After US, Ambedkarites in UK Renew Their Fight for Caste Legislation

Ambedkarites in the UK are fighting for the enactment of law against caste discrimination for about two decades.

6 min read
Hindi Female

A 68-year-old man of Indian origin in the United Kingdom, Amrik Bajwa, was sentenced to 18 weeks in jail in April this year for posting a TikTok video in which he was abusing Dalit women and threatening to rape them.

Santosh Dass, an Ambedkarite activist and chair of Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, who has been lobbying for a legislation against caste discrimination in the UK, told The Quint that the man, a Jat Sikh, was sentenced under the Communications Act but could not be charged under the provisions of the country's Equality Act 2010 because it doesn't recognise caste as a protected category.

Dalit activists and Ambedkarites in the UK are fighting for the enactment of legislation against caste discrimination for about two decades but their struggle hasn't fructified yet.

A conference was organised in the University of Oxford last month to discuss this issue in which Dass and others who have been campaigning for the legislation for the last few years such as Lord Richard Harries of Pentregarth, Annapurna Waughray and Meena Dhanda participated.

Ambedkarites in the UK are fighting for the enactment of law against caste discrimination for about two decades.

Panelists discuss legislation on caste discrimination at University of Oxford, 23 June 2023.

(Photo: By arrangement)


"Labour and Liberal Democrats, as far as I know, are still committed to including caste in the 2010 Equalities Act and steps have been taken, and will continue to be taken to ensure that this is part of their policy. Whether it should actually appear in their manifestos is another matter, but it needs to be part of what they intend to achieve if they come to power. That is, if they are committed to removing all forms of discrimination," Harries said in his keynote speech.

Equality Act 2010

The UK's anti-discrimination statute mentions nine protected categories – age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

It mentions caste as well in the sub-clause relating to race, however, only as a promise that the government, in the future, will amend the act to make caste an aspect of race.

In 2013, through an amendment, this obligation was turned into a duty. But, even after a decade, the UK government hasn't fulfilled the promise.

On the contrary, Tory MP Bob Blackman, whose Harrow East constituency has a significant population of British Indians, has been demanding the repeal of this clause.

The Hindu right, who have been vociferously opposing inclusion of caste in the Equality Act, have Blackman's ear. They deny that anyone practises caste discrimination in the UK and characterise any effort to legislate on the matter as Hinduphobia.

Satish Sharma, General Secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples, had told the BBC in 2017, "There has been this assumption that Hindus are casteist and I have recently heard what I think is an outrageously prejudicial term, where groups who are not Dalits are now being referred to as 'caste supremacists'."


University Spaces Important in the Struggle

Meena Dhanda, Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Politics at the University of Wolverhampton, told The Quint that many upper caste Sikhs too support the Hindu right in their opposition to the legislation.

She says that if the Labour Party comes back to power in the next term, the advocacy for legislating caste as a protected category will receive an impetus. She further states that trade unions, university students and academics will have to be involved for wider engagement on the issue.

"Of late, more and more Dalit students are coming to the UK for higher education and they are making their presence felt [by speaking out against caste and discrimination]. This forces people to take note," she says.

The student body of the SOAS University of London recently added caste to its equality and diversity policy.

The Indian students who were involved in organising the conference in Oxford on 23 June, are working towards introducing caste to their university's equality policy. A roundtable was arranged for this purpose involving a number of stakeholders, including faculty, students union, administration and even the mayoral office of the Oxford city council.

Ambedkarites in the UK are fighting for the enactment of law against caste discrimination for about two decades.

Simple Rajrah moderating the roundtable meeting at University of Oxford, 23 June 2023.

(Photo: By arrangement)

Simple Rajrah, a PhD scholar at the university and who also moderated the roundtable, told The Quint,

"The agenda was to request the University of Oxford to include caste as a protected category in the university’s equality framework and institute positive responsibilities such as scholarships to address caste-based discrimination and inequalities. Why did we do this at Oxford? Because there are only a handful of DBA (Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi) students at Oxford."

Shireen Azam, another PhD scholar at the university and one of the organisers of the conference, told The Quint that since Oxford is a university town, it has a huge South Asian student population. She added that they plan to work towards creating awareness about caste discrimination and its manifestations on a campus like Oxford.

"We will focus on increasing visibility on this issue with concerted campaigns with the union as well as further deliberations with the administration," Rajrah said.

In May, India centre at the University of Oxford launched a fully-funded Savitribai Phule Graduate scholarship for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and first-generation students applying to the university for postgraduate studies.

Dass said that a large number of Indian students are getting visas to study in the UK. However, a person flying from India to the UK doesn't leave caste mid-air and therefore she hopes that, following the US universities like Brown, University of California and others, more and more UK universities will add caste to their equality policies.

However, what Dass hopes the most is that caste is legislated as a separate protected category in the Equality Act 2010 as it will outlaw caste discrimination in the fields of education, employment and provision of public goods and services across the UK.

Ambedkarites in the UK are fighting for the enactment of law against caste discrimination for about two decades.

A Long History of Anti-Caste Activism in the UK

The word caste entered the 2010 anti-discrimination law after a long campaign by numerous Dalit and Ambedkarite organisations in the UK. In her essay 'The Campaign to Outlaw Caste Discrimination in Britain' in the book Ambedkar in London, Dass notes that the anti-caste activism in the UK can be traced back to the 1970s, if not earlier.


However, it really picked up pace in late 1990s and early 2000s when a number of Ambedkarite organisations were formed one after the other, some of which still continue their work. The major among them were Dalit Solidarity Network UK, Voice of Dalit International, Caste Watch UK, and Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance.

After Dalit activists started campaigning for legislation prohibiting caste discrimination, Savarna Hindus claimed that discrimination on the basis of caste didn't take place in the UK. This necessitated the need for surveys and reports to establish the empirical reality of caste. One of the first such reports was published by the Dalit Solidarity Network UK in 2006 titled 'No Escape: Caste Discrimination in the UK'; the foreword for this report was written by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has been a staunch supporter of the caste discrimination legislation.

More reports were published in later years such as 'A Hidden Apartheid: Voice of the Community' (2009), 'Caste Discrimination and Harassment in Great Britain (2010), and 'Caste in Britain: Socio-legal Review' (2014). The 2019 BBC documentary 'Hindus: Do We Have a Caste Problem?' was also instrumental in taking the discussion forward.

While the Ambedkarites won a big victory by getting the word caste included in the Equality Act, the progress on actually outlawing caste discrimination has stalled in the years after.

In 2015, a 39-old-year Adivasi woman, Permila Tirkey, was awarded almost £184,000 in unpaid wages after she won the case against her British Indian employers Pooja and Ajay Chandhok. Tirkey was brought to the UK from Bihar to work as a domestic servant. However, she was made to work dawn to dusk, seven days a week and was paid bare minimum wages. Tirkey v Chandhok was a landmark case because it acknowledged the "low caste" status of Tirkey as a factor in the treatment meted out to her by her upper caste employers.


However, the UK government has since been arguing that this case shows that there is no need for a separate legislation on caste as the current law is enough to deal with cases of caste discrimination.

"The judgment of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Tirkey v Chandhok shows that someone claiming caste discrimination may rely on the existing statutory remedy where they can show that their “caste” is related to their ethnic origin, which is itself an aspect of race discrimination in the Equality Act," Penny Mordaunt, the then Minister for Women and Equalities, told the parliament in 2018.

However, Dass argues that the concept of ethnic origin cannot accurately capture the empirical reality of caste. "We need a separate category for caste," she asserts.

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Topics:  United Kingdom   Caste   Indian Diaspora 

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