This story hasn’t had much coverage in the British press. According to The Hindu, India’s left-ish English-language broadsheet, the UK government is about to outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste. The Equality Act 2010 empowers the government to do this without the need for new legislation. (See point 7 here.)
Caste discrimination in the UK is largely confined to Britain’s Indian communities. Most people wouldn’t be able to spot a Dalit if they were sitting at the next desk. But, far from welcoming the proposal, some people in the British Hindu community are opposed to it, as is the Indian government. The Hindu reports:
There has been widespread cross-party support for the campaign, the “only reluctant voices being those of Asian MPs,” according to Lekh Pall, general secretary of the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA).
The issue has divided Britain’s Indian diaspora and right-wing groups such as the Hindu Forum of Britain have launched a counter-campaign arguing that the Government has no right to intervene in what they claim is the community’s internal affair.
Presumably, these unnamed MPs and leaders of the Hindu forum would be the first to invoke anti-racism laws should someone discriminate against them.
The claim that the internal affairs of the Hindu community should be beyond the reach of the government is amusing too. I seem to remember a similar stance being taken by those opposed to civil rights laws in the USA. Under the banner of states-rights, they argued that the government should not impose laws preventing southern states from discriminating against black people. Interfering with a community’s historic right to prejudice eh? What a bleedin’ liberty.
The comments thread on The Hindu’s article is mostly supportive of a change in UK law, as is the Sri Lanka Guardian, the only other newspaper I could find with a report on the proposal.
Is caste discrimination in the UK a problem? There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that it is. For those outside the various Indian communities, though, such discrimination might be difficult to recognise. It’s something that you need to be ‘in the know’ to understand, as Dr Gurnam Singh explains:
Among ethnic communities in the UK there are long-established associations based on caste, so it retains some kind of relevance and ‘acceptability’ when people are make judgments about character and status.
Also, many Asian surnames are caste-based, so caste is explicit right from the start. Research in the UK has shown that more than 50,000 Dalits – once known as ‘untouchables’ – have experienced discrimination from other castes in terms of jobs, healthcare, and in schools.
This has a familiar ring too. Friends from Northern Ireland reckon they can tell within minutes whether someone is from a Protestant or Catholic background. Where prejudice is subtle and deep-rooted, you need a certain amount of knowledge both to exercise it and to recognise it.
Caste prejudice is likely to be a major issue only for those employers with large numbers of Asian people in their workforces. That said, it only takes two people to create an illegal discrimination case. What might look to an outsider like a simple personality clash could be based on something deeper.
As with all forms of discrimination, the managers who keep their eyes and ears open and who are sensitive to the changes in atmosphere among their team members will be the most likely to spot it and tackle it before it gets out of hand. Those who ignore it and hope it will go away are the ones who will find themselves in front of an employment tribunal.
It may be some time before the first caste discrimination case is brought but, if this proposal becomes law, there will surely be some sooner or later. It’s one more potential source of trouble that managers and HR professionals need to keep in mind.
Update: Employment lawyer Darren Newman referred me to Lord Lester’s comments in January of this year. Lord Lester believes that the current law effectively outlaws caste discrimination already so, if the government doesn’t introduce a specific provision against it, someone may bring a test case to force its hand.