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Casting out Caste in Britain

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Why campaigners are urging the UK to ban caste discrimination

"What is your caste?" I would be asked. In London. When walking with my husband, who is white, I'd be asked, "Could your parents not find any good Indian boy? What is your caste anyway?" When my answer was just to smile or walk away, the quiet whisper was always "She must be from a low caste. Otherwise why would you not tell? I can't imagine our children doing that. My husband would kill us all".

I grew up in remote rural areas in South India and had witnessed how caste can alienate, snatch all hopes and opportunities. I'd seen how from birth how many children were expected to play a role already written for them in the name of the caste. So it was not a new question. But I was shocked the first time I heard it in London.

Worse was yet to come. At an event organised by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to celebrate international human rights day, I saw posters which in the name of explaining world religions depicted the importance of caste, and even described how Brahmins would never eat with others and how Untouchables (Dalits) were to be treated. I went to find the Foreign Office staff member to ask why he had approved the poster. He asked what was wrong with it. Only when I showed him news stories of Dalits being lynched in India in the name of their caste did he agree to remove the posters.

But my experiences were nothing but flea bites compared to what many of Britain's 250,000 Dalits face daily. Experiences like that of Vijay Begraj, who was harassed and dismissed by a Coventry-based firm, because he had married across the caste divide. Determined to fight back, he brought his experience for unfair dismissal, discrimination, victimisation and harassment to an employment tribunal, and even to the UN's Committee to End Racial Discrimination. He asked the UN to press the UK to ban discrimination on the basis of caste: "I am extremely distressed and traumatised by the painful, humiliating and violent events that I have been subjected to because of my inter caste relationship and marriage. I welcome the involvement of the member states of the United Nations to take steps exploring this issue and provide long awaited relief to victims like my wife and I and provide clarity in the legislation."

The Equality Act actually includes a clause on caste discrimination, but the clause has not yet been activated. The Act gave power to the Government to activate this clause, something it has so far not done. The Government claimed they needed further research. In 2010 a UK Government commissioned report found that caste discrimination in the UK has extensive personal consequences including reduced career prospects, lower earnings, detrimental effects on education, social isolation, reduced access to social provisions, depression, anger, and loss of self-esteem.

At the UN Universal Periodic Review of the human rights situation in the UK (2011), the UK was specifically recommended to "... develop a national strategy to eliminate caste discrimination, including the immediate adoption of the clause in the Equality Act of 2010 that prohibits caste discrimination, in accordance with its international human rights obligations."

Campaigners say there are no more excuses for delay left and that the UK Government must act immediately to adopt the caste discrimination clause and deliver proper access to justice for victims. "Caste discrimination must be outlawed," said Meena Varma of the Dalit Solidarity Network UK (DSN-UK). "We are looking forward to immediate action being taken by the Government in response to the UN concerns and concerns of hundreds of thousands of UK citizens affected by this type of discrimination, from which there is currently no proper method of redress."

The UK forbids discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, disability, religion and race - but not yet on the basis of caste. The Government notes in its general position statement on equality "that there are many barriers to social mobility and equal opportunities in Britain today, with too many children held back because of their social background, and too many people of all ages held back. We need concerted government action to tear down these barriers and help to build a fairer society." They are right. They should follow their own advice. It's time to cast out caste.