Against caste in Europe

Print edition : December 13, 2013

Barrister Usha Sood, who specialises in human rights cases, says caste practices exist in all South Asian groups in the U.K. Photo: Trent Chambers

Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, says caste-based discrimination must be prohibited by law. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

Anti-caste campaigners in the United Kingdom score a major victory with the E.U. passing a resolution to put caste within a global rights framework.

THE ringing indictment of caste-based discrimination and prejudice contained in a strongly worded resolution that the European Parliament passed last month has put this particular form of human rights abuse firmly on the international agenda. Equally importantly, the resolution has served to drag this pernicious institution out of the shadows of the South Asian migrant experience in Europe where it has long remained hidden and into the public domain of legal and institutional scrutiny.

Passed by an overwhelming majority of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the resolution received cross-party support. Its passage was preceded by a discussion in which members from all parties condemned the practice and made specific suggestions on how it could be eradicated.

Caste, according to the resolution, is a “distinct form of discrimination rooted in the social and/or religious context, which must be tackled together with other grounds of discrimination, i.e., ethnicity, race, descent, religion, gender and sexuality, in E.U. [European Union] efforts to fight all forms of discrimination”. It also called for the E.U. to include the issue in legislation and human rights policies while raising it “at the highest level” with the governments of caste-affected countries.

The resolution has had a positive impact for anti-caste campaigners in the United Kingdom, where caste practices and caste-based discrimination are widely prevalent among Asian populations. This is hardly surprising. British Asians now comprise 7.5 per cent of the population of the U.K. Those of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent—among whom the practice of caste is most prevalent —accounted for 3.07 million out of a total population of 63.23 million in the 2011 Census.

In the U.K., caste functions with impunity within a larger socio-political environment in which the rule of law and equality before the law are rights that are institutionalised. It operates in below-the-surface cultural spaces where institutional oversight does not usually reach. In the multicultural society that the U.K. has become, the growth of identity politics has consolidated the hold of traditional ties and practices among immigrant groups. These so-called personal spheres—the home, the joint family, places of worship—are fiercely protected by community bosses from “interference” of any kind. And it is here that the most discriminatory of traditional practices—caste among them—flourish.

An all-religion practice

“Discriminatory practices are highly prevalent in primary migration groups of those who came from the subcontinent in the 1950s and the 1960s,” Usha Sood, Barrister, Trent Chambers, Nottingham, told Frontline. “The very traditional Hindus brought casteism and clannism with them.”

According to her, caste practices exist among the Hindus, the Sikhs and the Muslims. “Within the Sikh community, the Batras are looked down upon as a ‘lower caste’ by other caste and clan groups; amongst the Muslims from Pakistan it is the Mirpuris,” said Usha Sood, who specialises in human rights abuse cases.

“I have handled several cases of refugees. For example, I am fighting the case of a Pakistani Muslim couple, who met and fell in love here and do not want to go back, as people marrying out of caste would get killed.” Usha Sood helped them apply for immigrant status. She recalled a case where a couple from south India—an “upper-caste” girl and a Dalit boy —somehow managed to scrape together the money to escape their family’s wrath by coming to the U.K. “We got them asylum using the U.K. Border Security Agency’s ‘inability to relocate safely’ clause.” In this case, the couple would not have been able to relocate safely to any other part of India, and therefore their case was considered for asylum.

“The European resolution has had an impact because it focusses on the issue,” Usha Sood said. “Look at the caste-based matrimonial ads in regional publications. There are obviously lots of people holding it down.”

Opposition from Alliance of Hindu Organisations

In the U.K., the fight by anti-caste campaigners to bring caste discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 has been opposed by Hindu groups that have joined under the Alliance of Hindu Organisations (AHO) to block this from happening.

The influence of this umbrella organisation was strong enough for the government to postpone the whole process by which the Equality Act could be amended. While the legislation to amend the Act was given the nod by the Parliament this April, the government announced suddenly on July 29 that the consultative process leading up to this would take two years, that is, by the summer of 2015 at the earliest.

The Equality Act at present recognises certain “protected characteristics” such as sex, age, race, gender re-assignment, sexual orientation, religion or belief. The anti-caste campaigners wanted caste to be brought in as an aspect of race. This was immediately seized upon by the AHO to stymie the entire effort. They argued that the study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in 2010, on which the amendments to the Equality Act were based, was flawed.

As early as May, the AHO had received the assurance of Helen Grant, Minister for Women and Equalities. In a letter to Gauri Das of the ADO, she wrote: “I have made no secret at our meeting—and nor do I now—of my disappointment that it has been necessary for the government to concede to making an offer to include caste as an element of race in the Equality Act 2010 following the further defeat in the House of Lords.”

In July, the U.K. government announced that the amendment could be considered only after a period of “consultation” among the stakeholders that would extend until the summer of 2015. This long postponement was seen by the major Dalit and anti-caste groups as a major climbdown because of the pressure from influential Hindu community leaders that would deny present and future victims of caste discrimination speedy justice.

The AHO argued that caste was not race and therefore could not be brought under the ambit of race in the proposed amendment to the Equality Act. It argued that the Equality Act only pertained to discrimination in employment, education and the provision of goods and services. In other words, the caste versus race debate was irrelevant, as the social aspect of caste did not fall within the ambit of the Equality Act.

The U.N.’s position

Adding considerable moral weight to the argument that caste as a form of discrimination must be made justiciable, Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a meeting organised by the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) at the House of Lords this month, argued that international human rights treaties imposed upon members the legal obligation to address discriminations, including caste-based discrimination.

“Caste-based ignorance, hatred, fear and suffering, a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of people, also affects the lives of people in the United Kingdom, in other countries and in diaspora and migrant communities around the world today,” she said.

Nina Pillay said that the U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), ratified by 176 states, called for “the inclusion of a specific prohibition of discrimination on the basis of caste in U.K. legislation”.

The European Parliament resolution and Navi Pillay’s speech have together given the anti-caste discrimination campaign fresh ammunition by putting the issue firmly within a global rights framework.

A spokesperson of the ACDA told Frontline that while they welcomed the government’s commitment to introduce legislation, they were disappointed with its “intransigence on the timetable. It is over-long and bureaucratic.”

On the argument advanced by the AHO that caste was a complex issue and therefore had to be discussed threadbare, the spokesperson said: “Caste may be a complex issue for people who are not familiar with it—but discrimination based on caste is not. It is as pernicious as any other form of discrimination against a person who has any of the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010. We need swift implementation of the law.”

A study on the incidence and forms of caste-based discrimination in the U.K., this time commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as part of the government consultation leading to the introduction of anti-caste legislation, is under way. The AHO issued a press release questioning the composition and work of the committee.

Defending the work done by the team, EHRC chief executive Mark Hammond said: “The research team we appointed was selected on the basis of their proposal, not the views of individual researchers, and the project details have been published on the Commission’s website.” He expressed confidence that the team “will approach the task impartially and we would expect nothing less”.

For the Dalit population in the U.K.—estimated variously between 200,000 and 400,000—the outcome of the study, and the Parliament’s response, is critical to their social and economic position in the country’s future.

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