Caste Discrimination in the UK

Caste Discrimination in the UK

Caste discrimination is not something that we hear about every day in the UK and it is a subject about which many people will not be familiar. However it has been in the news recently due to the fact that there are proposals to amend the Equality Act 2010 to make caste discrimination unlawful. In fact the Equality Act 2010 already contains a provision that by order of a Minister caste can be treated as an aspect of race.
It may be useful to have a look at what caste discrimination is and consider some of the history of the caste system.
What is a"caste"?
The term"caste" is used to identify a number of concepts notably varna (a Hindu religious caste system) jati (an occupational caste system) and biraderi (often referred to as a clan system). In the UK studies have identified that caste discrimination is related to the jati. An individual’s jati or caste is determined by that of their forefathers and once a person is placed in a particular caste they are unable to leave that caste.
In short the caste system was developed in India and it divides people into separate groups based on birth marriage and occupation. Under this system people are excluded based on traditional and cultural notions of purity and pollution.
Historically the caste system in India has consisted of thousands of groups called Jatis. From these four well-known categories have been used to classify society. These are known as the Varnas. The groups are as follows:
Brahmin which includes fire priests scholars and teachers
Kshatriyas which includes warriors administrators and law enforcers
Vaishyas which includes agriculturists cattle raisers and traders
Shudras which includes service providers and artisans
It is clear that some people would not fall into any of these categories. In certain places this group of people was called “Panchama” (the fifth) and they were regarded as outcastes or the “untouchables”. These people traditionally lived on the fringes of society and historically included foreigners house workers nomadic tribes law-breakers and criminals and those suffering from a contagious disease. They are considered to be below the caste system.
It is worth noting a link at this point between caste discrimination and religious discrimination. Some religious groups are almost wholly from the lowest castes such as Valmiki Ambedkarite Buddhists and Christians with roots in the Indian sub-continent. It is not surprising then that the lines are somewhat blurred.
Relevance in the UK
Caste awareness in the UK is concentrated amongst people with roots in the Indian sub-continent which comprises 5% of the UK population. It is not religion specific and is subscribed to (and effects) members of any or no religion. This makes it difficult to cover in the existing provisions of the Equality Act 2010 without amendment.
The"untouchables" tend to be the group that is subjected to discrimination on the grounds of their caste. Whilst caste discrimination may occur between any castes studies have shown that caste discrimination in the UK has been against the lowest castes and perpetrated by those in the highest castes. The low caste population (also known as Dalits) in the UK could amount to an estimated 400000. Caste discrimination has been outlawed in India.
I am yet to come across any examples of caste discrimination in practice and by its very nature its occurrence seems fairly rare in employment law although caste discrimination can also take place in other areas of society including education.
However despite its rarity there is clearly a need for people who are subjected to caste discrimination to be protected in the same way they people are protected on the grounds of their race or religion and if the current provisions of the Equality Act 2010 will not account for this then amendments are needed.
Incorporating caste discrimination into UK equality law
The Supreme Court has voted twice for caste discrimination to be illegal and twice it has been defeated. Eventually the government came around to accepting that this issue should be dealt with and confirmed that a person’s"caste" will be considered as an aspect of race under equality legislation. A full public consultation is due to take place in March 2014 for 12 weeks and steps will be taken to incorporate this protection into UK equality law.
This is not likely to happen until the summer of 2015 at the earliest.
The Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance has fought for years to convince the government to outlaw caste discrimination and members have voiced their disappointment that UK equality law still does not protect those who need it.
However given the complex and sensitive nature of the caste system and caste discrimination the government is taking its time to fully consider the situation before taking steps to make discrimination on this ground illegal.
Written by
Anthony Fox

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