Let me be clear from the outset: discrimination of any form is wrong. Gender-based discrimination is wrong. Race-based discrimination is wrong. Sexual-orientation based discrimination is wrong. And so is discrimination based on what caste a person comes from.
In April this year, the British government announced that caste discrimination is to be outlawed, in what was a u-turn on previous government policy. During a discussion on the Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Bill in April, Lord Harries proposed an amendment which added "caste" to a list of protected characteristics in the Equalities Act 2010. The Bill passed by a majority of 103. After the Commons rejected this amendment, the Lords passed it again three weeks later, this time with a wafer-thin majority of 13. Twelve hours later, the government in the Commons performed a u-turn, in the interest of passing the overall ER&R Bill.
Campaigners had said legislation was needed because thousands of people suffered abuse and prejudice in Britain because they were considered low caste. A few weeks ago, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) announced the timetable for the legislation to be enacted. It promised a "full public consultation" from March 2014, following an enquiry by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, as well as engagement with employers, public authorities and the judiciary, who "almost certainly lack" familiarity with the caste system.
Herein lies the rub. Both of the major political parties, dalit lobby groups and the AHO speak with one voice when they say that caste discrimination is wrong, and should be stamped out in our modern, tolerant Britain. The difference comes in the length of consultation process: Meena Verma, Director of the Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN) argues anything more than a few months is excessive. The government, Labour and Hindu groups such as the Alliance of Hindu Organisations (AHO argue up to two years.
Here is why it is sensible to have a period that is not rushed through and ensures appropriate safeguards are in place.
First, "caste" is not defined. The EHRC is in the process of commissioning research on how to define this word, which is essential before legislation against "caste discrimination" can be enacted. Several Hindu groups protested when Lord Singh said in the House of Lords debate that "caste has a very precise meaning attached to practices associated with the Hindu faith." Lord Sheikh said the "problem is most prevalent" in the Hindu and Sikh communities.
Second, Equalities Minister Helen Grant has publicly said she "remained concerned that there is insufficient evidence of caste-based discrimination to require specific legislation." Shadow Equalities Minister Kate Green has said she recognises the impact is on a "relatively small" number of people.
The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) research on caste discrimination in December 2010 did not find any evidence of the severity or extent of caste discrimination. It interviewed 32 people and discarded nine as case studies. Of the remaining 23, three of the alleged perpetrators were Hindu. Of these, NEISR found two had inconclusive evidence.
So, to be clear, one case of caste discrimination from 816,000 Hindus identified by the 2011 Census was found by the only independent research available on this issue. The word "inconclusive" was used four times in the report. The words (or sentiment) of "difficult to tell" whether an issue was caste-related or otherwise, were used at least 23 times. Out of a report that only used 23 case studies, that is an awful lot of uncertainty.
In fact, NIESR director Jonathan Portes recently said: "The report was qualitative research, limited in budget and scope" and that it "was not designed to establish reliable and robust evidence on the prevalence and severity of such discrimination." And to Lord Singh and Lord Sheikh's arguments, the report said caste discrimination was "not religion specific and is subscribed to by (and affects) members of any or no religion."
The direct implication is, future research not be as limited, should establish robust evidence of the prevalence and severity of such discrimination, and that it should not be unfairly focused on just the Hindu and Sikh communities.
Third, there is massive uncertainty concerning the size of the affected groups. BBC's Newsnight broadcast a report on caste discrimination just before the second House of Lords vote. It used a figure of "480,000 dalits" in Britain, the same as that used by several Lords. The basis of this was an unverified Wikipedia entry (subsequently changed). It doesn't make any sense - it implies over 50% of the 816,000 British Hindus are dalits.
NEISR and DSN themselves quote figures of 50-200,000, and Professor Gavin Flood from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS) says it could be much lower.
Fourth, the degree of awareness of caste among communities needs to be ascertained. As Professor Gavin Flood says, the Hindu community in Britain is particularly well integrated, and that necessitates the loosening of caste ties. Three-quarters of the cases identified by NEISR were first-generation immigrants - anecdotal evidence strongly suggests third-generation Hindus in Britain are minimally aware of their caste.
Turning young Hindus from being caste-blind to caste-mindful, rather than reducing the issue, serves to entrench a viewpoint that all the major political parties in Britain, dalit and Hindu groups would eradicate.
Fifth, there is much current confusion about the legislation. On a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Davinder Prasad, General Secretary of CasteWatchUK, gave the example of a sad case of alleged bullying on the basis of caste, that had occurred over 20 years ago, at a school. It was exactly these kinds of cases NIESR excluded from its report - on the basis that they happened 20 years ago. Ultimately, bullying is bullying - and teachers already have sufficient provision to deal with it. If in doubt, each case must first be investigated fully under the existing Equalities Act, Race Relations Act and Human Rights Act.
From employers too, there is much confusion. Will employers need to ask future employees' caste as part of their equalities questionnaire? The government's "education programme" seems to only target specific temples, in specific towns. Does that mean that the congregation of those temples have been identified as caste-prejudiced by the government, while all other Hindus are just fine?
I don't know the answers to any of these questions. And I don't want discrimination to exist in Britain - I'm a first-generation immigrant myself, and believe caste-base prejudice or discrimination is absolutely morally wrong. But before the legislation is enacted, we must first ensure the immense risks of introducing legislation in a haphazard manner. Otherwise, our children's generation won't forgive us for introducing and entrenching an outdated world view.
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