Caste-ridden Britain

Jastinder Khera on the challenges that exist because of the caste system in parts of the UK's Asian

The Equality and Human Rights Commission was launched in October with much Establishment whooping and was heralded as the unified answer to discrimination. But, when asked about its stance towards caste discrimination among British Asians, the commission's reply was brisk; although its priorities are constantly updated, it has "no plans to look at this issue at the current time".

This response is typical of official attitudes to the problem, which is only now starting to be raised by the efforts of activists. The EHRC can hardly be blamed for not having a policy when caste "is not currently recognised or featured in any UK legislation", according to Annapurna Waughray, an expert on caste in the law.

There is a corresponding lack of detailed research and statistics on the subject. Meena Varma, chair of Dalit Solidarity Network UK, claims that "the government is wary of legislating on something which it is not convinced exists. It thinks it is all anecdotal evidence." But, as Jeremy Corbyn MP points out: "If you don't look, you won't find. I remember conversations with policemen 20 years ago when they said domestic violence wasn't a big problem."

Caste divisions certainly exist for those willing to look. Testimonies collated by CasteWatchUK and DSN range from harassment at work to bullying at school and even extend to politics. At a conference at the Palace of Westminster in November, CasteWatch presented evidence from victims as part of its campaign to have caste included in the forthcoming Single Equality Bill, due in this parliament. The civil servants drafting the bill say they will respond to the charities' submissions early this year.

The chance of caste being recognised is complicated by the reluctance of those from lower castes to come forward. "Often these people have gone to great lengths to put their caste behind them; they've changed their names, moved to a different country, made a new life for themselves. Why on earth would they want to expose themselves to that stigma again?" asks Varma.

Rob Marris MP, present at the CasteWatch conference, urged the government to "cut the Gordian knot and leave aside the question of evidence. What is needed is political will: if we've decided that it's wrong, let's make it illegal."

Marris believes the technical complexity of a new category may be a factor, and that some in government may be wary of offending "our new best friend India" (though he pointed out this was barely relevant, given Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's own vigorous denunciations of caste).

Another crucial arena, according to activists, is school. "Religious education introduces the concept of caste as part of Hinduism lessons," Varma says. "Then kids start asking each other about their castes, and it can turn into a real battleground." For many lower-caste young people, this is their first encounter with caste status, as parents often avoid mentioning the subject during their childhood. The experience can be damaging to children's self-esteem.

Rena Dipti Annobil, of the campaigning theatre company Caste Away Arts, whose play The Fifth Cup was a sell-out last month in Birmingham, believes the Asian community has a responsibility to stop stratifying itself. "I don't think it's right for matrimonial websites to have a 'caste' option," she says, referring to one of the areas where caste is most keenly felt. Although marriages between middle and higher castes are on the rise, only 25 per cent of Asian marriages take place across caste lines, according to one estimate.

Many activists further agree that societies for higher castes, of which there are several in the UK, are problematic. "No one would mind if it was just about family ties or tradition. But identifying yourself through caste is utterly demeaning," says Varma. CasteWatch also wants broadcasters to stop promoting music that celebrates certain castes, notably through the "jat pride" phenomenon in Punjabi bhangra.

Pashori Lal, chairman of CasteWatch, claims that few in British Asian media and politics are willing to confront caste: "They're scared of opening a can of worms."

While the government makes up its mind on the law, those at the bottom of the old hierarchy will continue to face the dilemma eloquently summed up by Annobil: "I feel caught between saying, on the one hand, 'I'm a Valmiki - I'm proud of my people and how far we've come,' and on the other hand saying: 'I don't have a caste - I am who I am.'"

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot