Far-right Hindus in the UK are trying to obscure the fight against caste discrimination by claiming it is ‘anti-Hindu’.
South Asian caste systems affect not only the region itself, but also South Asian communities around the world. The most dominant of these systems is that belonging to Hinduism, initiated in India about 3,000 years ago.
Since then, it has been adopted in different forms – but with similar functions – by many Sikhs and some South Asian Muslims.
The Hindu caste system places followers of the faith in a social hierarchy made up of four categories that determine the jobs they can perform and their social status. There is no prospect of social mobility.
Brahmins – Priests
Kshatriyas – Warriors
Vaishyas – Merchants and landowners
Shudras – Peasants and Servants
Below this four-tiered hierarchy is a group considered outcasts: the Dalits. They are shunned by mainstream society and are expected to work as manual garbage collectors. Many live in harsh conditions in the poorest parts of India and are considered ‘untouchable’ by the so-called ‘upper’ castes.
While caste discrimination was officially declared illegal in India in 1948, its practice persists to this day, frequently resulting in brutal violence, including the rape and murder of people considered “lower castes”.
Caste-based discrimination also haunts the UK, affecting major institutions such as the National Health Service and the military.
“There was a really offensive leaflet in the chaplaincy section of a large NHS Hospital Trust last year. The leaflet described how to treat a Hindu patient. He was basically saying that an “untouchable” or a menstruating woman should not touch a Brahmin. Can you imagine? What if you have a nurse or doctor on her period touching a patient? It’s extreme,” says Santosh Dass, spokesperson for the Anti-Caste Alliance Against Discrimination.
Marriage website Shaadi.com was recently exposed for creating algorithms that blocked members of certain castes in the UK from being introduced to others.
Hari, a Nepalese living in London who is considered a Dalit, or “untouchable”, says caste bias and discrimination are often subtle.
“These are people who do not want to give a room to rent. They say your caste by your last name. You also see that when you are in the “upper castes” they have certain facial expressions when they assume your caste. They speak rudely to you.
Many Nepalese serve in the British Army as part of the Gurkha Brigade. Hari says many of his friends have been denied positions because of their caste. The UK Ministry of Defense says it does not consider caste as a criterion for recruitment, but many say it remains a barrier. When Dalits are recruited, they are often faced with separate living quarters.
No specific legislation prohibits caste-based discrimination in the UK. The cases that have been presented have been on the basis of caste being understood as an aspect of race. This absence of specific legislation can make the fight against a case more complex.
In 2018, the government reneged on its promise to include caste as a specific category of discrimination in the Equality Act 2010, arguing there was no need to legally distinguish between race and caste.
“This gray area was created by the Hindu lobby,” said Sat Pal Muman, chairman of anti-caste campaign Castewatch UK.
“The government did this to appease politically active Hindus and garner votes.”
“The Hindu lobby has powerful ties to the Conservative government which relies on the votes of this community. The government also needs a good post-Brexit deal with India. This hampered the implementation of the law,” says Dass.
Muman says far-right Hindus are trying to obscure the fight against caste discrimination by claiming it is “anti-Hindu”.
“Groups opposing the legislation here in the UK have links to the Indian government’s Hindutva agenda. The mere mention of caste puts them in the spotlight. They go on the offensive and accuse you of attacking their religion…but it’s a conversation worth having.
While the theological underpinnings of caste in Hinduism cannot be ignored, he says the focus of his campaign is based on “the fact that people are discriminated against. It’s about human rights – not about a specific religious group.
He also dealt with cases among British Pakistani Muslims who applied a similar system of hierarchy known as biradari, often to denigrate political opponents and control the electoral vote within specific castes.
For Santosh, the fumigant arguments and the powerful lobbies are not dissuasive. “We continue to mobilize and advocate for the law. At its core, caste-based discrimination is about dehumanizing people and maintaining control and power over them. Ultimately, the voices of victims will need to be heard.
There could be a long way to go before that happens.
The stigma of being from a lower caste is so widespread that many people try to hide their caste when looking for a job or housing. If they are exposed and discriminated against by employers and landlords, taking their case to court could lead to further discrimination by others who, as a result, become aware of their caste.
This creates a conundrum in which fear and stigma prevent people from coming forward, allowing the government and the far-right Hindu lobby to claim that changes to the law are unnecessary, in turn allowing discrimination and him allowing to continue.
Hari is an example. He didn’t want his true identity revealed when he was talking to World TRT because it would “cause problems”. His frustration is clear: “I hate caste. People are born free with equal dignity and rights. If we were all human, you wouldn’t consider someone “untouchable”.
“The ‘upper castes’ deny any discrimination. If so, why do we have a caste system in the first place? »
Source: World TRT