By Aditi Khanna
London, Sep 19 A public consultation process by the British government to determine whether to legislate against caste-based discrimination, an issue that has deeply divided the Indian diaspora in the UK, has been concluded.
The 'Caste in Great Britain and Equality Law – A Public Consultation' had been launched in March to gather the public view on how best to ensure that there is "appropriate legal protection" against caste discrimination.
"This ban could be applied by formally making caste an aspect of race in the Equality Act 2010; or through developing case law in the courts and employment tribunals.
"In either case, businesses and public authorities would have to consider caste discrimination in the same way they consider other aspects of race discrimination when dealing with employees, customers or service users," the consultation by the UK Government's Equalities Office said.
The process had been initially set to close in July but was extended by further eight weeks as a result of the snap general election in June.
"We are analysing all the responses received and will respond in due course. There is no set time-frame for the next phase of the process," a spokesperson for the Equalities Office said in reference to the end of the consultation process.
The UK government defines "caste" as a hereditary, endogamous (marrying within the group) community associated with a traditional occupation and ranked accordingly on a perceived scale of ritual purity.
"It is generally (but not exclusively) associated with South Asia, particularly India, and its diaspora," the explanatory note to the Equality Act 2010 reads.
"It can encompass the four classes (varnas) of Hindu tradition (the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra communities); the thousands of regional Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim or other religious groups known as jatis; and groups amongst South Asian Muslims called biradaris. Some jatis regarded as below the varna hierarchy (once termed "untouchables") are known as Dalits," it reads.
The issue has deeply divided the Indian diaspora in the UK, with Dalit rights groups campaigning for years for legal protection against caste discrimination and other groups claiming that any move to legislate the issue would entrench divisions that are not relevant to the British-Indian community.
"A new legislation on caste will have the effect of setting one surname against another as nowadays caste is all that it is, an expiring identity of a surname, and not only bring back a forgotten and irrelevant caste system here into the UK it can have the effect of dividing the British Indian society," said Anil Bhanot, director of inter-faith relations, Hindu Council UK.
Additionally, British Sikhs object to the explanatory note used in the UK's Equality Act itself for making a reference to "Sikhs" within the context caste.
"Our Gurus and Sikh teachings are opposed to all forms of discrimination and totally reject any notion of ranking according to ritual purity therefore it is offensive and inappropriate for there to be any reference to Sikhs in paragraph 49 of the Explanatory Notes and we want this removed," said Bhai Amrik Singh, Chair of the Sikh Federation (UK).
"Sikh organisations responding to the consultation are united in our request for the definition to drop reference to Sikhs, but the Hindu community have a much more difficult challenge as many believe in the four classes (varnas) of the Hindu tradition," he said, exposing the divide over the issue.
Mumbai-born British artist Anish Kapoor is among the high-profile voices backing calls for anti-caste legislation.
"It is outlawed in India, so why not in Britain? It is discrimination at the most vile level. The government introduced laws against slavery, so why can they not act on this," he said.
Following a long-drawn campaign by Dalit groups, the UK's House of Lords had voted in March 2013 in favour of outlawing caste discrimination by including it as a category in anti- racism laws.
The government responded with the public consultation process which has concluded this week.
Meena Varma, director of the Dalit Solidarity Network, said that caste operates like a "hidden apartheid" in the UK and it is "beyond belief" that the government had stalled for years on making caste discrimination illegal, as required by the Lords vote.
The UK government had commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) to carry out research into the issue, resulting in a report in December 2010 entitled 'Caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain'.
It had pegged Britain's Dalit or lower caste community between 50,000 and 200,000 and found that caste awareness was largely focused among people with roots in the Indian sub- continent.