New Internationalist

Britain moves a step closer to combating caste

people hold placards calling for law change
Campaigners are celebrating legal recognition of caste based discrimination in Britain IDSN

There’s been jubilation in some British circles. After several years of Dalit solidarity groups combating caste discrimination there, the House of Lords finally voted for legal protection to be given to the most vulnerable British citizens of Indian descent, primarily Indian and Sikh communities.

Caste discrimination in Britain? I was puzzled. I knew about the class system there, and about racism. But caste? In July 2005, New Internationalist editor, Nikki van der Gaag and I co-edited an issue called Combating Caste. Nikki wrote an in-depth story, interviewing several British Dalit groups on the forms of discrimination they faced.

The history went like this. Apparently in the fifties and sixties when Indians and Pakistanis first arrived in Britain, the men shared food, accommodation and warmth. They huddled together in the alien, new land, starved of friendship, freezing even in summer, missing the torrid Indian temperatures, their families and the crowds back home. They stuck together regardless of caste or creed, desperate for companionship. Later as they got better jobs, established themselves and brought their families to join them, the status quo kicked in. They had to re-establish the norms of the society they’d left behind. And caste with its rules of exclusion took precedence over earlier ties and friendships.

We were proud when Jeremy Corbyn took our 2005 New Internationalist issue to the British parliament and quoted from it, urging the government to take note of the fact of caste discrimination in Britain and India and to be proactive in combating it.

Gerard Oonk, Director of the India Committee of the Netherlands, writes: ‘this spring, campaigners have organized three rallies against caste discrimination. Years of campaigning for a law to ban caste discrimination were finally rewarded, as the UK government made a U-turn and decided to offer legal protection to Britain’s hundreds of thousands of Dalits.’

Groups like CasteWatch, the Dalit Solidarity Network UK and the International Dalit Solidarity Network, along with Dalit leaders from India, have lobbied consistently and effectively in Britain, The Hague, the European Union and the UN, for over a decade now. They deserve this hard won victory.

There are an estimated 400,000 Dalits or so-called Indian ‘untouchables’ in Britain. Untouchability exists mostly among Hindus but Muslims observe a caste hierarchy too and some Christians insist on looking at caste considerations when they choose spouses for their sons and daughters.

In India, Dalits are killed and raped every day, even now, when they try to assert their constitutionally granted human rights. In Britain discrimination takes the form of abuse, subtle taunts and caste based humiliation. British Dalits reported, in our 2005 interviews, that dominant caste, Indian origin, British women on a Wolverhampton shop floor would not drink water from the same tap as the British Dalit women. A shopkeeper, also from Wolverhampton, reported an incident where a customer insisted that their change be placed on the counter to avoid touching a shop assistants hand, because the assistant was from a different caste. People reported that they were often denied jobs when a dominant caste employer recognised they were from a Dalit background.

Indians take caste and the hateful discrimination it can result in, to every corner of the world. Even among educated people, caste dominates in subtle ways. The Dalit battle for dignity has progressed in leaps and bounds. They have inspired able advocates all over the world. For over a decade now, I have watched this moving battle in India and abroad. I salute the Dalit community and support groups on every victory attained. Each small step forward is a giant leap for future generations. Jai Bheem*.

* ‘Jai Bheem’ is an Indian Buddhist greeting.

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  1. #1 Richard Zipfel 26 Apr 13

    The end of a long struggle for justice

  2. #2 Premila Ashok 26 Apr 13

    Isn't it a deep seated inferiority which makes a human being act superior to another? Laws can do only so much - to get you thinking- but unless each of those caste members start to think globally and ’unlearn’ attitudes there is little hope. Meanwhile one small step at a time. More power to your pen Marie.

  3. #3 Sarah 26 Apr 13

    I knew about fair colour preferences amongst Indians living abroad (when getting married) but I didn't know this went as far as reproducing the cast system. People segregation and sectarianism are like ghosts hiding behind every corner of the world! We need to remain awake!

  4. #4 Merlyn Brito 26 Apr 13

    Whenever I see petty caste discrimination I always tell myself, ’But for the grace of god, I could have been in that person's shoes.’ No one can chose where,when & to whom he or she will be born and accordingly one's birth situation is nothing that one should gloat about.We talk about prevention of Cruelty to Animals but we fail to see that cruelty to our fellow man is rampant.

  5. #5 Communal Award 26 Apr 13

    Google ’Independent Nation For 300 Million India's Untouchable People’

  6. #6 Umakant 26 Apr 13

    Dear Mari, thanks a lot for this piece and also for being part of this struggle to outlaw the caste based discrimination in the UK. It is indeed a hard earned recognition as witnessed through a long and sustained advocacy by different groups and individuals. Congratulations to all those who have been part of this campaign in the UK and also from other countries. This move by the UK Government to outlaw the practice of caste based discrimination will certainly have far reaching consequences in the struggle for Dalit Human Rights at the global level.

  7. #7 mriamma Alexander 26 Apr 13

    i was never aware of this caste discrimination in England.Anyway wonderful achievement!But it may not go from the minds of this generation,may be it will go from the minds of next generation.

  8. #8 Ludwig Pesch 26 Apr 13

    Discrimination of any kind must not be tolerated anywhere as human rights are not negotiable.
    Insulting the most vulnerable group or even individual at hand seems to be a universal trait, however, and therefore hardly confined to South Asians abroad. Even 2nd and 3rd generation - hence naturalized - Turks, Surinamese Hindus and Maroccans here in the Netherlands hardly ever socialize voluntarily. They may join occasionally in the face of populist campaigns, then part ways again.
    In the Indian circles known to me personally I have noticed a broadminded attitude that stands out above much of most local acquaintance. This may be due to shared interests like Tagore's vision of a better society, music and education. But there is hope.

  9. #9 Aloke Surin 26 Apr 13

    It is a great leap forward, certainly. A lot of Indians, though, carry caste biases and discrimination in their hearts and this inner change is what we should hope for in the long term.

  10. #10 cavery bopaiah 27 Apr 13

    I guess this lack of social development is responsible for the absence of economic development. Our leaders look down upon us in just the same way.

  11. #11 Ashif Shaikh 27 Apr 13

    This is very important step for struggle.

  12. #12 Betty 27 Apr 13

    Wonderful that Britain has taken these steps. Fascinating how we bring harmful practices across the globe.

    That is why my country, the United States, and yours Mari, India,
    has to be accountable to international bodies that protect human rights even as we strive mightily to correct human rights gaps and deficits, violations and abuses, in our own countries.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    April 26, 2013

  13. #13 Meena Varma 27 Apr 13

    Good to see our great news is hitting the headlines. We have campaigned long and hard and finally we won! The UK government has outlawed caste-based discrimination. But our work is not complete - implementation is the key. We must make sure that the rule of law is upheld. We cannot change minds - but we can influence behaviours. Discrimination is wrong - don't do it or else you will feel the force of the law. Dalit rights are human right. See latest news on

  14. #14 Gerard Oonk 27 Apr 13

    It is of great importance - both in the UK a well as globally - - that the British government has recognized that caste discrimination for what it is: a denial of human rights. Congratulations to the campaigners in the UK who have achieved this major victory.

  15. #15 Sabita Banerji 27 Apr 13

    Hats off to the campaigners and law-makers of Britain and beyond for taking us another small step further towards a world where no discrimination of any kind is tolerated. And hats of to you and Nikki for your part in the campaign! As a half-English, half-Indian daughter of a lapsed Catholic and a non-practicing Hindu who abhors being referred to as a Brahmin, I have an ambiguous relationship with caste, class and race (which are pretty much the same thing; different ways of saying ’us’ and ’them’). Our family is Brahmin and aristo by blood - but by marrying a non-Hindu (lower even than Dalits apparently), and crossing the ’black water’ my father lost his caste. By failing to go to public school, to be filthy rich or to have a stately home we have slipped somewhat in the class stakes too. So what class are we? All of them, if you take various criteria into consideration.Yet people seem determined to pigeon hole me; ’You are middle class!’ a fellow uni student proclaimed’. ’She is a Brahmin!’ insisted my uncle's driver when the priest wouldn't let me into the Durga temple in Kolkatta. Being all castes and all classes, I am, of course, none. And from the outside it all looks rather silly. Like the Dr Seuss book, Star Bellied Sneetches where a star on your belly meant superiority, until a enterpreneurial minded Sneetch introduced a machine for printing belly stars and pandemonium - then egalitarianism - ensued. Hopefully this law will be another drop in the stream that contains legalisation of same sex marriages, companies adopting ethical trading practices at the urging of their customers, newspaper readers refusing to accept hacking as a valid source of information, and more...could humanity actually be moving towards a ethical future?

  16. #16 chandrika sen sharma 27 Apr 13

    Hopefully, with more spotlight being cast on this hateful discrimination, like what you are doing here Mari, will help undermine those who persist in this kind of behavior. It is also surprising that it exists outside India as much as it does within the country. I, for one was not aware of this being such a problem in Britain, so I am thrilled that the lawmakers there have voted for legal protection for this vulnerable community!

  17. #17 Paul Divakar 28 Apr 13

    Caste is no doubt a 'mind-set', but also a stark and stinking reality making amockery of all forms of reason and principles of natural justice! It has continued to hound us, no matter whom we married, where we migrated or which Faith we have denounced to take on a different one - all societies have found a way of excluding, discriminating and negating on the one hand and privileging and promoting the others. It has survived all systems and constitutions which have outlawed it. We need to continue to expose the forms and shades Caste based discrimination takes - not for the sake of those who are being excluded or discriminated - but more to liberate the ones that are perpetuating this heinous behaviour as it is they who are in need of being 'humanised'! Thanks to all the Campaigners in UK and worldwide who are exposing this reality and challening it at several levels - and Thanks Marie for visibilising this.

  18. #18 Peter Gould 28 Apr 13

    All nations should take a lead from the UK and include caste as an aspect of race discrimination and to ensure their citizens don't benefit from caste based oppression and exploitation. I will be pushing for this in Australia.

  19. #19 Shiva Shankar 29 Apr 13

    The USA and other countries too, should pass such a law. Only then, perhaps, will Hindus be shamed into concrete action against the 'unparalleled social abuse of untouchability (A.J.Toynbee)'.

  20. #20 Dame Hilary Blume 29 Apr 13

    Horrified that caste system is imported into the UK. Our own informal class system is bad enough, but at least has some mobilility.

    Dame Hilary Blume
    The Charities Advisory Trust,

  21. #21 Anuradha krishna 29 Apr 13

    It is shameful and shocking to realise that Indians carry their caste prejudices wherever they go. Thanks for bringing this up for
    all our notice, mari!

  22. #22 Louise 01 May 13

    Great article as I with great shame had no idea Dalits were suffering in Britain to the extent they are! Will the law changes result in real changes at a grass roots level though!

  23. #23 Ram 07 May 13

    There are only 4 major casts. Bhramin, Chathria, Vaishya, and Shudra. There are many sub casts in each. Unfortunately there now a 5th group who are Clasified as Daliths, Untouchables, Outcasts. This group also has sub casts.
    In the old days when law order was maintained by 5 village elders ( Punch ) The person presiding known as SirPunch This system is still prevalent in many parts of India, mostly in the North.
    When any one defaulted the social norms He/She was thrown out of the village and was declared Untouchable. not only was the person thrown out but the entire family had to go. Their children were also not admitted and the 5th cast was formed.
    The services of this group was very much needed to do all the menial jobs but they were treated most cruelly.
    With education and economic development one would have thought that this group get absorbed in the main society but this has not append
    thought the cruelty

  24. #24 Sr Janet 14 May 13

    For those of us who are from a non-Indian background and live in Britain, we are unaware of casteism in our society until it is brought to our attention. Thank you, Mari, for your contribution

  25. #25 Harbans Lal Badhan 03 Mar 15

    ’The Untouchables (Dalits) of India want economic, social, political, religious and educational equality in Society, not in the eyes of God’
    (Harbans Lal Badhan)

  26. #26 Harbans Lal Badhan 28 Apr 15

    Indian Caste system is more dangerous and harmful than chemical weapons, It (Indian Caste system) divides the society and state. It (Indian Caste system) kills the democratic institutions and secular character of state and society. It (Indian Caste system) is also an enemy of social justice, equality, liberty and fraternity. Indian Caste system slaughters the fundamental rights and human rights of an individual. It (Indian Caste system) is also a great threat and challenge to world peace and unity. Indian Caste system is also an enemy of economic and scientific development and progress of state and society. To believe in Caste and Untouchability is not only a crime against humanity but also a violation of human rights. Indian Caste system is more dangerous, violent, hard and cruel than any kind of racial discrimination or slavery system.

  27. #27 Harbans Lal Badhan 20 Oct 15

    ’The whole world knows that the Indian Caste system is more dangerous and harmful than chemical weapons.’
    (Harbans Lal Badhan)

  28. #28 Harbans Lal Badhan 20 Oct 15

    ’The whole world knows that the Indian Caste system is more dangerous and harmful than chemical weapons.’
    (Harbans Lal Badhan)

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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