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.