Victims battle over caste discrimination


In her final article for Operation Black Vote, intern Mallory Moench takes on the contentious issue of caste discrimination. It is a well studied excellent piece of writing. I’d like to personally thank Mallory and Nilay, who have spent the last two months working at OBV the very best in the future. I’m convinced they will have great futures as political writers - Simon Woolley.

Aneil Jhumat looks like any other 29-year-old British professional carrying himself with confidence in a sleek grey suit, a silver wedding band on one hand and gold ring on the other.

But there is one difference, impossible for most Brits to see, which has caused him to suffer discrimination in the UK: his caste.

As a third generation Punjabi Ravadasi Sikh of a so-called lower caste, Jhumat has endured derogatory abuse throughout his life.

In university, Jhumat’s close friends, when they found out his caste, decided he wasn’t good enough to be their friend anymore, and in his last job with the Government, visiting higher-caste contractors told him that:

if we were in India, you would be picking up my shit.”

But Jhumat, internal audit manager for Barnardo’s Children Charity, says he is just one victim of caste-based discrimination among countless in his community.

He knows elderly people who have not been properly cared for by assistants or patients whom doctors have refused to serve because they were “untouchable”.

Among his family, his shop-owning uncle experienced a dramatic loss in milk sales when women in the local community discovered his caste, and his aunt who works for the NHS is continually denied overtime opportunities in favour of upper-caste nurses. Jhumat said:

But what can she do? Caste means you’re born with a label that sticks with you and you can’t escape it. It’s not dying out; it’s alive and kicking and affecting people like me.”

The ancient social hierarchy of caste, originating among Hindus in India, has infiltrated across borders and beliefs to affect Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims in the global South Asian diaspora. Currently, a quarter billion of the world are of the lowest caste called Dalits, or “untouchables”.

Of the estimated 4-600,000 Dalits in the UK, upwards of 100,000 could be victims of unequal treatment and abuse, according to a 2009 study conducted by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA).

Personal accounts of discrimination range from bullying in school, segregation in places of worship, verbal abuse at work, exclusion from promotions, and emotional and even physical harassment due to relationships across castes.

In the most high profile caste discrimination case to date, Amardeep and Vijay Begraj, two solicitors at a Coventry law firm, began a tribunal in 2011 claiming they were abused and wrongfully dismissed because of their inter-caste marriage. The controversial case dissolved in early 2013 with no resolution.

Caste discrimination is already illegal in India and other South Asian countries, and has recently been brought to the forefront of global debate in the European Union and United Nations.

In October, an EU resolution condemned caste discrimination as a human rights violation and called for protective measures against it. In a recent House of Lords address, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned the caste system as “a base act of hidden denigration” that “leaves an insidious stain on society”. She said:

Caste has severe psychological and economic repercussions and is destructive of all we stand for.”

She speaks from personal experience: her own parents refused to accept or even attend the wedding of her sister because of her chosen husband’s lower caste.

In her address, Pillay challenged the UK Government to lead the Western world in taking action against this issue, warning that failure to do so could hinder the UK's efforts to gain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. She said:

Britain could be historic as the first country outside South Asia to say caste discrimination is bad, sending the message to the world that it must be banished from society”

Caste discrimination has emerged as a recent hot-button topic in UK politics, provoking controversial legislation. An amendment to the 2010 Equality Act currently moving through Parliament would add caste to the bill’s list of protected qualities, placing caste-based discrimination on par with racial and gender inequalities.

The amendment passed in April 2013 after two defeats in the House of Lords, but in July the Government announced a two-year timetable for the bill. It includes two 12-week consultations to define what the Government calls the “complex issue” of caste, and will push the law’s implementation to summer 2015. It also includes a rare “sunset clause” which requires review of the bill after five years.

Lord Eric Lubbock of Avebury, Liberal Democrat champion of the legislation, believes the delay is calculated to push the law’s implementation to the next Government.

Santosh Dass, vice-chair of the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance, agreed. She said the timetable was:

genuinely overly bureaucratic, designed to kick implementation of the law into the long grass.”

Lobbyists are pushing for a consolidation of the two 12-week consultations, which they believe are redundant. However, Parliamentarians like Lord Avebury admit consolidation is a remote possibility, because it will involve the Government losing face.

Supporters claim the Government is under pressure from wealthy and politically powerful religious groups, who are lobbying for the legislation’s delay in order to protect their own vested interests.

Such groups have their own arguments about the legitimacy of the issue. Lobbyists like the Hindu Council UK, the Alliance of Hindu Organizations, and the British Sikh Council don’t believe the legislation is necessary because, they say, caste-based discrimination doesn’t exist.

The Hindu Council UK claimed in their most recent 2008 report that most UK born Hindus are hardly aware of the caste system. The British Sikh Report 2013 survey revealed that only 3% of those surveyed considered caste to be very important; of those who did identify themselves with a caste, a majority were higher-caste Jatt Sikhs.

These findings support the claim of Pratik Dhattani, spokesperson for the Alliance of Hindu Organizations, that the issue is only confined to this small community. He also criticized reported evidence of caste discrimination as inconclusive and anecdotal, arguing it was hard to prove whether the cases highlighted – mostly of bullying – were a direct result of caste conflict.

The bill’s supporters, however, accuse the opposition of lobbying against the legislation in order to cover up their own perpetuation of discrimination.

If people deny it exists, they’re condoning it,”

said Reena Jaiash, creative director of Caste Away Arts, a non-profit organization raising awareness through art.

Whatever the external influencers, Lord Avebury explained that while some in Government are openly hostile to the legislation, others simply feel that the issue could be dealt with by education.

This concern strikes at the heart of a debate raging within the caste discrimination issue: legislation vs. education as a more effective means of addressing it. Opponents of the bill such as Dhattani argue that legislation is not necessary. He said:

It really is a limited problem and can be eradicated through education, community work, and raising awareness...Wherever the problem is, I want to help eradicate it, but not by legislation. It will cover the entire Indian community who are otherwise unaware of their caste,”

High Commissioner Pillay agreed that law “cannot be the silver bullet”, but nonetheless said she believed it is a necessary component of change. Davinder Prasad, General Secretary of CasteWatch UK, affirmed that legislation, in tandem with education, is necessary to provide understanding and protection for victims of discrimination.

In ACDA’s report, 79 percent of those surveyed believed they wouldn’t be understood by police if they reported a ‘hate crime’ incident based on caste discrimination – meaning that more often than not, incidents aren’t reported.

Prithi Kaeley, who faced verbal abuse in his workplace for ten years because of his caste, explained:

There are so many people, but not everyone speaks out. When I complained, they didn’t do anything, but if I don’t share, nothing will happen. When there’s no resolve, that tells the oppressors they can keep going on. We’re asking the Government because we need protection.”

Jhumat argued that the law would act as a catalyst for change and a loudspeaker for many victims, like Kaeley, in his own community – who at the moment have no means of demanding justice.

While some argue that in the UK, caste is irrelevant, discrimination illegitimate, and legislation unnecessary, all of those interviewed agreed caste-based discrimination was an injustice. And the first hand stories of victims like Jhumat and Kaeley reveal that for at least a minority of the Dalit community in the UK, caste discrimination is a real and ruinous issue.

While the numbers of those affected and the severity of the offences against them are uncertain, activists like Chand argue that regardless of statistics, each person deserves justice and equality:

If only one person is affected, we need to fight for them.”

Mallory Moench