A coalition of community groups, human rights organisations and politicians has renewed its call for the government to tackle caste discrimination in the UK by introducing legal protection for those from traditionally lower status Asian backgrounds.
Although a section of the Equality Act 2010 could offer lower-caste Asians a legal safeguard against discrimination, it has not been activated despite repeated demands from campaigners.
Supporters of the legislation say the law is needed to prevent discrimination at work, in the classroom and in the health service.
Two separate studies – one commissioned by the government from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (Niesr) after the act was amended to include the power to extend protection against discrimination and harassment to caste – have reported the existence of caste-based discrimination in the UK, but no official steps have been taken.
A survey published three years ago by the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance found that 58% of those questioned felt they had been discriminated against because of their caste status, while 79% said they did not think the police would understand if they tried to report a caste-related “hate crime”.
A law practice manager and his solicitor wife are also currently engaged in the UK’s first discrimination claim on the grounds of caste prejudice. Vijay Begraj claims he suffered discrimination and was wrongfully dismissed from his job at the firm where they both worked because he was of a lower caste than his wife, Amardeep. The Coventry-based firm, Heer Manak, denies the claim, which it describes as “ludicrous”.
A conference at the House of Lords on Wednesday heard that Dalits (the caste formerly known as “untouchables”) and others affected by the caste system are growing increasingly exasperated by the lack of action.
Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat member of the all-party parliamentary group for Dalits, has since written to the equalities minister, Maria Miller, to express the conference’s “great disappointment … over the government’s procrastination, and the absence of any credible reason for the delay”.
He also asked whether the government’s failure to act had anything to do with objections made by members of the higher castes.
“We only know that you have been lobbied by high-caste representatives, and this has led you to say that there is no consensus for bringing section 9 (5)a into operation,” he wrote.
“This was seen as equivalent to saying there should be no legislation against racial discrimination because white people might object to it!”
His demands were echoed by Lady Thornton, the shadow equalities spokesperson, who said: “Now that the research has been done and the government has got the evidence, it shouldn’t delay looking at it.”
A spokeswoman for Miller’s department, the DCMS, said: “We are carefully considering the findings of the Niesr report on caste discrimination, together with the views expressed by various sections of the Hindu and Sikh communities, both those who want the government to legislate and those who oppose such legislation.”
She said no one should have to endure discrimination or prejudice on the grounds of caste or any other personal characteristic, adding: “Such behaviour is wrong and should not be condoned whether or not it is prohibited by legislation.”
The DCMS confirmed that Avebury’s letter had been received and that a response was being prepared.
A joint statement issued by dozens of anti-discrimination and human rights groups is demanding that the government activate the legislation immediately.
“By not acting on the evidence presented to it, which we regard as highly significant, we believe that the UK government is discriminating against victims (mainly Dalits) of caste-based discrimination in the UK who are not given a similar level of protection accorded to victims of other forms of unacceptable discrimination,” it says. “There is complete consensus amongst groups and individuals that are affected by caste-based discrimination in the UK on this matter and the urgent need to invoke section 9 (5)a of the Equality Act 2010.
Maria Miller M.P, the Equalities Minister . Photograph : David Jones/PA
Sam Jones: ‘The Guardian’ Friday 30 November 2012 – 15.51. GMT
For more on this meeting – hit the link to Lord Avebury’s blog (below)
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