For a place that is only one-fifteenth the size of London, Coventry has a large number of gurdwaras. Even that might not have seemed so incongruous considering that Sikhs are the largest ethnic minority in this Midlands town — but for the fact that caste-based, dividing lines are drawn within and among these places of worship.
Earlier this month, Britain took the first step towards formally acknowledging that caste-based discrimination exists, with the House of Lords voting in favour of including the concept in the Equality Act of 2010. If it gets the approval of the House of Commons, it will become unlawful to discriminate on the basis of caste in areas of employment, education and the provision of services.
“Caste will be added to the list of nine ‘protected characteristics’ in the equality legislation which at present includes race, sex and religion,” said Lord Eric Avebury, a Liberal Democrat peer, who was among those instrumental in moving the amendment. “The government’s inadequate proposals so far only advocate education as a means of eradicating caste, without providing for legal safeguards.”
The amendment has tread a protracted path due to the government’s reservations in the face of opposition from two influential Hindu organisations, and denial among dominant Sikh groups about the prevalence of casteism.
Discrimination in the UK is the result of tenaciously holding on to a sense of caste-based identity in a new homeland, with the hostility continuing from one generation to the next.
Ram Lakha, former mayor of Coventry, explains how since the establishment of the town’s oldest temple, the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Parkash, in the ’60s, there has been a gradual alienation of the lower castes who soon set up their own temples. Thus emerged the two Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha temples and Maharishi Valmiki temple besides several others.
Lakha himself battled caste prejudices when he was first elected a councillor from an area with a sizeable South Asian population in 1989. “When the local Brahmin leaders got to know that I am from a Dalit community, they started lobbying against my candidature. The only option for me was to contest the next election from the predominantly white neighbouring constituency,” said Lakha, a Labour councillor for 23 years now.
Besides Coventry, UK‘s estimated 480,000 Dalit population is mostly concentrated across 22 areas including Birmingham, Leicester, Bedford, East London and Southall.
At work and at school
As the House of Lords debated the amendment this month, scores from most of these places gathered at Parliament Square to make their voices heard. Most were first- or second-generation immigrants from Punjab with stories to tell — about being denied the right to distribute prasad in a gurdwara or perform puja in a temple in the UK, about children facing bullying in schools, about people being singled out at the workplace despite having adopted caste-neutral last names, about businessmen who found that their success couldn’t protect them from prejudices.
Legal recourse has not been an option, for local officials or office managements often don’t even understand the connotations of caste.
Anita Kaur, 40, of Leicester was born in Britain and raised with a surname that doesn’t reveal much about her ranking in the caste hierarchy. Nonetheless, she faces brazen queries about her caste at community clubs and temples. Her attempts at shielding her daughter from all this have not been impenetrable either.
“Sikhism doesn’t recognise caste. Page 349 of the Guru Granth Sahib says, ‘Do not enquire about one’s caste’,” says Kaur. “Still my daughter gets asked about her caste at school by other children from the community. And when she replies that she doesn’t know, she is told, ‘Go home and ask your parents’.”
The first case of alleged caste discrimination to be reported in UK newspapers was in 2010, that of Vijay Begraj and his wife Amardeep, both 34. In the absence of any legal framework on caste, they are still contesting their case at a Birmingham employment tribunal. As a business and finance manager at a law firm, he had worked his way up for six years, the same firm where she was a solicitor. Born in Britain, they believed this alone was their identity until it was redefined for them the day they decided to get married. Since then, he has been a Hindu Dalit and she a Sikh Jat.
“Our parents had absolutely no problem with our alliance,” says Vijay, whose father had emigrated from Punjab four decades ago and thought the baggage of caste hierarchy was behind him. “But then my three bosses found out that a girl from their community was planning to marry someone from a ‘lower’ caste.” He says that from warning her that “these people are different creatures” to sending him emails with excerpts from the scriptures reminding him of his ascribed subordinate status, his superiors at work did everything to dissuade them from marrying. Their detailed account — harassment, snide remarks, denial of pay hikes and promotions, culminating in his dismissal after seven years in service and her resignation — has been placed before the tribunal.
Satpal Mumum of Caste Watch UK says a member of his group deposed as an expert witness in Vijay’s case to explain the connotations of caste to the court. “In the evening when he returned home, the windows of his house were smashed,” he said.
The government’s reluctance over discrimination legislation for caste was largely based on the uncertainty over its prevalence in the UK. The Government Equalities Office commissioned a report to establish the extent of such discrimination if any. The report, released in December 2010, was emphatic in its finding that there is a need for both discrimination and criminal legislation. It notes that while the caste system had its origins in Hinduism, in the UK it is particularly entrenched in Sikh communities. It cites several cases of alleged discrimination, overt and subtle, against Ravidassias and Valmikis by Jat Sikhs.
A 2009 study by the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance, with academics from three British universities, found 58 per cent of the 300 people surveyed confirming they had been discriminated against because of their caste, and 79 per cent pointing out that the UK police wouldn’t have understood if they had reported such discrimination as a ‘hate crime’.
Another study, in 2006 by the UK Dalit Solidarity Network, went into caste prejudices in temples, the workplace, politics, health care and education. In a foreword to the report, Jeremy Corbyn, DSN chairman and MP, notes that prejudice “has been exported to the UK through the Indian diaspora. The same attitudes of superiority, pollution and separateness appear to be present in South Asian communities now settled in the UK.”
Corbyn told The Indian Express, “I represent a constituency in Central London where this is much less prevalent unlike in many other places outside where it is a serious human rights violation, one that is difficult to prove unless the legislation is in place.”