Outlaw Caste Discrimination say Lords
Stamping out the caste system
Touching the untouchable
BRITAIN'S House of Lords defends its role as upper chamber of Parliament by pointing to the extraordinary breadth of knowledge within its ranks: these days a colourful mixture of political appointees, Anglican prelates and scions of ancient families. The claim has grown more plausible since the elevation of some prominent figures from ethnic minorities, such as Baroness Flather (pictured above), who comes from a Hindu background but is now active in the British humanist movement. At a debate this week on stamping out caste discrimination among Asian-origin people in Britain, she spoke with grim and impressive frankness about the situation in her homeland. At the time of Indian independence in 1947, she recalled, there was a mood of optimism about the prospects for equality.
"There was a great hope that the caste system would die out. It has not done so but has got worse. People have killed their own children because they have married a person in a different caste. There are organisations in Delhi that find and bring back young people who run away from their villages to escape the wrath of their parents. They pick them up and bring them to their parents who have them killed. It is horrible."
She was speaking in support of a successful move by some distinguished lords to defy the government by insisting that caste-based discrimination be included in Britain's equality legislation. An amendment to that effect was approved by 256 votes to 153; for the change to become law, it will need to be approved by the House of Commons as well. The government has acknowledged that the country's 480,000 citizens whose background is Dalit (the group formerly known as untouchables) face discrimination, albeit not usually of the ghastly sort described by Lady Flather. But the current government line is that a campaign of education will deal with the problem. After this week's moral victory, lobby groups that defend the interests of the British Dalits are now determined to convince the government that a change in the law is essential.
So what sort of disadvantage is a Dalit likely to face in Britain? One well-publicised case concerns a young couple in the Midlands town of Coventry, both of whom were lawyers working for an Asian-run practice. Vijay Begraj, a Dalit, and his wife Amardeep, from a higher caste, said their bosses objected to their inter-caste marriage, and made life unpleasant; he claims he was unfairly dismissed. Their case has foundered on a technicality but a change in the legislation would revive it. Sat Pal Muman, chairman of the lobby group Caste Watch UK, says he knows of equally insidious but subtler cases, falling short of dismissal. His wife once worked for a small Asian-run manufacturing firm where she incurred hostility, and was excluded from the kitchen, when she declined to say what her caste background was. As a result she left the firm.
In their debate, the well-informed and multicultural nobles cited many other cases. Lord Harries, a retired Anglican bishop who moved the amendment, said he knew an Indian-born medical technician, working for Britain's National Health Service, whose "life was made hell" by an Asian boss after questions arose over his family background. The aggrieved man's trade union said it was not possible under the present law to bring a case for discrimination on caste grounds. Lord Singh of Wimbledon, a Sikh, quoted the founder of his faith as saying: "Ask not a person's caste but look to the inner light within." He added: "While I have the greatest respect for a sister faith, I believe that Hinduism without the old-fashioned concept of caste will be infinitely stronger. Similar negative cultural clutter exists in all our different faiths." Lord Deben, a Tory convert to Catholicism, demanded to know: "Is it right that a person who is a subject of Her Majesty in this country shall not be able to claim against discrimination when they would be able to in India, Nepal or indeed in Bangladesh?"
The laws and constitutions of south Asian countries are not, in practice, enough to provide the Dalits with the protection they desperately need. But changing the law and practices in Britainâ€”whose colonial yoke is sometimes blamed, rightly or wrongly, for exploiting and exacerbating India's social divisionsâ€”would be a good start.