple prostitution, all of which are caste issues. The reason is the same now as it was then. British Government could not rule India without the co-operation of the higher castes then and it cannot do business with India now without them either.

Historical Lessons of fighting caste system ignored

When Ambedkar opposed Gandhi over untouchability and caste discrimination, he was deliberately and wrongly accused of being a stooge of the British. However Ambedkar did not have any illusions about the British. Ambedkar was educated in the best British as well as American democratic traditions, but Ambedkar's attack on the British [in the Untouchables and the Pax Britannica] for leaving the caste system and untouchability intact is salutary reading even today.

What good has British conquest done to the Untouchables? In education, nothing; in service, nothing; in status, nothing. There is one thing in which they have gained and that is equality in the eye of the law. There is of course nothing special in it because equality before law is common to all. There is of course nothing tangible in it because those who hold office often prostitute their position and deny to the Untouchables the benefit of this rule. With all this, the principle of equality before law has been of special benefit to the Untouchables for the simple reason that they never had it before the days of the British. The Law of Manu did not recognize the principle of equality. Inequality was the soul of the Law of Manu. It pervaded all walks of life, all social relationships and all departments of state. It had fouled the air and the Untouchables were simply smothered. The principle of equality before law has served as a great disinfectant. It has cleansed the air and the Untouchable is permitted to breath the air of freedom. This is a real gain to the Untouchables and having regard to the ancient past it is no small gain.

Fast Forward to the 21 Century – British Government and Dalits

So what has changed for Dalits from the time of Ambedkar to now? Why should the British government, Conservative or Labour or a coalition bring in anti-caste legislation; what is in it for them? Just like India, UK is one of the best democracies one can have, but it comes with many caveats; supporting dictators and unjust wars abroad to unjustifiable spying on and rendition of its own citizens. UK government’s record on human rights is not that all that bright. This democracy is not vested interest blind. It seeks the best for itself regardless of the principles it betrays in order to get that very best for itself. The caste Hindu lobby is not going out of its way just to defend a religion which cannot be defended; there are bigger international issues at stake, such as the embarrassment to the Indian government and internationalisation of the anti-caste struggle. It must not be forgotten that the British Government is actively wooing the Chinese as well as the Indian Government on all fronts. Human rights both in China and India are taking a back seat.

If the future government could claim, as the caste Hindus are claiming that there is no significant caste discrimination in the UK, where do Dalits go from there? Even if anti-caste legislation becomes a reality in the near future, how are one of the most marginalised and poor section of the UK society, the Dalits going to get justice in practice, in the era of recession and cutbacks?

Indian Dalits - the Elephant in the UK caste room

Whilst UK Indian caste Hindus represent the interests of the Indian Government by proxy, who represents the interests of the Indian Dalits? Very few anti-caste organisations here in UK can claim to do so in a non-sectarian fashion. Dalits in UK want anti-caste legislation but Dalit leadership wants it without the reference point to the hellish conditions Dalits are living in in India. They do not wish to be stigmatised, but be seen as British Asians. This is an emotionally understandable stance but it is highly damaging at political level and the caste Hindus understood it completely for they argued what Dalit leadership was feeling but was too embarrassed to express it openly. Just as Gandhi pretended to represent the Indian Untouchables and denied Ambedkar this leadership position, caste Hindus in UK claimed the same mantle for themselves with even more damaging results.

Paradoxically these were the Indian Dalits and not the UK Dalits who put the item of caste discrimination on the international agenda, when they put up a united front at the United Nations Durban Conference on Racism in 2001. Although this was a paper victory but it was also an important one. This gave courage to UK Dalits to think what was possible. Most community places of worship had not thought anything other than lobbying the representatives of the Indian government for a better treatment of Indian Dalits. But after the Durban Conference, it seemed that things had changed, if only in the international arena.

Durban cannot be seen as an episode with tangible empirical impact. Rather, the debate was an intense moment in an ongoing historical argument about hierarchical practices and equality in India as well as about its moral status in the global community. In December 2006, however, at an international conference in New Delhi, the Prime Minister of India compared the Dalit situation to apartheid.

More than 7 years later one could ask the question what has been done to dismantle this apartheid?

In UK, Dalit leadership underestimated below the water hidden iceberg of Hindu reactionary organisations working on behalf of the Indian government. They underestimated their own tasks at hand. They had no common platform other than anti-caste legislation. They did not even study the history of the caste system and the movements against it. They did not study the stances and the vested interests of the Indian or that of the British government. Instead they relied on a very tiny group of British intellectuals and well-meaning people to do their intellectual and in some cases coal-face fighting for them. This was their Achilles’ heel which they exposed to the Hindu organisations and these very powerful lobby groups took full advantage of it. But the gravest mistake UK Dalits made was to think that their fight would be a simple one without any reference to their very powerful opposition or indeed with reference to Indian Dalits.

The Way Forward for UK Dalits

If UK Dalits are truly serious about fighting caste in this country then they cannot afford to neglect the cause of the Indian Dalits and in theoretical terms the cause of suffering of global Roma community. How else can you understand the roots of your own oppression? More importantly how can you isolate this issue from its roots? To ask for equality for yourselves whilst ignoring it for others less fortunate than you is being hypocritical and selfish. Is this not what the Alliance of Hindu Organisations UK (AHO) has done? What makes UK Dalits better than AHO in this regard? At least AHO have looked after their own interests whilst UK Dalits have not even done that. Should not UK Dalits be opposing what their opponents are advocating?

UK Dalits completely underestimated the real problems of fighting caste in the UK and the strength of the opposition they encountered. They have just begun to fight caste but without really understanding of its many headed features, its invisible links which includes history as well as globalisation, to just about everything we see around us; yes, even in the UK.

What UK Dalits need is a long term united front agenda with a common minimum programme linking it with the plight of the Indian Dalits, a programme of education for both the host community and for themselves. They need to put their message effectively to schools, further education institutions, to the media, to community groups and to people who really matter, the common man and woman. They need to stop fighting with both their hands and feet tied. Before they can give effective lead to non-Dalits they need to have a clear orientation. This can only be done if they know themselves and their opponents and strengths and weaknesses of both parties. They should also remember that successful lobbying demands that you have something to bargain with. Dalits have only their own internal unity, justice, time and the fairness of the British people on their side. Now they even have the United Nations behind them – see below.

Sam Jones theguardian.com, Wednesday 6 November 2013 17.09 GMT 

UN human rights envoy urges UK to implement caste discrimination laws -Navi Pillay calls for action to protect victims as campaigners accuse ministers of delaying Equality Act amendment

UK Dalits should make best use of all the bargaining power they have – for history has shown that weak people can defeat a strong opponent.

Wendy Doniger and Dr B R Ambedkar

Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus – An Alternative History and Dr B R Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism

Recent decision of Penguin India to recall Wendy Doniger’s book has sent uncomfortable shock waves in India and outside of India. The book may be offensive to many a high caste Hindus, but it has to be remembered that many a Hindu scriptures are highly offensive to Dalits and indeed Hindu women. Looking at the types of atrocities committed on Dalits in India, one could be forgiven for thinking that the sentiments of Manu Smirti are alive and well in village India. Yet there is no call for these scriptures to be banned or pulped. Dr B R Amebdkar, the father of the Indian constitution and misguidedly called the modern Manu of India, took part in demonstrations against untouchability, where his high caste liberal friends actually burned Manu Smirti. There are many higher caste Hindus who do not like the caste system and untouchability.


Here are some reviews of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindu - An Alternative History can be found here.

Penguin has agreed to destroy all copies of a book on Hindus after a settlement with a right wing outfit. Here are some other fringe Hindu groups that rode controversies to gain prominence.

Arshia Sattar writing in Mumbai Mirror says

By agreeing to destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger's 'The Hindus', the publishing house has succumbed to the undercurrents that encourage us to censor ourselves.

What Arshia Sattar states is correct. However there is a sort of a self-censorship that has been in existence from a very long time in the Indian society when it comes to Dalit history vis a vis Hindus and the Sikhs. Both within India and outside there has been pressure on the scholars to conform to the thinking that prevails within India (and many a times amongst the fundamental community of these two religion) outside of India. It is only recently that we have seen a backlash from the world scholars, which of course is related to the level of Dalit assertiveness. I

What Wendy Doniger has written in her Alternative History of The Hindus has been well known to Dalits and more progressive feminists in India. It took a very long time for Dr B R Ambedkar’s own work Riddles in Hinduism to see the light of the day. Even when the book was published in 1987 (Ambedkar who was the first law minister of independent India, passed away in 1956) there followed a tense period between Dalit Panthers and Shiv Sena in Mumbai with widespread bloodshed narrowly avoided.

What could have caused this strife? This can be gauged from the following description of Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism book now available in electronic format.

A detailed in depth study of the contradictions in the Puranas and the scriptures of Hinduism by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the father of Indian Constitution. His aim is to show the contradictions within the mythologies and the utter lack of coherence in the scriptures of Hinduism. The techniques of manipulative reinterpretation and circumlocution are used to confuse common people and to establish what is otherwise totally illogical. Dr. Ambedkar believed that this was with the ulterior motive of holding the masses under Brahminic domination. This book is in public domain. However this is the first time this book is published in its entire form because of its sensitivity.

This book is also available as a free download.

It can also be read on line at www.ambedkar.org

Wendy Doniger can be accused of having a style which is best understood and enjoyed by the people in the West. Nevertheless her book was a best seller in India as well. There are sometimes very few minor factual errors which her detractors have tried to blow out of all proportion and which do not in any way fault her main observations about at least the caste system and the position of women in ancient India.

Whilst Ambedkar raised many questions about Hinduism and its Riddles, Wendy Doniger attempts an interpretation of the other riddles in Hinduism.

However the real target of the Hindu right who are behind stirring up this controversy are Dalits and progressive writers of all hues. Already many prominent writers both in India and outside have started to question the ramifications of this recall and to condemn the use of colonial law in order to stifle academic debate in India.

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