Caste discrimination in the UK: the hidden apartheid

Vijay and Amardeep Begraj at their employment tribunal

Vijay and Amardeep Begraj at their employment tribunal

Despite leaving the Indian subcontinent, many UK citizens from the South Asian diaspora continue to experience the effects of the caste system in their daily lives. Research has indicated that there is particular prevalence in the UK for those of ‘lower castes’ to experience discrimination, prejudice or abuse in employment, education and the provision of goods and services. The traditional caste system begins with Brahmins (priests, academics) at the top, and continues downwards to Kshatriyas (warriors, kings), Vaisyas (business community) and then a caste of servants and labourers. Beneath this hierarchy are those considered untouchable; self-described Dalits who are relegated to doing the most inhumane and dirty work as their purported classification doesn’t even deem them worthy of a place in the caste system.

Caste discrimination is still perfectly legal in the United Kingdom, but an ongoing employment tribunal in the Midlands town of Coventry may begin to challenge the current legislation. Vijay Begraj, 32, a Dalit, married his colleague Amardeep Begraj, a Sikh Jat – considered to be of high caste. Their Sikh employers, Heer Manak Solicitors did not take kindly to their romance –engaging in a campaign of harassment which resulted in Vijay’s dismissal and Amardeep’s resignation. The pair have lodged over a hundred instances of discrimination in the workplace, many of them on the basis of caste. This is the first British legal case where unfair and constructive dismissals have been claimed due to caste. Recently compiled data however indicates this is just one of many cases of caste discrimination in the UK.

In 2006, the first report into British caste discrimination entitled “No Escape: Caste Discrimination in the UK” was published by the Dalit Solidarity Network UK. This study revealed that 50% of Dalits found themselves to be identified by their caste, and 85% of all those questioned believed that Indians “actively practised and participated in the caste system”. A 2009 study commissioned by Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance researched attitudes and perceptions of caste discrimination among the South Asian community in Britain. Of the 300 people questioned, 71% identified themselves as Dalits, and a shocking 58% claimed to have experienced some form of caste discrimination. The manner by which people had experienced this prejudice varies; with around 45% having experienced negative treatment in the workplace (mostly from colleagues), and 16 percent facing verbal abuse in school when under the age of twelve. A disturbing statistic also indicated that 10% of the caste discrimination that under-12s had experienced allegedly came from school teachers.

Particular professions with a tendency to employ a large number of South Asians have indicated a far higher awareness of caste discrimination than other parts of society. For example, 25% of those questioned in the ACDA report about healthcare provisions revealed that their family doctor had inquired about their caste. In the YouGov survey, 95% of those with nursing qualifications identified a desire for companies and organisations to be more ethical to get rid of caste discrimination. Numerous reports of personal experience have shown that a ‘glass ceiling’ exists for Dalits throughout employment in Britain, and especially in the National Health Service.

One of the key problems with caste discrimination in the UK is that those affected by it have little idea about how to improve their situation. Around 4 in 5 of those surveyed described how they did not believe that the police would understand if they reported a caste-related discrimination incident. The fear of not being understood is valid, as a recent YouGov poll indicated that Dalits are only known to around 6% of Britons. Additionally, 85% of those polled accurately identified that there is no legislation to protect them from caste discrimination in the UK. Several other European nations indicated the prevalence of caste discrimination – though awareness was proven to be higher elsewhere. In the UK, just 54% of those polled were aware of caste discrimination, compared to 74% in Finland.

The Equality Act 2010 brought in by the Labour government was designed to harmonise all equality law to outlaw discriminatory practices throughout the UK. Despite ensuring the protection of people victimised due to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability, the Act has not protected those facing caste discrimination. Clause 9 (5) (a) of the Equality Act indicates an intention for “caste to be an aspect of race”, and therefore protected. However, due to the government’s supposed lack of evidence on the issue, this particular clause has not been activated – and is thus, not law. This is in spite of a government-commissioned research project by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) published by the Equalities Office in December 2010 that acknowledged the severe discrimination Dalits face in the UK. Conclusions indicated that legislation would send out a message that “caste discrimination and harassment are unacceptable”, and that police would “take caste-related crime seriously”.

In reality, this clause has yet to be activated due to political pressure from outside groups – including the Hindu Forum of Britain who declared in a 2008 report that caste discrimination is “not endemic in British society”. Caste, the HFB claimed, is not discrimination that affects “the provision of education, employment or goods and services in the UK”, but simply a factor that may, as HFB Secretary General at the time, Ramesh Kallidai, puts it, “play a role in social interactions and personal choices”. Extensive research, including the aforementioned surveys, indicates the findings of the HFB to be false. As part of his vehement opposition to the activation of Clause 9 (5) (a), Kallidai suggests implementation would be an attack on religious freedom; “it is not right for the UK Government to take a position on the rites, beliefs or practices of a particular religion”. Not only is this factually inaccurate, it is also out of step with the views of 21st Century Britain. Further details from the YouGov poll indicate that less than a quarter of people believe caste discrimination to be a religious issue; compared to the 46% who believe it is a form of apartheid, and over 50% who understand it to be a global human rights issue that stems from a problem with traditional mindsets. Traditional minds such as that of Kallidai – an orthodox Brahmin who ostensibly supports equality among the Indian diaspora.

In order to have this primitive and discriminatory practice abolished under our legislation, we need to continue to raise awareness of the issue on our own doorstep. The responsibility to outlaw caste discrimination lies with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who has the Ministerial power to trigger the relevant clause, thus providing hundreds of thousands of Dalits here in the UK with recourse to justice. But, the Home Secretary along with the rest of the government continues to ignore the widespread discrimination exemplified with both statistical data and anecdotal evidence. The Begraj employment tribunal has, thus far, failed to push the issue of caste discrimination into mainstream media or create a wider sense of indignation amongst Britons. Victims of this hidden apartheid, like the Begraj’s. need protection in the eyes of the law. One victim of caste discrimination is one victim too many.

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