Caste is not just a problem for India. Those of us in the Diaspora are not immune to its pernicious effects. There has been debate in the UK for some time about caste and whether specific legislation is required to outlaw caste discrimination in the UK. There is no specific law in the UK against caste discrimination although there is one prohibiting discrimination on grounds of race. The UK government said in 2013 that there was no need for specific laws on caste discrimination as they would be covered by the rules governing race discrimination.
The Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of race, provides in section 9 that the government must pass secondary legislation to ensure that caste is included in the definition of race for the purposes of the Equality Act. This is to ensure that UK law is in line with European directives against caste discrimination. No time limit was set for this and to date no such secondary legislation has been passed.
There has been one very interesting case on caste discrimination recently in the field of employment law, that of Chandok and another-v-Tirkey UKEAT/0190/14/KN. The was heard by the Employment Appeal Tribunal and the facts were that Miss Tirkey (T) was employed as a domestic worker by Mr & Mrs Chandok (C ). T claimed that C treated her badly by reason of her low caste. She said that C was aware at the time of her appointment that she was of low caste because of her Bihari dialect and darker skin tone. Her first job interview with C had taken place in India and C had not invited T into their home but had spoken to her outside.
Upon arrival in England T had to sleep on the floor in C’s house, could not use their furniture, could not talk to guests and was made to use separate crockery and cutlery from her employers and their family. Same shit different country. Further T had been allowed only one day holiday in four and a half years and was so poorly paid that her claim was that her employers owed her over £150,000 in unpaid wages.
As there is no specific law against caste discrimination in the UK T had to bring her case to the Employment Tribunal under the race legislation. At a preliminary hearing before the Employment tribunal T was allowed to amend her case to include a claim for caste discrimination under the race discrimination heading. C appealed this ruling, claiming that caste was not equal to race and as such T could not use the race equality legislation to make her case. The tribunal held that T’s Adivasi status meant that her case was capable of falling within the definition of race in the legislation and the case could therefore continue.
C appealed to the Employment Appeals Tribunal stating that the lower tribunal had made an error of law in allowing T to proceed with her case under the race rules.
The Appeal Tribunal held that the definition of “race” included “ethnic origin”, which was wide enough to encompass caste. A case for caste discrimination could be brought under S9 of the Equality Act. So the case by T could continue.
As the Equality Bill was going through its discussion stages the solicitor general advised ministers that both the Hindu Council and Hindu Forum of Great Britain, two organisations which were most representative of Hindu views in the UK, were against the inclusion of caste as requiring special protection from discrimination on the grounds that it would be “socially divisive”. Indeed the Hindu Forum said that respondents to its survey on caste had said that whilst caste played a role in “social interactions and personal choices like marriage, conversations and friendships they categorically requested that the Government should not interfere in personal choices and matters of social interaction”. In other words they asked the UK government to leave caste well alone.
Dalit organisations, on the other hand, put forward totally different views to those proffered by the Hindu Forum and the Hindu Council. They cited examples of “Caste discrimination taking place in the UK which extend beyond social interaction and personal choice into areas of employment, provision of goods and services, education, including detailing systematic bullying and harassment- all drawn from case histories”. Examples of such cases included:
Referring to Dalits as “Churas” or “Chamars”;
Dalits being overlooked for promotion in jobs;
A specific example of a bus company that changed its rota so that an upper caste inspector would not have to work with a lower caste driver;
Children being bullied in school because of their caste;
Family doctors of Indian origin and community nurses asking people directly or indirectly about their caste;
In a gurdwara the priests repositioned a photograph of Guru Ravidass in front of the toilets, causing much anger and distress amongst his followers.
It is clear that caste prejudices are alive and well in the UK and rear their ugly head not just occasionally but regularly for some people who are on the receiving end of discriminatory practices. The British government is bound by law to ensure that caste discrimination is specifically outlawed but has dragged its feet for years. The government has said it will review the position by summer of 2015. We wait and watch. And in the meantime caste discrimination continues unabated.