A new category of victimhood? Caste in the UK

In 2013 amendments initiated in the House of Lords decided that specific legal protection against caste discrimination should be introduced in the UK, by making caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act 2010. The underlying assumptions were that caste discrimination is rife against the 500,000 Dalits in UK (a figure that cannot be confirmed, since no caste based data are currently collected), and that current legislation neither protected them nor acknowledged their unfair treatment in UK. The Government set out a public consultation and the responses are being analysed now.

In 2013 amendments initiated in the House of Lords decided that specific legal protection against caste discrimination should be introduced in the UK, by making caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act 2010. The underlying assumptions were that caste discrimination is rife against the 500,000 Dalits in UK (a figure that cannot be confirmed, since no caste based data are currently collected), and that current legislation neither protected them nor acknowledged their unfair treatment in UK. The Government set out a public consultation and the responses are being analysed now.

Caste system is largely a South Asian phenomenon. While its roots are supposedly in the ancient Vedic system of Brahmins (the learned), Kshatriyas (the warriors), Vaishyas (businessmen) and Shudras (menial workers, the untouchables), there is a heated debate in India about whether caste was a historical problem persisting into the present, or a colonial legacy of the ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the British, much like the Belgians pitted the Hutus against the Tutsis in land they occupied in parts of Africa.

There is no universally agreed definition of caste in Indian literature or academia. In fact, caste derives from Portuguese casta meaning race, lineage or breed. The closest Hindu terms are jaati or varna, but even these mean different things in different parts of India and sometimes even within the same local context. Ever since the Indian government introduced specific quotas for lower caste people, several population groups have been agitating to be designated lower caste, so that they can benefit from reservation in jobs and educational opportunities for their own group. Several groups in the UK are now demanding that caste be introduced as a protected characteristic within the Equality Act, claiming that upper caste Indians in UK are discriminating against them.

There have been a handful of small reports on the nature and magnitude of caste discrimination in UK, none of them with a reliable data collection method or a sample size large enough for any meaningful conclusions to be drawn. It is usually a collection of anecdotes, mainly about bullying at work or in school, harassment in public and employment related problems. The famous case of Tirkey vs Chandok, where an Adivasi (indigenous Indian, Christian by religion) domestic worker, successfully brought a claim against her employer, for breaches of employment law and won damages under the Equality Act for discrimination on grounds of religion and race. The victim did not have agreed terms and conditions of employment, was not paid the minimum wage, did not have adequate rest or annual leave, had her passport withheld, and was unfairly dismissed. The judge noted that the respondents wanted to hire someone who would be servile, and would not understand her employment rights in the UK. The claimant’s background made her vulnerable to the respondents, who felt they were able to treat her as they did because of her caste background.

This woman was badly treated because of her lack of awareness of her rights. She could have still brought her case had she been the same or higher caste than the respondents. Mr Justice Langstaff rightly observed that “the parties may have been gearing up to secure a definitive decision in principle that discrimination on the ground of caste as such either was, or was not, within the scope of the Equality Act 2010. I hope I shall be forgiven if I have disappointed anyone by having referred to very few of these authorities in the course of this judgment. My focus has been on the appeal in this particular case, in its particular circumstances: I have not seen my role as being to resolve academic disputes, and establish more general propositions, of no direct relevance to the case in hand.” He recognised that there was no general principle that would provide a legal answer to an academic dispute: what is a caste? On a case law basis, the judgement can be used to argue that in some cases, caste may be included as a part of race. Case law should suffice.

There is no evidence that Dalits are being held back in the UK, and no reason for UK law to do something about a non-existent social problem. Incidents of name calling, unpleasant as they might be, do not amount to systemic discrimination. Being called chamaar may hurt an individual’s feelings, it does not diminish their chances of succeeding in the UK, and there is no clear data that chamaars in the UK do less well than they should because of systematic discrimination by upper castes. No such data exists because this issue does not exist. There are anecdotes about a family not approving of marriage across castes, but unless the British Government is prepared to legislate to enforce marriages against individual or family preferences, there is no need for any legislation in this sphere of human relations.

Can we create a firm and unambiguous legal framework to identify and eliminate caste-based discrimination? Consider the hypothetical case of Mr Bhatti, a business caste (bhappa, to be precise) Sikh who gets sacked from Mr Brar’s organisation (Brars are Sikh landlords in Punjab). Mr Bhatti claims that he was discriminated against because Mr Brar considered him lower caste. Mr Brar gets a Sikh theologian to argue that caste does not exist in Sikhism – the fundamental tenets of the religion are equality and monotheism. Mr Bhatti brings forth an expert who claims that the caste system predates the origins of Sikhism, and many Sikhs from Punjab treat caste as an important social divider. So what is a British tribunal to do? As Justice Langstaff observed, there is unlikely to be a neat legal answer to such questions. As things stand, Mr Bhatti has enough legal protection against unfair dismissal from his job within current UK law. He does not need to evoke a new category of victimhood; if he has been wrongly done by and has a substantial case, he can get justice within existing legislation.

It seems that in contemporary Britain there is a rush to occupy pole positions in hierarchies of victimhood. Ever since the UK government started handing out largesse based on the size of one’s victimhood, individuals and groups have been lining up to claim “mine is bigger than yours”. Amongst a certain kind of middle-class English there is a thirst to find more victims to patronise and protect. Now that everyone agrees that racism and sexism are wrong, the virtue-signalling victim seekers have only two options: expand the definitions and scope of existing ‘isms’, or create new ones. Caste discrimination seems to be one such category. It is trying to solve a non-existent problem, a legal definition of caste is highly unlikely, current equality laws in UK offer adequate protection to everyone and we must resist creating further subcategories of identities within society. The proposed legislative change is unnecessary, unworkable and corrosive. It must be resisted.

(Photograph: Midhanesh)

  • Why is an ancient south Asian system being allowed to flourish in the UK? I am not familiar with caste but it’s the same as sharia law courts being allowed to spring up, which run contrary to British law. These outdated and discriminatory practices have no place in modern Britain.

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